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Music Terminology

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TermDefinition
A&R Artist and Repertoire; music industry term for a talent scout.
a tempo tempo marking meaning "back to the original tempo."
accidentals Sharps, flats and naturals used in written music.
action How high off the fretboard the strings are. Example: "My action is too high."
adagio Tempo marking for "medium-slow;" from 66 to 77 bpm.
Aeolian mode The 6th mode of the major scale; often called the Natural Minor scale. The Aeolian mode of the C Major scale is A B C D E F G A.
allegro Tempo marking for "fast," from 120 to 168 bpm.
andante Tempo marking for 'medium'; from 76 to 108 bpm.
arco a notation marking indicating to use a bow (for the double bass).
arpeggio the notes of a chord played one after another instead of all at once.
articulation The way in which something is played. (i.e. hammer-on, slide, etc.)
artificial harmonic A harmonic played on a fretted string.
atonal Lacking a tonal center or key.
attack The beginning of a note.
augment To raise a major or perfect interval by a half-step.
augmented Made bigger. Often meaning to raise, or sharp, the fifth of a chord. Specifically, raising a Major or Perfect interval by a half-step.
backbeat Beats 2 and 4.
breve British-English name for a double whole note.
cadence The ending of a piece or section of music.
changes Specifically in music, refers to chord changes.
chart Written music containing the melody and chords to a song.
chromatic From one note to the very next (in half-steps); notes outside the key.
coda The end section of a piece of music; in written music, a section to which you jump when the markings instruct you to do so.
Common time 4/4
comp To accompany, or compliment, a soloist.
compound meter A time signature divisible by 3 (i.e. 6/8 or 12/8).
compression An effect which "compresses" the dynamic range (how loud or how quiet something is) of a sound.
consonance Sounds combining in a pleasing way. (The opposite of dissonance.)
counterpoint Playing two or more melodic lines at the same time.
crescendo Increasingly getting louder.
crotchet British-English/Classical term for a quarter note.
Cut time 2/2
da capo In written music: return to the beginning and play again. Often abbreviated as D.C.
dal segno In written music: return to the indicated sign and play.
decay The end of a note.
decrescendo Increasingly getting quieter.
degree Numbers used in identifying the notes of a scale.
DI Direct Injection: plugging straight into the mixing board rather than using microphones.
diatonic Within a key.
diminish To lower a minor or perfect interval by a half-step.
diminished To make smaller. Often meaning to flat, or lower, the fifth of a chord. Specifically, lowering a Minor or Perfect interval by a half-step.
Dorian mode The second mode of the major scale. The Dorian mode of the C Major scale is D E F G A B C D.
Double stop Playing two strings together at the same time.
double-time Doubling the tempo without doubling the harmonic rhythm.
downbeat The first beat of the measure.
drag To slow the music's tempo unintentionally.
dry Without added audio effects such as reverb.
eleventh A musical interval with a distance of an octave plus a fourth. Example: From the note C to an F above C an octave higher. A distance of 17 half-steps.
enharmonic Pitches that can be spelled more than one way. Ex: C♯ and D♭ are the same pitch.
etude A musical study; a composition created specifically for learning technique on an instrument or learning another musical concept.
extensions Notes of a chord whose intervals span beyond an octave. i.e. 9ths, 11ths, and 13ths.
fermata A musical notation (a dot with an arc over it) instructing to pause longer than the written rhythm. The length of the pause is interpreted by the performer or conductor.
fifth A musical interval spanning 7 half-steps. i.e. from C to G.
fill A musical phrase, often improvised, filling an empty stretch of music. Fills often create tension leading to another part or beginning a repeated section.
filter An electronic effect which only affects particular frequencies of the input signal.
flat An accidental indicating to play a note a half-step lower.
sharp An accidental indicating to play a note a half-step higher.
forzando Abbreviated fz; a musical marking indicating to strongly accent.
fours Four bar sections; often used in jazz meaning to trade four-bar solo sections.
