As a singer you will hear a lot of musical terms, some are named straight forwards so you can easily understand them. While others are written in Italian or even Latin, which definitely makes it extremely hard to understand. As a singer, you will have to learn at least the basic musical terminology, especially if you want to improve at singing. Most teachers tend to overly complicate the musical terms and some of them add their own definitions which is not helpful if you are a beginner singer.
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The problem with musical terminology is that it is not set in stone so to speak, one musical term can mean several things while others are not used correctly. I got numerous emails over the past couple of years about musical terminology, most from beginner singers who got confused as one teacher said a specific musical term meant one thing and another said that it is something else, so I decided to write down all the terms so you have a reference for the future.
The confusion about musical terms are very similar to something like falsetto or head voice singing, some people will say it is falsetto while others will say it is head voice singing. The problem is that not even the teachers actually know the definition for most of the musical terms, and in the worst cases, they just love using big words to sound smart. Once new singers have to learn about musical terminology it tends to make singing feel like a chore and not something to have fun with.
If you are a beginner singer than I highly recommend you to read the below list of musical terms, you do not have to know them by heart but you should at least get the base concept of them. Ages ago when I was learning about musical terminology I started to learn a little bit of Italian, once you know the meaning of the Italian music terminology you can pretty much figure it out by yourself what they mean. If you want to learn how to improve your singing voice then check out my recent article How to sing ( Top 50 Ways and Industry Secrets ).
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Every musical sound has either a low or a high point, and in some cases, they have both. The accent simply refers to the emphasis you put on the musical sound right at the beginning. Everybody has a particular accent while speaking and while singing. Have you ever noticed how British singers lose their accent while they are singing? This is because they put the accent on different places of the musical sound.
This musical term refers to a musical work that is easy to listen and to learn even for beginners.
This is a type of musical work that doesn’t have a story.
The musical term accelerando is an Italian word meaning faster or getting faster. When you hear accelerando from your singing teacher then this means you have to step up the tempo or the pace of the song. Don’t make the mistake of singing louder when you hear this term, as most beginner singers tend to do that, just pick up the pace a bit.
You have probably heard this term a couple of times already, A Cappella simply means that you or several singers sing without being accompanied and without any kind of background music. You will hear the term A Cappella fairly frequently at singing auditions, this is when they test you your tempo and singing style. It is not easy to sing without being accompanied or background music and a lot of singers fail at auditions due to this. If you need some examples of A Cappella song than check out my recent article Good songs to sing acapella solo ( Top 100 ).
Adagio refers to the tempo, this is used both in singing and with instrumental as well. Adagio simply means slow tempo, if you hear this while you are singing it means that you have to slow down your singing tempo.
Allegro is an Italian word that can be as best described as joyful, in musical terminology it simply means that you have to pick up the tempo. Basically, it means faster.
This term is used to describe traditional or formal music like classical.
This is a musical genre, usually, it includes solo vocal artist with accompaniment.
This is a work of music that doesn’t have a set key.
This term is usually referring to lengthening or making better a tone or key.
This term comes from classical music and it means front guard in french, and it is referring to new or modern type music.
This musical term is not that often used but you might hear it during a singing audition. A piacere is an Italian word which means at pleasure, in musical terminology, it means that it is up to the singer if she or he wants to use the given rhythm of the song or music.
The musical term Andante comes from the Italian word andare which means going or walking. This term also refers to the tempo, simply put it means that you have to sing at a walking pace. The walking space is the sweet spot between not to slow and not to fast. You will generally hear this term when somebody talks about someone else’s singing like ” she was singing andante “.
The term Aria is an Italian word which simply means air. In musical terminology aria is a song, generally speaking, this term is mostly used in opera singing.
Atonal in simple English means without a tone, this refers to a song that has not been written to be sung at a specific key or tone. Most songs are written for a specific tone and key, but atonal songs can be sung by anybody.
