Definitions

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Glossary of musical terminology

This is a list of musical terms that are likely to be encountered in printed scores. Most of the terms are Italian (see also Italian musical terms used in English), in accordance with the Italian origins of many European musical conventions. Sometimes, the special musical meanings of these phrases differ from the original or current Italian meanings. Most of the other terms are taken from French and German, indicated by "(Fr)" and "(Ger)", respectively. Others are from languages such as Latin and Spanish.

Unless specified, the terms are Italian or English. The list can never be complete: some terms are common, and others are used only occasionally, and new ones are coined from time to time. Some composers prefer terms from their own language rather than the standard terms here. While most of these terms are from European art music, there are a few terms which are used in jazz big band scores, such as "comp" and "blow".

A

  • a, à (Fr) – at, to, by, for, in, in the style of
  • a 2 – see a due in this list
  • aber (Ger) – but
  • a bene placido – up to the performer
  • a cappella – in the manner of singing in a chapel; i.e., without instrumental accompaniment
  • accelerando, accel. – accelerating; gradually increasing the tempo
  • accentato – accented; with emphasis
  • acciaccatura – crushing; i.e., a very fast grace note that is "crushed" against the note that follows and takes up no value in the measure
  • accompagnato – accompanied; i.e., with the accompaniment following the soloist, who may speed up or slow down at will
  • adagietto – rather slow
  • adagio – at ease; i.e., slow
  • adagissimo – very slow
  • ad libitum (commonly ad lib; Latin) – at liberty; i.e., the speed and manner of execution are left to the performer
  • a due – Intended as a duet; for two voices or instruments; together; two instruments are to play in unison, after divisi or a solo passage for one of the instruments
  • affettuoso, affettuosamente, or affectueusement (Fr) – with affect (that is, with emotion); see also con affetto
  • affrettando – hurrying, pressing onwards
  • agile – swiftly
  • agitato – agitated
  • al, alla – to the, in the manner of (al before masculine nouns, alla before feminine)
  • alla breve – in cut-time; two beats per measure or the equivalent thereof
  • alla marcia – in the style of a march
  • allargando – broadening, becoming a little slower
  • allegretto – a little lively, moderately fast
  • allegretto vivace – a moderately quick tempo
  • allegro – cheerful or brisk; but commonly interpreted as lively, fast
  • allegrissimo - very fast, though slower than presto
  • als (Ger) – than
  • altissimo – very high
  • alto – high; often refers to a particular range of voice, higher than a tenor but lower than a soprano
  • alzate sordini – lift or raise the mutes; i.e., remove mutes
  • am Steg (Ger) – at the bridge; i.e., playing a bowed string instrument near its bridge, which produces a heavier, stronger tone (see sul ponticello in this list)
  • amabile – amiable, pleasant
  • amoroso – loving
  • anacrusis – a note or notes that precede the first full bar
  • andante – at a walking pace; i.e., at a moderate tempo
  • andantino – slightly faster than andante (but earlier it sometimes used to mean slightly slower than andante)
  • a niente – to nothing; an indication to make a diminuendo which fades to pppp
  • animato – animated, lively
  • antiphon – a liturgical or other composition consisting of choral responses, sometimes between two choirs; a passage of this nature forming part of another composition
  • apaisé (Fr) – calmed
  • a piacere – at pleasure; i.e., the performer need not follow the rhythm strictly
  • appassionato – passionately
  • appoggiatura – one or more grace notes that take up some note value of the next full note.
  • a prima vista – at first sight; i.e., playing or singing something at first sight of the music sheet
  • arco – the bow used for playing some string instrument; i.e., played with the bow, as opposed to pizzicato (plucked), in music for bowed instruments; normally used to cancel a pizzicato direction
  • arietta – a short aria
  • arioso – airy, or like an air (a melody); i.e., in the manner of an aria; melodious
  • arpeggio – like a harp; i.e., the notes of the chords are to be played quickly one after another (usually ascending) instead of simultaneously. In music for piano, this is sometimes a solution in playing a wide-ranging chord whose notes cannot be played otherwise. Music generated by the limited hardware of videogame computers uses a similar technique to create a chord from one tone generator. Arpeggios (or arpeggi) are also accompaniment patterns. See also broken chord in this list.
  • arpeggiato – a way of playing a chord: starting with the lowest note, and with successively higher notes rapidly joining in. Sometimes the effect is reversed, so that the highest note is played first.
  • as is - a jazz term which instructs the performer to play the noted pitches as they are printed. Parts for jazz musicians in big bands often consist of lengthy sections of empty bars labelled with the changing time signatures and chord changes. Rhythm section members improvise an accompaniment (see comp), and lead instruments improvise solos. In sections where the jazz arranger wants the performers to read notated pitches rather than improvise, they indicate this with the notation "as is".
  • assai – very
  • assez (Fr) – enough, sufficiently; sometimes used in the same sense as assai
  • a tempo – in time; i.e., the performer should return to the main tempo of the piece (after an accelerando or ritardando, etc.); also may be found in combination with other terms such as a tempo giusto (in strict time) or a tempo di menuetto (at the speed of a minuet)
  • attacca – attack, or go on; i.e., at the end of a movement, a direction to begin (attack) the next movement immediately, without a gap or pause
  • Ausdruck (Ger) – expression
  • ausdrucksvoll (Ger) – expressively
  • avec (Fr) – with or with another