Free time Playing without a definite musical pulse of meter.
fret Metal wires inserted into the fingerboard which accurately divide up the pitches along the length of the neck of a stringed instrument.
ghost note A note of indeterminate pitch notated with an X in place of a notehead. On bass, plucking a muted string creates this common percussive effect.
glissando Abbreviated gliss.; musical term meaning to slide from one note to another.
grace note An articulation or ornament, such as a slide or hammer-on, leading into a note. Notated by a small note with a slash through it preceding the target note.
half-cadence A cadence which finishes on a dominant, or V, chord.
half-diminished A type of 7th chord built with a root, topped with a minor 3rd, a diminished 5th and a minor 7th. Also called a minor 7th flat 5 chord.
harmonic Bell-like tone produced by a string vibrating in several segments rather than its entire length. Produced by lightly touching (not pressing) a string at a node with one finger and plucking that string. Notable nodes: above the 12th, 7th and 5th frets.
harmonic analysis the analysis of chord relationships in a piece of music. For example, numbering chords based on their position within the key--the I, IV and V in the key of C are C, F and G.
harmonic rhythm The rhythm of the chord progression. Another term for 'changes.'
harmony The study of the combining of notes both at the same time (chords), as well as over the course of time (chord progressions).
heptatonic A seven-tone scale, such as the Major scale.
horizontal Related to scales as opposed to chords. Since scales are a series of notes rather than a stack of notes like a chord, "playing horizontally" means to play off of the notes of a scale.
in the pocket Locked in the groove.
interval The musical "distance" between a pair of notes. Often described by the number of half-steps that separate two notes (Ex: a minor 3rd interval = 2 notes 3 half-steps apart). Intervals = building blocks of scales, chords, and larger note patterns.
intonation How in tune an instrument or musician plays.
Ionian mode The first mode of the Major scale, and identical to the Major scale. The Ionian mode of the C Major scale is C D E F G A B C.
key The major or minor scale around which a song, or piece of music, revolves.
key change Shifting from one tonal center, or key, to another.
larghetto A tempo marking meaning "slow;" from 60 to 66 bpm.
largo Tempo marking for "very slow;" from 40 to 60 bpm.
lead sheet Sometimes called a "chart." A page of music outlining only the melody and chords to a piece of music. Instrumentalists expected to improvise their parts based on chords and melody.
leading tone The 7th note of the major, harmonic minor and melodic minor scales.
ledger lines In music notation, horizontal lines written above and below the staff used to extend the range of the staff.
legato Playing notes with no, or very little, silence between them.
Locrian mode The seventh mode of the Major scale. The Locrian mode of the CM scale is B C D E F G A B.
lower To flat a note; move a note a half-step lower.
luthier A person who builds guitars, basses and similar instruments.
Lydian mode The fourth mode of the Major scale. The Lydian mode of the CM scale is F G A B C D E F.
machine head Also called "tuners." The part of the bass consisting of the tuning key, gears and string post used to adjust the tension of the string.
microtonal Using intervals smaller than a half-step. Ex: quarter tones.
middle 8 A bridge section; traditionally bridges were 8 bars long occurring in the middle of a song.
middle C The note one ledger line above the bass clef staff, and one ledger line below the treble clef staff; the C note in the middle of the piano keyboard. (Due to the octave transposition of the bass in written music, it is actually an octave above this C.)
minim British-English name for a half note.
Mixolydian mode The fifth mode of the Major scale. The Mixolydian mode of the CM scale is G A B C D E F G.
modal Related to modes; used to describe music centered around the notes of a particular mode. Opposite of tonal (music centered around notes of a Major or minor key.)
moderato Tempo marking for "medium fast;" from 108 to 120 bpm.
modes Scales within scales. Scales derived by starting and ending on different notes of a particular scale. Ex: CM is C D E F G A B C. 2nd mode of CM is D E F G A B C D.
ninth A musical interval spanning an octave plus a second. Ex: From C to a D above the next higher C.
node A point on a string, usually in regards to harmonics, which remains still rather than vibrating.
octatonic An eight-tone scale, such as the diminished scale.
octave A musical interval spanning 12 half-steps.
open position Fretting hand position using open strings while the first finger plays notes on the 1st fret, second finger on the 2nd fret, etc.
open string A string which is not fretted.
ostinato pattern A short, repeated musical pattern played throughout a song or part of a song.
parallel key A key sharing the same root note. Ex: AM and Am.
passing tone A note used to connect (stepwise) between two other notes. Ex: C♯ could be used as a passing tone between C and D.
pedal point playing the same bass note beneath a series of chords. Ex: Dm/G, F/G, C/G. Term comes from bass pedals used by organ players.
pentatonic A five-tone scale.
performance markings Markings in written music indicating how something is to be executed by the performer. For example, dynamic markings (like mf) and playing techniques (like pizzicato).