The word alto is Italian, and it means high. The problem is that it doesn’t really mean what you would logically think it would. The term alto is mostly referring to female singers who have a low range and it is also the second-lowest instrumental range. If you are an alto singer than I highly recommend you to read my recent article How to develop a strong alto voice? ( In 16 Easy Steps ).
The bar is a vertical line which sections up the music, each bar has several beats.
The term beat is referring to the rhythm of the music.
This is a type of work of music specifically made for ballet dancers, it also means a type of dance.
This term comes from the Italian word ballare which means dancing, usually this musical term is referring to a musical work with a narrative or a folk song.
This term comes from the Italian word Barca, which means boat, a Barcarolle is a boating song.
The Baroque term refers to a historical period between the 16th and the 17th century.
The term Baritone is referring to the mid-ranged male singing voice.
This term is referring to the lowest male voice.
This is the lowest sounding percussion instrument without a pitch.
This is an Italian word meaning continuous bass, this term was mainly used in the classical period.
This term basically means a lullaby.
This mainly refers to the woodwind instruments and it means the lowest sounding one from them.
This is a form with two opposing parts.
This is a musical work that has two different keys used simultaneously.
This is a type of song or music that is usually described as sad.
This is any kind of musical instrument that is made out of brass, like a trumpet or a trombone.
This is an improvised style of jazz.
The term Bolero comes from Spanish and it is Spanish dance.
The musical term Cadenza is also Italian, it means a solo performance in a group setting like a band. If you have watched any live concerts with instrumentals than you have probably seen the guitarist making a solo performance in the middle of the song, he is doing a cadenza.
The cantata is an Italian word meaning singer or singing, this musical term is referring to the singer in a choral work where the singer sings alone and is being accompanied by musical instruments.
This is an Italian term which means capricious, usually, it refers to a short and lively work of music.
This is a French word which came from the Italian word canzone, both of them mean song.
This is a type of song, like the Christmas carol.
The cello is a string instrument.
This is an Italian word meaning castrated, a couple of centuries ago castrato singers were extremely popular as they could sing with high notes. During that period of time there were no female performs, even acts or plays meant to be played by females were played by males dressed up as females.
This is a modern type of music where the original creator has no specific goal of creating a specific song but stumbles upon it while composing.
The Cavatina is the part of a bigger musical work where one of the instrument players or singers sings or plays solo.
This is a scale that does include the 12 notes which make an octave.
A chant is when a group of people sing or talk at the same time, like at a concert when the artists lets the crowd sing in a chant.
This is a work of music which is meant for solo singers or musicians, usually between 2 and 10.
A Choir is referring to the group of singers in a chorus, in order to be a choir it n seeds more than 2 people in the chorus.
The term classical refers to the period between 1700 and 1800, which is the classical period.
This is basically the same as classical.
The Clavier is the keyboard of a string instrument.
This term is referring to string instruments when they are played in progression.
A Conductor is the leader of the orchestra or group, he dictates the tempo and gives ques for the performers.
A Consonance is made up of a group or several tones that sound good together.
A Counterpoint is when several tunes or melodic liens are played at the same time.
This is both a french dance and a work of music which is written in triple time.
A Concertmaster is the main or the first violinist in the orchestra.
Chorale refers to a composition, which is specifically made for a choir or a chorus. You will hear often about this term if you study classical music, although today it is rarely used.
These are usually written at the end of a stave, and these indicate the pitch.
Cantabile means that it is singable, most often it is referring to a musical composition.
This is an Italian word meaning tail, this term is used to refer to the end part of a musical work.
This is an Italian word meaning coloring, in musical terms it means the coloring of the song.
The Countertenor is the vocal range of a male alto.
A chord is when several musical notes are played together at the same time, this is what basically creates a chord. A chord has to have at least two notes in order to be considered a chord.
This is the Italian version of the concert word, it refers to a singer or band being accompanied by an orchestra.
The term Crescendo means growing in English, when you hear this you have to sing louder. If you have a singing teacher then you will hear this term fairly often, so make sure you know what it means.
The term Decrescendo means to decrease or decreasing, you will hear this if you sing too loud, just decrease your singing volume a bit.