B

  • B (Ger) – B flat in German (and Icelandic); B natural is called H
  • barbaro – barbarous (notably used in Allegro barbaro by Béla Bartók)
  • Bartók pizzicato - a term which instructs string performers to play a pizzicato note to pull the string away from the fingerboard so that it snaps back percussively on the fingerboard.
  • bass – the lowest of the standard four voice ranges (bass, tenor, alto, soprano); the lowest melodic line in a musical composition, often thought of as defining and supporting the harmony; in an orchestral context, the term usually refers to the double bass.
  • basso continuo – continuous bass; i.e., a bass part played continuously throughout a piece to give harmonic structure, used especially in the Baroque period
  • beat – (1) the pronounced rhythm of music; (2) one single stroke of a rhythmic accent
  • bellicoso – warlike, aggressive
  • ben or bene – well; in ben marcato ("well marked") for example
  • bend – jazz term referring either to establishing a pitch, sliding down half a step and returning to the original pitch or sliding up half a step from the original note.
  • bewegt (Ger) – moved, with speed
  • binary with two parts - A:B:
  • bird's eye – A slang term for fermata, which instructs the performer to hold a note or chord as long as they wish.
  • bis (Lat) – twice; i.e., repeat the relevant action or passage
  • bisbigliando – whispering; i.e., a special tremolo effect on the harp where a chord or note is rapidly repeated at a low volume
  • blow - a jazz term instructing a performer to improvise a solo over the chord progression of a jazz tune; may also be written "blowing section" or, in free jazz, "open blowing"
  • blues - in a jazz context, when "blues" or "solo on blues" appears at the start of a solo section, it is an abbreviation for "blues progression"; it instructs the performer to improvise solos over a 12-bar blues progression based on I, IV, and V7 chords.
  • bocca chiusa – with closed mouth
  • bravura – boldness; as in con bravura, boldly
  • breit (Ger) – broad
  • bridge – Transitional passage connecting two sections of a composition, also transition. Also the part of a stringed instrument that holds the strings in place and transmits their vibrations to the resonant body of the instrument.
  • brillante – brilliantly, with sparkle
  • brio – vigour; usually in con brio
  • brioso – vigorously (same as con brio)
  • broken chord – a chord in which the notes are not all played at once, but in some more or less consistent sequence. They may follow singly one after the other, or two notes may be immediately followed by another two, for example. See also arpeggio in this list, which as an accompaniment pattern may be seen as a kind of broken chord; see Alberti bass.
  • bruscamente – brusquely

