Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

glossary of music terms

The following brief definitions are provided to help music lovers with some of the musical terms that appear in the program notes and elsewhere on the laco.org website. They are based on materials developed by the Aspen Music Festival and School (© Jane Vial Jaffe, Graphic Design by Curt Carpenter), and are included here by LACO with their kind permission.

An on-line source of additional information about composers, performers, musical terms and recordings is on the BBC website: BBC Classical Music Search. You may also wish to consult The New Harvard Dictionary of Music, ed. Don Randel, 1986, and The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd edition, ed. Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell, 2001.



absolute music Music that is “free of” any explicit connection with words or specific meaning.

accelerando Getting gradually faster.

adagio A slow tempo. Generally slower than andante, but not as slow as largo. Literally, at ease.

allegretto Slightly less fast than allegro, often of lighter texture or character.

allegro A fast or moderately fast tempo.

andante Moderately slow tempo, between allegro and adagio. Walking speed; medium.

andantino An ambiguous tempo term that could mean slightly less faster or slower than andante.

arco Played by drawing the bow across the strings.

aria A composition for solo voice and accompaniment usually within the context of an opera, oratorio or cantata.

arpeggio A chord whose pitches are sounded successively rather than simultaneously.

atonality Avoidance of centering around a specified note or key area.

autograph Manuscript of a musical work in the composer’s own hand.


bar 1) Vertical line through a musical staff dividing it into measures. 2) A measure.

baroque Period in Western music from approximately 1600 to around 1750.

beat Unit of a musical line.

binary form Two-part form containing two parts, each repeated, often found in Baroque dance movements or sonata movements.


cadence A melodic or harmonic configuration that creates a sense of repose or resolution. Cadences are principal means by which a central pitch, or tonic, is defined in a passage or work.

cadenza Elaborate passage for the soloist(s) interpolated usually near the end of a movement, often not written out by the composer, but left to the performer to improvise.

canon Exact imitation of the melody in one voice by another, continued for more than one phrase. Best known example: a round.

cantabile Songlike, singable.

cantata Choral or solo vocal form developed in the Baroque period based on secular or religious text, generally with several movements and instrumental ensemble accompaniment.

chord Three or more notes played simultaneously.

chromaticism, chromatic Use of notes not in the basic scale of a composition or passage. Harmonic style frequently using such notes.

classical 1) Art or “serious” music as opposed to “popular” music. 2) A period in music history generally regarded as approximately 1750-1820. 3) Music using the basic characteristics of a style emphasizing balance, simplicity, and proportion.

coda Concluding section of a composition particularly of a fugue or movement of a sonata or symphony.

concertmaster Head of the first violin section of an orchestra and often the person in authority next to the conductor; performs solo violin passages.

concerto Work for one or more solo instruments accompanied by orchestra, often in three movements.

concerto grosso Baroque concerto contrasting a small group of soloists (concertino) against a small orchestra (ripieno).

continuo An independent bass line continuing throughout a piece on the basis of which harmonies are extemporized on keyboard or chord-playing instruments. In Baroque music, the continuo would usually consist of a harpsichord or organ with a cello reinforcing the bass line.

counterpoint, contrapuntal Texture in which two or more melodic voices proceed simultaneously and relatively independently.

courante A Baroque dance in triple meter and binary form. The Italian version is normally fast dance, whereas the French version is more solemn.

crescendo Increasing loudness; getting louder.

cross-rhythm Rhythmic patter that fundamentally contradicts the prevailing meter.


development 1) Structural alteration of musical material through change or transformation. 2) The second section in a sonata form.

diminuendo, decrescendo Decreasing loudness; getting softer.

divertimento In late 18th century, especially in Austria, a wide variety of secular instrumental works for chamber ensemble or soloist. Often used for light entertainment music, but could also refer to more serious works such as string quartets and sonatas.

divisi Division of a string section that usually plays the same part, for example, violas into multiple parts, e.g. viola 1 and viola 2.

dominant The fifth note of the major or minor scale and the chord that is built upon that note. The relationship between dominant and tonic harmonies is fundamental to tonal music.

dotted rhythm Uneven rhythm-usually long-short-produced when a note (notated with a dot) is succeeded by another of one third the value of the first note.

double stop Two strings played simultaneously on a stringed instrument.

dynamics The aspect of musical relating to degrees of loudness.


exposition 1) The first section of sonata form in which musical themes or ideas are presented. Marked by harmonic progression from tonic to dominant or secondary key. 2) In a fugue, the statement of the subject in imitation by several voices.

extramusical Dependent upon extrinsic (nonmusical) ideas-narratives, poems, visual images-rather than self-contained, absolute, or abstract principles.