This is an Italian word meaning from the beginning, basically starting over.
This is a chord progressing which is meant to make the audience think that it stops, this is often used in pop music as well.
This is an Italian word meaning diminishing, usually, you will hear this instruction to sing quietly in a diminishing fashion.
This is a sound or chord which doesn’t sound harmonious.
A Duet is a work of music that is specifically written for two singers or musicians.
This term usually refers to the bass note held for the song, if someone says that you sound like a drone that means you sound monotone.
The Dynamics in musical terms means the spectrum of sound between soft and loud.
The term Dolce means sweet, although most teachers will use this term to instruct you to sing more emotionally.
This is the first beat that is played by the lead musician or ensemble leader.
The term Ensemble means that there is a group of musicians or singers playing together, this can be a band a string quartet or an orchestra.
The term Elegy is referring to a work of music, basically, it means a piece of complaining music.
This is a variation of the word Ancora, which means more. Usually, if the public loved the play they would stand up, applause, and shout “encore! encore!” which usually got the artists to perform one last song.
This is the part of a musical work when the sonata starts.
This is a form of singing or music that is meant to stir up emotions in the audience.
This is an Italian word meaning expressive, you will hear this instruction quite often if you are a singer and it means that you will have to sing more expressively that part of the song.
This is a French word meaning study, usually, it is referring to a musical work which is meant to improve your skills as a singer or a musician.
This is a type of singing which for males it means that they can hit higher notes, and for females, it means that they can go beyond the normal high notes while singing with their falsetto voice. Some people will say that there is no such thing as female falsetto although it has scientifically proven several times that it does in fact exist.
A fanfare is a music which comes with some kind of announcement, like when in the old times a king or lord would be presented to the people and there would be a fanfare of trumpets and other musical instruments.
The Fifth in musical terms refers to the distance between two different notes.
This is the end of the musical work.
No, it doesn’t mean what you think it means, a Fagotto is a woodwind musical instrument also known as Basson.
The symbol for flat is ♭ and it means that you have to sing the note before which is placed in a semitone.
The term Fermata comes from the Italian word Fermo, which means to stop. In musical terminology, it refers to the singer to hold the note longer than the written note.
Forte is an Italian word meaning stronger, when you hear this term it means that you have to sing stronger. In some cases, this term is also meant as a queue for singing louder.
This musical term is usually referring to how the musical work is structured.
This is a step above forte, meaning extremely strong, this term sometimes is also used as a queue for singing louder.
The fugue is an arrangement inspired by the baroque period.
This was a very popular form of dance in the baroque period.
This is both a french dance and music which is written specifically for this done, it is usually very vivace.
A Gavotte is a 17th-century dance which is written in quadruple time.
This word comes from the Italian word Gioco which means play, playful, or even cheerful.
This term usually means that a certain part of the musical work has to be played in a heightened fashion, although most of the time it is used as a compliment.
This musical term means that the selected section of the music has to be played or sung extremely seriously.
A Glee is a composition made specifically for vocalists, usually 3 or more, and generally speaking they sing without accompaniment.
This is an Italian word meaning gracious, it is either used as a compliment for the singer or as a queue for the next part to be played graciously.
This is a religious chant singing, basically, it is a religious unison singing of several people or groups of people.
This word comes from the french word glisser, and it means to slide. Usually, the term glissando is given as an instruction to slide between the notes.
This musical term refers to a work of music that is meant to be sung in unison.
Harmonic tension can be caused by a group of chords.
This musical term refers to a work of music that is humorous, or funny.
As a beginner singer, you have probably heard this term several times already. Singing in harmony means that you have to make several combinations of pitches simultaneously.
A Hymn can be either a religious song or a national anthem.
The term Instrumentation is referring to when the composer assigns the musical sounds to certain musical instruments.
This is a musical term used in opera and it means the part where instrumental music is playing between the different scenes or acts.
This is an Italian word meaning on the spot, in musical terminology, it means a song which is sung or played improvized.
An Interval is a distance in the pitch between two different notes.