C

  • cadenza – a solo section, usually in a concerto or similar work, that is used to display the performer's technique, sometimes at considerable length
  • calando – falling away, or lowering; i.e., getting slower and quieter; ritardando along with diminuendo
  • calore – warmth; so con calore, warmly
  • cambiare – to change; i.e., any change, such as to a new instrument
  • cantabile or cantando – in a singing style
  • capo – head; i.e., the beginning (of a movement, normally)
  • capriccioso – capriciously, unpredictable, volatile
  • cédez (Fr) – yield, give way
  • cesura or caesura (Latin form) – break, stop; i.e., a complete break in sound (sometimes nicknamed "railroad tracks" in reference to their appearance)
  • changes - a jazz term which is an abbreviation for "chord changes", which is the harmonic progression (or "chord progression") upon which a melody is based
  • chiuso – closed; i.e., muted by hand (for a horn, or similar instrument; but see also bocca chiusa, which uses the feminine form, in this list)
  • coda – a tail; i.e., a closing section appended to a movement
  • codetta – a small coda, but usually applied to a passage appended to a section of a movement, not to a whole movement
  • col, colla – with the (col before a masculine noun, colla before a feminine noun); (see next for example)
  • colla parte – with the soloist; as an instruction in an orchestral score or part, it instructs the conductor or orchestral musician to follow the rhythm and tempo of a solo performer (usually for a short passage)
  • colla voce – with the voice; as an instruction in an choral music/opera score or orchestral part, it instructs the conductor or orchestral musician to follow the rhythm and tempo of a solo singer (usually for a short passage)
  • col legno – with the wood; i.e., the strings (for example, of a violin) are to be struck with the wood of the bow, making a percussive sound; also battuta col legno: beaten with the wood
  • coloratura – coloration; i.e., elaborate ornamentation of a vocal line, or (especially) a soprano voice that is well-suited to such elaboration
  • colossale – tremendously
  • col pugno – with the fist; i.e., bang the piano with the fist
  • come prima – like the first (time); i.e., as before, typically referring to an earlier tempo
  • come sopra – as above; i.e., like the previous tempo (usually)
  • common time – the time signature 4/4: four beats per measure, each beat a quarter note (a crotchet) in length. 4/4 is often written on the musical staff as 'C'. The symbol is not a C as an abbreviation for common time, but a broken circle. The full circle at one time stood for triple time, 3/4.
  • comodo (or, commonly but less correctly, commodo) – comfortable; i.e., at moderate speed; also, allegro comodo, tempo comodo, etc.
  • comp - a jazz term which instructs a jazz rhythm section performer (usually a chordal instrument such as jazz guitar, jazz piano, Hammond organ, etc) to play accompaniment chords
  • con – with; used in very many musical directions, for example con allegrezza (with liveliness), con amore (with tenderness); (see also col, colla, above)
  • con amore, or (in Spanish and sometimes in Italian) con amor – with love, tenderly
  • con affetto – with affect (that is, with emotion)
  • con brio – with spirit, with vigour
  • con dolore – with sadness
  • con forza – with force
  • con (gran, molto) espressione – with (great, much) expression
  • con fuoco – with fire, in a fiery manner
  • con larghezza – with broadness; broadly
  • con moto – with motion
  • con slancio – with enthusiasm
  • con sordina, or con sordine (plural) – with a mute; or with mutes - several orchestral instruments can have their tone muted with wood, rubber, metal, or plastic devices (for string instruments, mutes are clipped to the bridge, and for brass instruments, mutes are inserted in the bell); compare senza sordina in this list (which instructs the musicians to remove their mutes); see also Sordina. Note: sordina, with plural sordine, is strictly correct Italian, but the forms con sordino and con sordini are much more commonly used as terms in music.
  • con sordino, or con sordini (plural) (incorrect Italian) – see con sordina, above
  • coperti (plural of coperto, which may also be seen) – covered; i.e., on a drum, muted with a cloth
  • crescendo – growing; i.e., progressively louder (contrast diminuendo)
  • cut time – same as the meter 2/2: two half-note (minim) beats per measure. Notated and executed like common time (4/4), except with the beat lengths doubled. Indicated by three quarters of a circle with a vertical line through it, which resembles the cent symbol '. This comes from a literal cut of the 'C' symbol of common time. Thus, a quarter note in cut time is only half a beat long, and a measure has only two beats. See also alla breve.

D

  • da capo – from the head; i.e., from the beginning (see capo in this list)
  • D.S. al coda or dal segno al coda (or, strictly but rarely seen, ...alla coda) – from the sign to the coda; i.e., return to a place in the music designated by the sign and continue until directed to move to the coda, a separate ending section. (See Coda in this list.)
  • D.S. al fine or dal segno al fine – from the sign to the end; i.e., return to a place in the music designated by the sign (see preceding entry) and continue to the end of the piece
  • D.S.S. al coda or dal segno al coda – same as D.S. al coda, but with a double segno
  • D.S.S. al fine or dal segno al fine – from the double sign to the end; i.e., return to place in the music designated by the double sign (see D.S. al coda) and continue to the end of the piece
  • deciso – decisively
  • decrescendo or decresc. – same as diminuendo or dim. (see below)
  • delicatamente or delicato – delicately
  • devoto – religiously
  • diminuendo, dim. – dwindling; i.e., with gradually decreasing volume (same as decrescendo)
  • dissonante – dissonant
  • divisi or div. – divided; i.e., in a part in which several musicians normally play exactly the same notes they are instead to split the playing of the written simultaneous notes among themselves. It is most often used for string instruments, since with them another means of execution is often possible. (The return from divisi is marked unisono: see in this list.)
  • doit – jazz term referring to a note that slides to an indefinite pitch chromatically upwards.
  • dolce – sweetly
  • dolcissimo – very sweetly
  • dolente – sorrowfully, plaintively
  • doloroso – sorrowfully, plaintively
  • double stop – the act of playing two notes simultaneously on a melodic percussion instrument or stringed instrument
  • drop – jazz term referring to a note that slides to an indefinite pitch chromatically downwards.
  • D.S.Dal Segno (see above)
  • Dur (Ger) – major; used in key signatures as, for example, A-Dur (A major), B-Dur (B♭ major), or H-Dur (B major). (See also moll (minor) in this list.)
  • dynamics – refers to the relative volumes in the execution of a piece of music