fantasy An imaginative instrumental composition often conveying the feeling of spontaneity. Often deviates from common structural forms.

finale Final movement of a sonata, or related form such as a symphony or string quartet.

forte To be played very loudly.

fortissimo Very loud.

fugue, fugal The most fully developed work in imitative counterpoint.


gavotte A gracious Baroque dance in duple meter.

glissando Sliding movement from one pitch to another, sounding all pitches in between.


harmonic progression The succession of chords in a piece of music. The rate at which they change is called harmonic rhythm.

harmony 1) The relationship of tones as they sound simultaneously and the way such relationships are organized in time. 2) Any particular collection of pitches sounded simultaneously or as an arpeggio to form a chord.

hemiola Shift of the emphasis in metric pulse from a division of three to a division of two, or vice versa.


imitation The statement of a single motive or melody by two or more voices in succession, often in staggered entrances so one part continues as another enters, as in a round.

intermezzo In 18th century, a comic work performed between the acts of a serious opera. In the 19th and 20th centuries, a middle movement in a larger work, or a short lyrical piece written for piano.

interval Musical and mathematical distance between two notes, measured by scale degrees or steps.


key Pitch relationships that establish a tone as tonal center or tonic. The key of a work is typically classified as a major or minor depending on the scale from which the notes are drawn. A work said to be in one key can contain passages in other keys.


largo Tempo marking for very slow. Often has a connotation of solemnity or broadness.

lento A slow tempo. Usually between a largo and an adagio.

l’istesso tempo An instruction to performers indicating that the tempo, or pulse, remains the same despite a change in meter or character.


maetoso Majestic.

ma non troppo In tempo indication, but not too much.

measure Rhythmic unit of time made up of beats, set off in written music by bar lines.

meter Pattern in which a succession of rhythmic pulses is organized.

minuet, menuett An elegant dance in ¾ meter. Very popular in the 18th century and often forming the third movement of classical symphonies, usually with a middle section called a trio which traditionally used a smaller group of instruments. It is really two dances: you hear the first one, then a second dance that has a different sound and feeling, then the first one again.

modality, modal A musical system based on scales popular in Renaissance and Medieval music. Often found as well in folk music. Similar to major and minor scales in some respects, but containing altered tones that color our perception of the scale.

moderato A tempo indication for a moderate rate of speed. Falls between andante and allegro.

modulation In tonal music, the process of changing from one key or tonic to another in a composition.

molto In tempo indication, very.

motive, motif The shortest musical idea of rhythmic or melodic identity that retains its identity when elaborated or transformed.

movement A complete and relatively independent part of a large composition such as a symphony or concerto. Usually, there is a pause between movements of a work, at which point audiences customarily do not applaud. Sometimes, composers indicate that there should be no pause between movements.

music Organized sound; the written-down representation of those sounds.


neoclassic, neoclassical A stylistic classification applied to certain works of the 20th-century composed between the world wars (Stravinsky’s Pulcinella being a prime example) in which emotional restraint is used and aesthetic qualities of 18th-century classicism are restored usually with a 20th-century twist.


opera Drama that is primarily sung, accompanied by instrumental ensemble, and staged.

opera buffa Comic opera.

opus A catalogue numbering designating a published work in chronological relationship to a composer’s other compositions. Often unreliable as a guide to chronology of actual composition. Many composers have other catalog designations derived from the names of their catalogers, i.e., K. (Koechel for Mozart) or Hob. (Hoboken for Haydn).

oratorio Vocal soloists and chorus join the orchestra to tell a story in music, but without the staging and costumes of an opera.

ostinato A short musical pattern that is repeated persistently throughout a piece or section.

overture Instrumental composition intended to introduce an opera or other dramatic vocal work, or instrumental suite. Since the 19th century, a composition similar to a dramatic overture, but intended for independent concert performance.


pedal, pedal point Aside from the levers operated by foot on a piano or organ, a sustained tone in the lowest register, occurring under changing harmonies in the upper parts.

pentatonic Five-note scale and music based on such a scale, found in folk music of many cultures and sometimes in 19th- and 20th- century Western art music.

perpetuum mobile Continuous rhythmic motion, employing a consistent note value that proceeds rapidly without pause for an entire section or movement.

pesante To be played with weight or emphasis.

phrase A musical unit by analogy corresponding to a sentence of speech or a line of poetry.

piano To be played very softly.

pianissimo To be played very softly.

pizzacato Played by plucking the string.

plagal cadence Concluding harmonic formula moving from the subdominant to the tonic rather than the more common dominant to tonic; often called the amen cadence, because it is sung to the word “amen” at the conclusion of Protestant hymns.