This is the part that connects the entire musical work, usually, it tends to be an interlude.
This is the expression of the singer or musician when he or she is performing a musical work or a song.
This is the introductory part of the song or song.
This term is referring to a movement called the impressionists which started in France in the 19th century.
This term is frequently used in singing classes it is referring to your tonality, but sometimes it is also referring to singing off-tune.
A Jig is an English dance that is vivace or lively.
This is a group of notes or tones which are named after the main keynote.
This is a technique with which the musician changes the color of the same tune or key by playing them on different instruments.
This is usually placed at the beginning of the staff line and it dictates on what key the musical work has to be played.
This is an Italian word meaning wider, in musical terms, it refers to widening your voice or to speed up.
This is the 7th note on a scale.
This is basically the same as largo but with one step below it.
This is a curved line that links several notes, and this means that the linked notes have to be sung or played as a phrase.
This is an Italian word meaning lightly, this means that you should sing softer or lighter.
This is an Italian word meaning legno, it is usually written as an instruction col legnio, and it is an indication for the string players to use the wooden side of their bow.
This is an Italian word meaning joined, it refers to a sequence of notes to be joined together.
The Leitmotif is a recurring theme, beat or musical phrase, all musical works have them. When you hear only a couple of seconds of a song and you can figure out what the song is this is due to the Leitmotif, as most songs tend to be unique.
This is an Italian word meaning little or small book, basically, these were the lyrics or the text of the musical work which were given to the public of the opera.
This is an Italian word meaning slow or slowly, it is usually referring to the tempo of the song or music.
This is a german word and it means song, it is usually referring to a traditional germanic song.
The word Maestro means a grate composer, singer, songwriter, etc.
A Madrigal is a type of musical or local pice which was popular in the Renaissance and the Baroque periods.
This is a type of gypsy dance that originated in Malaga Spain.
This is a type of musical work made in two steps and generally speaking, they are meant for military organizations.
This is a musical work that uses parts from other musical movements.
Modes are arrangements either in minor or major.
this musical term means the change to another key.
This is the study of music and its many aspects.
A Mazurka is a traditional polish dance.
This is a type of dance that is accompanied by monotone bass.
This is an Italian word meaning half, in musical terms it can have a lot of meanings, depending on the context for example mezzo-piano, mezzo-forte, and so on.
A Minuet is a French dance.
A measure is a group of rhythms, spaced between vertical bar lines.
A melody is often considered a succession of sounds and notes, and it is presented with a horizontal pitch.
A motif is basically a melody, but with one difference, it is shorter than the melody.
The Molto vivace term means lively in plain English, in musical terms it refers to speeding up or to sing more lively ( emotionally ).
The definition of Major depends on the context and if it referring to a chord or a key. When it is referring to a chord it has 3 different pitches, the distance of the pitches between the first and second are 4 half steps and between the second and third they are 3 half steps. Usually, you will hear the term major when someone is referring to a musical instrument like a piano, the half steps are the smallest steps between the pitches, and you can see this on a piano fairly easily as the keys are right next to each other, no matter if they are black or white keys.
When the term major is referring to a key, then it is usually used to describe a work of music. Some songs and musical works are specifically designed to be played in a particular key. This doesn’t mean that the musical work is meant to be played only with that key, it means that the main key is used a lot more frequently.
The term minor has also two uses, when it is referring to a key and when it is referring to a chord. When the term minor is referring to a key then this means that the musical work was made for one specific key, this will be the main key of the musical work, usually, this is also the central chord. When it is referring to a chord then this has 3 pitches just like the major, and the half steps are basically the same as in the major chord.
The musical term Movement refers to a larger unit within a concerto, and it is referring to the theme of this unit.
This musical term depends on the context in which it is used, the musical term itself means not to soft or too flat.
A Nonet is a musical work that is specifically written for 9 instruments.
Notes are written symbols that determine the sound, pitch, and duration of them.
A notation is a method of writing music with different symbols.
The word neo is in Latin and it means new, so neoclassical means new classical.