E

  • e (Ital.) – and
  • eco – the Italian word for "echo"; an effect in which a group of notes is repeated, usually more softly, and perhaps at a different octave, to create an echo effect
  • ein wenig (Ger) – a little
  • Empfindung (Ger) – feeling
  • encore (Fr) – again; i.e., perform the relevant passage once more
  • en dehors (Fr) – prominently
  • energico – energetic, strong
  • enfatico – emphatically
  • en pressant (Fr) – hurrying forward
  • en retenant (Fr) – slowing
  • eroico – heroically
  • espirando – expiring; i.e., dying away
  • espressivo or espr. – expressively
  • estinto – extinct, extinguished; i.e., as soft as possible, lifeless, barely audible
  • etwas (Ger) – somewhat

F

  • facile – easily, without fuss
  • fall – jazz term describing a note of definite pitch sliding downwards to another note of definite pitch.
  • fermata – finished, closed; i.e., a rest or note is to be held for a duration that is at the discretion of the performer or conductor (sometimes called bird's eye); a fermata at the end of a first or intermediate movement or section is usually moderately prolonged, but the final fermata of a symphony may be prolonged for twice its printed length or more for dramatic effect.
  • feroce – ferociously
  • feurig (Ger) – fiery
  • festivamente – cheerfully, celebratory
  • fieramente – proudly
  • fill (English) – a jazz or rock term which instructs performers to improvise a scalar passage or riff to "fill in" the brief time between lyrical phrases, the lines of melody, or between two sections
  • fine – the end, often in phrases like al fine (to the end)
  • flebile – mournfully
  • focoso or fuocoso – fiery; i.e., passionately
  • forte or f (usually) – strong; i.e., to be played or sung loudly
  • fortepiano or fp (usually) – strong-gentle; i.e., 1. loud, then immediately soft (see dynamics), or 2. an early pianoforte
  • fortissimo – as loudly as possible (see note at pianissimo, in this list)
  • forzando or fz – see sforzando in this list
  • freddo – cold(ly); hence depressive, unemotional
  • fresco – freshly
  • fröhlich - lively, joyfully
  • fugue (Fr), fuga (Latin and Italian) – literally "flight"; hence a complex and highly regimented contrapuntal form in music. A short theme (the subject) is introduced in one voice (or part) alone, then in others, with imitation and characteristic development as the piece progresses.
  • fuoco – fire; con fuoco means with fire
  • furioso – furiously

G

  • G.P. - Grand Pause; indicates to the performers that the entire ensemble has a rest of indeterminate length, often as a dramatic effect during a loud section.
  • gaudioso – with joy
  • gentile – gently
  • geschwind (Ger) – quickly
  • getragen (Ger) – with sustainment
  • giocoso or gioioso – gaily
  • giusto – strictly, exactly, e.g. tempo giusto in strict time
  • glissando (simulated Italian) – a continuous sliding from one pitch to another (a true glissando), or an incidental scale executed while moving from one melodic note to another (an effective glissando). See glissando for further information; and compare portamento in this list.
  • grandioso – grandly
  • grave – slowly and seriously
  • grazioso – gracefully
  • gustoso – with gusto

H

  • H (Ger) – B natural in German; B means B flat
  • Hauptstimme (Ger) – "head" voice, chief part; i.e., the contrapuntal line of primary importance, in opposition to Nebenstimme
  • hemiola (English, from Greek) – the imposition of a pattern of rhythm or articulation other than that implied by the time signature; specifically, in triple time (for example in 3/4) the imposition of a duple pattern (as if the time signature were, for example, 2/4). See Syncopation.
  • Homophony one voice.