polyphony, polyphonic Music that simultaneously combines two or more melodic lines.

presto Tempo indication for very fast.

principal In an orchestra, the leader, or first chair of any section, except for first violins who are led by the concertmaster.

program music, programmatic Instrumental music associated with nonmusical ideas often inspired by nature, art, or literature.


quartet An ensemble of four solo performers.


recapitulation 1) A restatement of thematic ideas. 2) The third section of sonata form in which there is a restatement of material from the exposition, often with further modifications.

recitative Declamatory style of singing, used particularly in opera, oratorio, and cantata, with a minimum of musical structure.

rhythm The pattern of movement in time as defined by the duration of pitches.

Romantic The period of music history approximately from the early-19th to early-20th centuries. Emphasis on individual creative imagination.

rondo form A multisectional form, or movement, based on multiple recurrences of a theme or section (i.e., ABACA in which section A returns twice after contrasting sections).


scale Arrangement of pitches in descending or ascending order that contribute to tonal organization in a piece of music.

scherzo 1) A movement or piece that is light in style. 2) Beethoven and many of the composers who came after him put scherzos in their symphonies instead of minuets; often fast with a variety of style ranging from light and playful to sinister and macabre. Scherzo means “joke,” but the character of a scherzo movement is often ironic, turbulent, dark, or fierce.

scordatura Unconventional tuning of a stringed instrument.

score Musical notation showing all parts arranged one underneath the other.

serial, serialism Composition technique arranging pitches, duration, intensity, timbre, etc., so that they always appear in predetermined order; usually associated with twelve-tone system.

sonata Composition for one or more instruments, usually in several movements; takes on different forms in different style periods.

sonata form Probably the most characteristic musical form from the Classical Period, one in which musical ideas are presented through exposition, development and recapitulation, often with an introduction or coda attached. The underlying harmonic scheme features an establishment of a tonic, or home key, excursions to other keys, and a return to the tonic key.

step 1) A scale degree. 2) The distance between neighboring scale degrees, either a whole tone or semitone (half step).

stretto 1) Piling up of fugal entries so that voices enter before the previous voice has completed its statement. 2) Fast concluding section.

stylistic periods in music The basic stylistic periods in music, which generally lag behind those in literature and visual arts, are given here with conveniently rounded dates. Naturally characteristics from one period overlap with the next, and music historians don’t always agree on starting and ending dates-the Romantic period, for example, is often considered to have started earlier or ended later than shown below-but these dates may serve as guidelines.

Medieval (Middle Ages)
Early Classical
Twentieth Century
subito Suddenly, quickly.

subject Musical theme.

suite Instrumental composition consisting of several movements in dance character, usually in the same key. Later suites are often extracts from an opera or ballet.

suspension Sustained or “held-over” note of a chord that becomes dissonant when other voices of the chord move to a new harmony, usually resolved down a step or half step.

symphonic poem An orchestral work that depicts stories or images. See program music.

symphony In a broad sense, a work for orchestra in multiple movements.

syncopation A momentary contradiction of the prevailing meter or pulse.


tempo The speed at which music is performed.

ternary form A movement in three parts in which the first and third parts are identical or closely related, and the second section contrasting (ABA).

text painting See word painting.

theme with variations A form in which a self-contained musical unit is followed by a series of modifications of the original material.

third-related Juxtaposed keys or tonalities distant from one another by the interval of a major or minor third — for example, C major and E major.

toccata A virtuoso work characterized by brilliant passagework, and often perpetual motion.

tonality, tonal The centering of music around one note or key.

tone poem Programmatic orchestral composition in one movement. Also called a symphonic poem.

tonic The first note of a scale, or the chord built upon that note.

triad Chord made up of three tones: one (root), with two others in the intervals of a third and a fifth above.

trio 1) Composition in three voices. 2) Composition for three performers. 3) Second section in a symphony or sonata minuet or scherzo movement, followed by a repetition of the minuet or scherzo.

twelve-tone music 20th century system of composition in which a certain order of the twelve notes of the chromatic scale, and the derivations of that order, are systematically followed throughout a work.


variation A technique of changing, modifying, or transforming a musical idea.

vivace Lively, brisk. When used as a tempo, generally faster than allegro, but not as fast as presto.


whole-tone scale Scale made up only of whole-step intervals, i.e., intervals spanning two half steps. The octave is divided into six such intervals. Its perfectly symmetrical nature erases traditional scale degree functions in a harmonic system; thus it is often employed to evoke drifting or floating sensations.

word painting Musical depiction of a word or line of text in a vocal piece.