This is a Latin word which means night or evening, and it is referring to the mood of the musical work which is dark.
This is an Italian word meaning obligated, this term refers to a part of the music or song which is vital.
The octave is the interval or between one pitch and another, generally speaking, the second pitch has to be twice the frequency of the first one.
This can both mean the study of music or the orchestration or arrangement of an orchestra.
The Octet is a work of music that is meant to be played or sung by 8 people.
The word ondes is a french word meaning waves, Martenot was the inventor of it. Basically, this is an electronic musical instrument invented back in 1928.
This is a number assigned to a musical work by a composer. You have probably heard the phrase magnum opus, this means the grate one. The term opus is used both in music and literature.
An Oratorio is extremely similar to an opera, the main difference is that an Oratorio doesn’t have costumes and acting.
This is a part or a phrase that you have to repeat.
An Overture is the introductory part of a musical work.
This is a work of music that is based on a previous work of music, usually, a famous one and the goal of the parody is to make fun of the original work of music.
The musical term piano doesn’t have anything to do with the musical instrument, it simply means to slow down in Italian.
The term pianissimo, comes from the Italian word piano, which doesn’t refer to the piano instrument but of slowing down. If you hear the term piano while you are singing then you need to slow down your singing tempo. Pianissimo is even slower than Piano.
This term usually refers to rural or folk music.
This is a harmonic which is made by a single note.
This is an Italian word coming from partire which means to start, usually, this is a queue.
This is a dance from the baroque period, and it usually has bass as the base of the musical work.
A Pentatonic is a five-note scale which is often used with a piano’s black keys. The Pentatonic style of music is referring to Oriental style music.
The Pitch referees to the high and the low of a musical sound, this is most often based on the vibration of the musical sound.
This is a combination of two Italian words, piano and forte, it means slow and powerful. Sometimes it is used in singing but mostly for piano players.
Piu means more, you will hear this musical term fairly often, piu forte means stronger, piu forte means stronger, and so on.
This is an Italian word meaning plucked, this is an instruction to the players of the musical instruments to use their fingertips to pluck the cords.
Poco a poco
This is an Italian word meaning little by little or in baby steps, it is usually used as an instruction like poco a poco forte, gradually increasing the force.
This is an Italian word meaning soon, it is usually a queue that a specific part of the music or the song is coming.
This is a combination of two or more melodies that sound harmonious together.
This is when two or more keys are being played at the same time.
This is a short musical work which makes happens before the bigger musical work.
This is very similar to the chromatic scale but instead of including 12 notes it only includes 5 notes, you will most likely find this scale referring to musical instruments.
A Quarter tone is smaller than a semitone which is referring to the pitch.
A Quartet is a group of 4 musicians or singers playing the music or singing together.
This is a type of dance that is made for two couples.
This is an Italian word meaning becoming slower, it is referring to the instructions for the musicians or singers to become slower.
The resolution happens when the harmonic tension gets resolved without any tension.
This is a phrase that is repeated at the end of the song.
This term is usually referring to a portion of the range of the singer.
This is a musical work that is written for religious ceremonies, like when someone passes away.
This is a specific type of dance which is written in double time.
This term usually refers to the romantic period between the 18th and 19th centuries when songs and other works of music have started to sound more emotionally.
This is a complex composition from the 17th and 18th centuries.
This is a singers or musicians ability to foresee what kind of pitch he or she has to use based on the previous pitch of the notes.
This is an Italian word meaning reciting, usually, this term is used in an operatic setting.
The Rigaudon is a traditional French dance.
This is an Italian word coming from the ritardo word, which means late or later.
This is an Italian word meaning holding back, usually, this is an instruction to the musicians or singers to hold back.
The Rococo is referring to a period in time when this style of music was popular in France.
A rondo is the final part of a song or musical work.
This is an Italian word meaning stolen, this is usually an instruction to the singer to feel free not to use the tempo of the song.
This term is used when an instrument plays out of its meant range.
This is a work of music which is specifically written for 7 musicians.
Usually, this is a love song or a song that is sung in a serenade fashion.