I

  • ignore changes - a jazz term used in 1950s and 1960s-era avant-garde and free jazz (e.g., Ornette Coleman) which instructs a soloist to improvise without following the chord changes being used by the rhythm section instruments.
  • immer (Ger) – always
  • imperioso – imperiously
  • impetuoso – impetuously
  • improvisando – with improvisation
  • improvisato – improvised, or as if improvised
  • in altissimo – in the highest; i.e., play or sing an octave higher
  • incalzando – getting faster and louder
  • insistendo – insistently, deliberate
  • in modo di – in the art of, in the style of
  • intimo – intimately
  • intro - opening section
  • irato – angrily

K

  • kräftig (Ger) – strongly
  • Klangfarbenmelodie – "tone-color-melody," distribution of pitch or melody among instruments, varying timbre

L

  • lacrimoso – tearfully; i.e., sadly
  • lamentando – lamenting, mournfully
  • lamentoso – lamenting, mournfully
  • langsam (Ger) – slowly
  • largamente – broadly; i.e., slowly (same as largo)
  • larghetto – somewhat slowly; not as slow as largo
  • Larghissimo – very slowly; slower than largo
  • largo – broadly; i.e., slowly
  • lay out – a jazz term which is the equivalent of the Classical term tacet; it instructs the player to cease playing for a section or tune.
  • lebhaft (Ger) – briskly, lively
  • legato – joined; i.e., smoothly, in a connected manner (see also articulation)
  • leggiero – lightly, delicately
  • lent (Fr) – slowly
  • lento – slowly
  • liberamente – freely
  • libero – free, freely
  • l'istesso – see lo stesso, below
  • loco – [in] place; i.e., perform the notes at the pitch written (generally used to cancel an 8va direction)
  • lontano – from a distance; distantly
  • lo stesso (or commonly, but ungrammatically, l'istesso) – the same; applied to the manner of articulation, tempo, etc.
  • lugubre – lugubrious, mournful
  • luminoso – luminously
  • lusingando – coaxingly

M

  • ma – but
  • ma non troppo – but not too much
  • maestoso – majestically, in a stately fashion
  • magico – magically
  • magnifico – magnificent
  • main droite (Fr) – [played with the] right hand (abbreviation: MD or m.d.)
  • main gauche (Fr) – [played with the] left hand (abbreviation: MG or m.g.)
  • malinconico – melancholy
  • mano destra – [played with the] right hand (abbreviation: MD or m.d.)
  • mano sinistra – [played with the] left hand (abbreviation: MS or m.s.)
  • marcatissimo – with much accentuation
  • marcato – marked; i.e., with accentuation, execute every note as if it were to be accented
  • marcia – a march; alla marcia means in the manner of a march
  • martellato – hammered out
  • marziale – in the march style
  • mässig (Ger) – moderately
  • MD – see mano destra and main droite
  • melancolico – melancholic
  • melisma – the technique of changing the note (pitch) of a syllable of text while it is being sung
  • measure – the period of a musical piece that encompasses a complete cycle of the time signature, e.g., in 4/4 time, a measure has four quarter-note beats
  • meno – less; see meno mosso, for example, under mosso
  • mesto – mournful, sad
  • meter (or metre) – the pattern of a music piece's rhythm of strong and weak beats
  • mezza voce – half voice; i.e., with subdued or moderated volume
  • mezzo – half; used in combinations like mezzo forte (mf), meaning moderately loud
  • mezzo forte – half loudly; i.e., moderately loudly. See dynamics.
  • mezzo piano – half softly; i.e., moderately softly. See dynamics.
  • mezzo-soprano – a female singer with a range usually extending from the A below middle C to the F an eleventh above middle C. Mezzo-sopranos generally have a darker vocal tone than sopranos, and their vocal range is between that of a soprano and that of an alto.
  • MG – see main gauche
  • misterioso – mysteriously
  • mobile – flexible, changeable
  • moderato – moderate; often combined with other terms, usually relating to tempo; for example, allegro moderato
  • modesto – modest
  • moll (Ger) – minor; used in key signatures as, for example, a-moll (A minor), b-moll (B♭ minor), or h-moll (B minor) (see also dur (major) in this list)
  • molto – very
  • morendo – dying; i.e., dying away in dynamics, and perhaps also in tempo
  • mosso – moved, moving; used with a preceding più or meno (see in this list), for faster or slower respectively
  • MS – see mano sinistra
  • moto – motion; usually seen as con moto, meaning with motion or quickly
  • munter (Ger) – lively