Phrygian mode The third mode of the Major scale. The Phrygian mode of the CM scale is E F G A B C D E.
pickup measure A measure of incomplete length at the beginning of a piece of music used as a lead-in to the song.
pivot chord A chord that exists within two different keys and helps create a smooth transition between those keys during a change. Ex: VI chord (Em) in the key of G might function as a II chord (Em) in the key of D.
playing across the barline Sustaining a note from one bar into the next.
position A fretting hand position usually indicating the location of one's 1st finger. Ex: 3rd position means to position your 1st finger over the 3rd fret.
prestissimo A tempo marking for "very fast;" 208 bpm and higher.
presto Tempo marking for "very fast;" from 168 to 200 bpm.
primary chords The I, IV, and V chords in a Major key.
quarter note A note value that is one-fourth the length of a whole note.
quarter tone Half of a half-step, or semitone.
quaver British English name for an 8th note.
raise To move a note a half-step higher. Ex: a raised 5th.
register A region of an instrument's total note range often described as upper, lower, middle, high, low, etc.
reharmonize To change some or all of the harmonies in a song.
relative key A Major and minor key that share the same set of notes. Ex: CM and Am contain the same notes (C D E F G A B and A B C D E F G.)
relative pitch The ability to recognize musical intervals by ear when given a reference note.
rubato Elastic tempo; playing with fluctuating tempo as an expression of musical feeling (and not because you can't play a steady tempo.)
run A fast musical passage.
rush To speed up the music's tempo unintentionally.
semibreve British-English name for a whole note.
semiquaver British English name for a 16th note.
semitone Another name for a half-step; the smallest interval in Western music. Ex: from C to C♯ is a semitone.
sexatonic A six-tone scale, such as the wholetone scale.
sharp An accidental indicating to play a note a half-step higher.
simple meter A time signature divisible by 2. Ex: 4/4.
staccato n indication to play short notes with silence in between them; compare to legato. Indicated in written music with a dot written directly above, or below, the notehead.
stepwise Notes moving by whole-steps and/or half-steps; scalar.
substitution chord A chord used in place of another chord often providing the same function of the original chord.
syncopation Accenting weak parts of the beat; playing "off-beat."
tacet To be silent. Ex: In notation, you might see a marking like "Bass tacet 1st verse."
tag A repeated ending for a song usually played 3 times.
tenth A musical interval spanning an octave plus a 3rd. Ex: from C to the E above the next higher C.
timbre The tonal "color" of a pitch. What gives an instrument its most identifiable qualities. It is why you can tell a piano from a guitar even when they play the same note.
tonal Music that revolves around a Major or minor key, as opposed to around a mode.
tonic The root note of a key.
trading fours Trading 4-bar solo sections between two or more instruments.
train wreck When a song falls apart or a musician gets lost during a performance.
triad A chord consisting of 3 notes
tritone An interval of 3 whole-steps; another name for a diminished 5th interval.
turnaround A chord progression, often one or two bars long, that brings the music back to the beginning.
two-feel A bassline that mostly stresses a half note pulse on beats 1 and 3.
unison A musical interval of zero half-steps; two notes of the very same pitch and octave.
upbeat One or more notes preceding the downbeat (first beat of a measure), also called a pickup; the notes between the basic beats.
vamp A repeated stretch of accompanying music.
vertical Related to chords as opposed to scales. Since chords are vertically-stacked notes, "playing vertically" means to play off of the notes of the chord.
vibrato A fretting hand technique that slightly fluctuates a pitch up and down.
voicing The ordering of notes in a chord from lowest to highest.
wah-wah An electronic filter effect which creates a crying, wah-wah sound. The filter is commonly controlled by a rocking pedal that opens and closes the filter.
walking bass Style of bass playing which is characterized by a consistent quarter note rhythm and stepwise notes smoothly connecting the chords of the song.
waltz A song in triple meter, such as 3/4.
wet Saturated in an audio effect such as reverb.
whole note A note value lasting for 4 quarter note beats.
whole tone scale A six-note scale made up of only whole-steps. Only two of them exist.
wholetone Another name for a whole-step; the musical interval of two half-steps.
wolf tone An acoustic phenomenon where a note on an instrument does not sustain as well, or is muted, compared to other notes on the instrument. On bass, this note often occurs on the B, C, or C♯ of the G string.
32-bar form A song form with a length of 32 bars, often with an AABA structure, and common among jazz standards.
8va Abbreviation of ottava alta; play what is written an octave above. This is done to put notes on the staff instead of on ledger lines.
8vb Abbreviation of ottava bassa; an indication to play what is written an octave lower. This is done to put notes on the staff instead of ledger lines.