This is a type of musical work that has 4 distinct movements.
This is the same as a sonata but much shorter.
This is an Italian word meaning joke, this is a lighthearted work of music that originated back in the 17th century.
A Serialism is a composition technique, which was developed by Arnold Schoenberg.
this term is used to describe the pitches which are right next to each other, like in major or minor, the scales can be made of half steps or whole steps.
This is a collection of musical works mostly for instruments.
This is an Italian word, which means always, you will hear this a couple of times from your teacher like sempre piano.
This is an Italian word meaning to sound, a sonata is meant to be played by one singer or musician.
The Soprano is the highest female voice.
This is an Italian word meaning to separate, this is a technique for playing string instruments.
This is an Italian word, meaning always more, in a context you will hear it like sempre piu forte, always with power.
A Symphony is a large scale orchestral work, usually, it has 4 movement parts.
This is an Italian word meaning forcing something, this can also mean that you have to put the accent on a specific key or tone.
This is a musical symbol #, you will often see this symbol in great classical works when this symbol is added to a note it raises the note by half step.
This is a curve over the notes and it means that the notes have to be played legato or connected.
This is an Italian word meaning alone, usually, it refers to one artist or a singer. Sometimes this musical term is also used in plural soli, which usually is referring to a group of solo musicians or singers.
A step is an interval between two different pitches, and it is made of two half steps.
This usually refers to a larger group like an ensemble.
The term tempo refers to the speed of either the singing or the music.
The tenor voice is one of the highest male voices, it is somewhere between baritone and countertenor.
This is a system of writing for string instruments.
This is a group of rhythms and melodies played together making a tune.
This can either refer to somebody tuning their voice, either lowering or raising the pitch, or to tuning a musical instrument by lowering and raising its pitch.
This is an Italian word meaning everybody, it is basically a queue for everybody to sing together in unison.
This is basically the theme of the music, usually, most musical works have one main theme and several smaller themes that are played during different intervals.
This can refer either to the range of somebody’s voice or to the range of an instrument.
Twelve tone music
This is a musical work that is specifically designed to use all the notes the same number of items.
This term can refer to the attitude of the singer or the tuning of an instrument.
This is the quality of the sound from one verse to another.
This is the number found on the sheet of music which determines the beats to count.
This is an Italian word meaning to touch, in musical terms it refers to an instrumental work that is specifically designed for one musician to highlight his or her skills as a musician.
This is the opposite of tonality, it basically means that there is no tone.
A Tritone is actually a chord that is made up form 3 tones.
This term means 3 notes being played as fast as two beats.
This is work of music which is specifically written to be sung or played by 3 singers or musicians.
This is a time signature that has 3 beats.
The tonality refers to how the harmonies and those are arranged in the work of music.
This is an Italian word which means trembling, in musical terms, this is referring to string instruments repeating in quick succession one note.
The term tonic is referring to the pitch which is the first degree of either a major or minor scale and to the tonality of the musical work.
This is a musical piece that allows the user to produce two notes in quick succession.
This term is usually used as a sign to prepare, and this sign is usually given before the first beat in a bar.
In unison simply means together, in musical terms it means two or more singers singing the same note together.
The word Vibrato is an Italian word which means to vibrate, it can refer both to musicians and singers as well.
This is a form of opera which has its roots in everyday life.
This term is usually used to describe somebody who is either good at singing or good at playing a musical instrument.
This is an Italian word meaning lively.
This is a german dance in triple time which is usually starting with a closed position. Waltz is basically an evolved form of the dance from glisse which means to slide.
A whole note can be made out of two half notes, or 4 quarter notes, or 8 eight notes.
Whole tone scale
This is a case which only has whole notes.
There are a lot of musical terms as you can see, some of them you will hear quite frequently while others are extremely obscure and unused. You do not have to learn what every term means, just learn the ones that are for your genre of music or singing. Most musical terms have their origin in classical music when the musical terminology got expanded. My personal recommendation is to learn the meaning of some of the terminology, and this way you will have a far easier time remembering them.