N

  • narrante – narratingly
  • naturale or nat. – natural; i.e., discontinue a special effect, such as col legno, sul tasto, sul ponticello, or playing in harmonics
  • N.C. – No chord, written in the chord row of music notation to show there is no chord being played, and no implied harmony.
  • Nebenstimme (Ger) – under part; i.e., a secondary contrapuntal part, always occurring simultaneously with, and subsidiary to, the Hauptstimme
  • nicht (Ger) – not
  • niente – "nothing", barely audible, dying away
  • nobile or nobilmente – in a noble fashion
  • nocturne - A piece written for the night
  • notes inégales (Fr) – unequal notes; i.e., a principally Baroque performance practice of applying long-short rhythms to pairs of notes written as equal

O

  • omaggio – homage, celebration
  • one-voice-per-part, or OVPP – the practice of using solo voices on each musical line or part in choral music.
  • ossia – or instead; i.e., according to some specified alternative way of performing a passage, which is marked with a footnote, additional small notes, or an additional staff
  • ostinato – obstinate, persistent; i.e., a short musical pattern that is repeated throughout an entire composition or portion of a composition
  • ottava – octave; e.g. ottava bassa: an octave lower

P

  • parlando or parlante – like speech, enunciated
  • Partitur (Ger) – full orchestral score
  • passionato – passionately
  • pastorale – in a pastoral style, peaceful and simple
  • pausa – rest
  • pedale – pedal
  • perdendosi – dying away
  • pesante – heavy, ponderous
  • peu à peu (Fr) – little by little
  • pianissimo or pp (usually) – very gently; i.e., perform very softly, even softer than piano. This convention can be extended; the more ps that are written, the softer the composer wants the musician to play or sing, thus ppp (pianississimo) would be softer than pp. Note: any dynamics in a piece should always be interpreted relative to the other dynamics in the same piece. For example, pp should be executed as softly as possible, but if ppp is found later in the piece, pp should be markedly louder than ppp. Likewise, ff should be executed as loudly as possible, but if fff is found later in the piece, ff should be noticeably quieter. More than three ps (ppp) or three fs (fff) are uncommon.
  • piano or p (usually) – gently; i.e., played or sung softly (see dynamics)
  • piano-vocal score – the same as a vocal score, a piano arrangement along with the vocal parts of an opera, cantata, or similar
  • piacevole – pleasant
  • piangevole – plaintive
  • più – more; see mosso for an example
  • pizzicato – pinched, plucked; i.e., in music for bowed strings, plucked with the fingers as opposed to played with the bow; compare arco (in this list), which is inserted to cancel a pizzicato instruction
  • pochettino or poch. – very little
  • poco – a little, as in poco più allegro (a little faster)
  • poco a poco – little by little
  • poi – then, indicating a subsequent instruction in a sequence; diminuendo poi subito fortissimo, for example: getting softer then suddenly very loud
  • portamento – carrying; i.e., 1. generally, sliding in pitch from one note to another, usually pausing just above or below the final pitch, then sliding quickly to that pitch. If no pause is executed, then it is a basic glissando; or 2. in piano music, an articulation between legato and staccato, like portato, in this list
  • portato – carried; i.e., non-legato, but not as detached as staccato (same as portamento [2], in this list)
  • posato – settled
  • potpourri or pot-pourri (Fr) – potpourri (as used in other senses in English); i.e., a kind of musical form structured as ABCDEF... etc.; the same as medley or, sometimes, fantasia
  • precipitato – precipitately
  • prestissimo – extremely quickly, as fast as possible
  • presto – very quickly
  • prima volta – the first time; for example prima volta senza accompagnamento (the first time without accompaniment)
  • primo or prima (the feminine form) – first

Q

  • quasi (Latin and Italian) – as if, almost, e.g. quasi recitativo like a recitative in an opera, or quasi una fantasia like a fantasia

R

  • rallentando or rall. – Broadening of the tempo (often not discernible from ritardando); progressively slower
  • rapido – fast
  • rasch (Ger) – fast
  • religioso – religiously
  • repente – suddenly
  • restez (Fr) – stay; i.e., remain on a note or string
  • rinforzando (rf) – reinforced; i.e., emphasized; sometimes like a sudden crescendo, but often applied to a single note
  • risoluto – resolutely
  • rit. – an abbreviation for ritardando; also an abbreviation for ritenuto
  • ritardando, ritard., rit. – slowing down; decelerating; opposite of accelerando (see in this list)
  • ritenuto, riten., rit. – held back; i.e., slower (usually more so but more temporarily than a ritardando, and it may, unlike ritardando, apply to a single note)
  • ritornello - a recurring passage for orchestra in the first or final movement of a solo concerto or aria (also in works for chorus).
  • rolled chord – see arpeggiato in this list
  • roulade (Fr) – a rolling; i.e., a florid vocal phrase
  • rubato – robbed; i.e., flexible in tempo, applied to notes within a musical phrase for expressive effect
  • ruvido – roughly
  • rondo five parts - A:B:A:C:A

S

  • saltando – bouncing the bow as in a staccato arpeggio, literally means "jumping"
  • sanft (Ger) – gently
  • scherzando, scherzoso – playfully
  • scherzo – a light, "joking" or playful musical form, originally and usually in fast triple time, often replacing the minuet in the later Classical period and the Romantic period, in symphonies, sonatas, string quartets and the like; in the 19th century some scherzi were independent movements for piano, etc.
  • schleppen (Ger) – to drag; usually nicht schleppen ("don't drag"), paired with nicht eilen ("don't hurry") in Gustav Mahler's scores
  • schnell (Ger) – fast
  • schneller (Ger) – faster
  • scordatura – out of tune; i.e., an alternative tuning used for the strings of a string instrument
  • secco, or sec (Fr) – dry
  • segno – sign, usually Dal Segno (see above) "from the sign", indicating a return to the point marked by
  • segue – carry on to the next section without a pause
  • sehr (Ger) – very
  • semitone – The smallest pitch difference between notes (in most Western music), (e.g., F–F#).
  • semplice – simply
  • sempre – always
  • senza – without
  • senza misura – without measure
  • senza sordina, or senza sordine (plural) – without the mute; compare con sordina in this list; see also Sordina. Note: sordina, with plural sordine, is strictly correct Italian, but the forms con sordino and con sordini are much more commonly used as terms in music. In piano music (notably in Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata), senza sordini or senza sordina (or some variant) is sometimes used to mean keep the sustain pedal depressed, since the sustain pedal lifts the dampers off the strings, with the effect that all notes are sustained indefinitely.
  • serioso – seriously
  • shake – a jazz term describing a trill between one note and it's minor third

Sharp-raise the pitch of the note by a semitone

  • sforzando or sfz – made loud; i.e., a sudden strong accent
  • siciliano - A Sicilian dance in 12/8 or 6/8 meter.
  • sign – see segno
  • silenzio – silence; i.e., without reverberations
  • simile – similarly; i.e., continue applying the preceding directive, whatever it was, to the following passage
  • sipario – curtain (stage)
  • slargando or slentando – becoming broader or slower (that is, becoming more largo or more lento)
  • smorzando or smorz. – dying away, extinguishing or dampening; usually interpreted as a drop in dynamics, and very often in tempo as well
  • soave – smoothly, gently
  • sognando – dreamily
  • solo break - a jazz term that instructs a lead player or rhythm section member to play an improvised solo cadenza for one or two measures (sometimes abbreviated as "break")
  • solenne – solemn
  • solo, plural soli – alone; i.e., executed by a single instrument or voice. The instruction soli requires more than one player or singer; in a jazz big band this refers to an entire section playing in harmony.
  • sonatina – a little sonata
  • sonatine – a little sonata, used in some countries instead of sonatina
  • sonore – sonorous
  • soprano – the highest of the standard four voice ranges (bass, tenor, alto, soprano)
  • sordina, sordine (plural) – a mute, or a damper in the case of the piano. Note: sordina, with plural sordine, is strictly correct Italian, but the forms sordino and sordini are much more commonly used as terms in music. See also con sordina, senza sordina, in this list.
  • sordino – see sordina, above
  • sospirando – sighing
  • sostenuto – sustained, lengthened
  • sotto voce – in an undertone i.e. quietly
  • spiccato – distinct, separated; i.e., a way of playing the violin and other bowed instruments by bouncing the bow on the string, giving a characteristic staccato effect
  • spinto
  • spiritoso – spiritedly
  • staccato – making each note brief and detached; the opposite of legato. In music notation, a small dot under or over the head of the note indicates that it is to be articulated as staccato.
  • stanza – a verse of a song
  • strepitoso – noisy
  • stretto – tight, narrow; i.e., faster or hastening ahead; also, a passage in a fugue in which the contrapuntal texture is denser, with close overlapping entries of the subject in different voices; by extension, similar closely imitative passages in other compositions
  • stringendo – tightening, narrowing; i.e., with a pressing forward or acceleration of the tempo (that is, becoming stretto, see preceding entry)
  • subito – suddenly
  • sul ponticello – on the bridge; i.e., in string playing, an indication to bow (or sometimes to pluck) very near to the bridge, producing a characteristic glassy sound, which emphasizes the higher harmonics at the expense of the fundamental; the opposite of sul tasto
  • sul tasto – on the fingerboard; i.e., in string playing, an indication to bow (or sometimes to pluck) over the fingerboard; the opposite of sul ponticello

T

  • tacet – silent; do not play
  • tempo – time; i.e., the overall speed of a piece of music
  • tempo di marcia – march tempo
  • tempo di sturb de neighbors – occasionally seen on jazz charts
  • tempo di valse – waltz tempo
  • tempo giusto – in strict time
  • tempo primo, tempo uno, or tempo I (sometimes also written as tempo I°) – resume the original speed
  • teneramente – tenderly
  • tenerezza – tenderness
  • tenor – the second lowest of the standard four voice ranges (bass, tenor, alto, soprano)
  • tenuto – held; i.e., touch on a note slightly longer than usual, but without generally altering the note's value
  • ternary – having three parts. In particular, referring to a three part musical form with the parts represented by letters - A:B:A
  • tessitura
  • tranquillo – calmly, peacefully
  • tremolo – shaking; i.e., a rapid repetition of the same note, or an alternation between two or more notes. It can also be intended (inaccurately) to mean a rapid and repetitive variation in pitch for the duration of a note (see vibrato). It is notated by a strong diagonal bar across the note stem, or a detached bar for a set of notes (or stemless notes).
  • tre corde or tc (or sometimes inaccurately tre corda) – three strings; i.e., release the soft pedal of the piano (see una corda)
  • troppo – too much; usually seen as non troppo, meaning moderately or, when combined with other terms, not too much, such as allegro [ma] non troppo (fast but not too fast)
  • tutti – all; i.e., all together, usually used in an orchestral or choral score when the orchestra or all of the voices come in at the same time, also seen in Baroque-era music where two instruments share the same copy of music, after one instrument has broken off to play a more advanced form: they both play together again at the point marked tutti. See also: ripieno.

U

  • un, uno, or una – one, as for example in the following entries
  • una corda – one string; i.e., in piano music, depress the soft pedal, altering, and reducing the volume of, the sound. In some pianos, this literally results in the hammer striking one string rather than two or three. (For most notes on modern instruments, in fact it results in striking two rather than three strings.) Its counterpart, tre corde (three strings; see in this list), is the opposite: the soft pedal is to be released.
  • un poco – a little
  • unisono or unis (Fr) – in unison; i.e., several players in a group are to play exactly the same notes within their written part, as opposed to splitting simultaneous notes among themselves. Often used to mark the return from divisi (see in this list).

V

  • vamp till cue – a jazz, fusion, and musical theater term which instructs rhythm section members to repeat and vary a short ostinato passage, riff, or "groove" until the band leader or conductor instructs them to move onto the next section
  • veloce – with velocity
  • velocissimo – as quickly as possible; usually applied to a cadenza-like passage or run
  • vibrato – vibrating; i.e., a more or less rapidly repeated slight alteration in the pitch of a note, used to give a richer sound and as a means of expression. Often confused with tremolo, which refers either to a similar variation in the volume of a note, or to rapid repetition of a single note.
  • vittorioso – victoriously
  • virtuoso – (noun or adjective) performing with exceptional ability, technique, or artistry
  • vivo – lively
  • vivace – very lively, up-tempo
  • vivacissimo – very lively
  • vocal score or piano-vocal score – a music score of an opera, or a vocal or choral composition with orchestra (like oratorio or cantata) where the vocal parts are written out in full but the accompaniment is reduced to two staves and adapted for playing on piano
  • voce – voice
  • volante – flying
  • V.S. (volti subito) – turn suddenly; i.e., turn the page quickly. While this indication is sometimes added by printers, it is more commonly indicated by orchestral members in pencil as a reminder to quickly turn to the next page.

W

Z

  • Zählzeit (Ger) – beat
  • zart (Ger) – tender
  • Zartheit (Ger) – tenderness
  • zärtlich (Ger) – tenderly
  • Zeichen (Ger) – sign
  • Zeitmaß, also spelled Zeitmass (Ger) – time-measure, i.e., tempo
  • zelo, zeloso, zelosamente – zeal, zealous, zealously
  • ziehen (Ger) – to draw out
  • zitternd (Ger) – trembling; i.e., tremolando
  • zögernd (Ger) – doubtful, delaying; i.e., rallentando

Footnotes

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