Music glossary -  A to J

• A tempo In tempo. "A tempo" is used after some variation in the tempo, and means return to the original tempo or speed.

Accelerando  Accelerate or gradually increase the tempo or speed of the music.

Accent  An accent placed over or under a note means the note should be emphasized by playing forcefully. Indicated by the sign: >

Accidentals  A sign indicating a momentary departure from the key signature by using a flat, sharp or natural to temporarily alter the pitch of a note by a half step. Accidentals apply to the note immediately following the symbol, and remain in effect throughout the measure in which it appears.

Adagio  A slow, leisurely tempo, often considered to be slower than andante, but not quite as slow as largo. Slow movements of a piece are sometimes titled Adagio.

Agitato  Agitated or restless. Agitato is a direction to play in an agitated manner.

Air  A melody, tune or song. In fiddle music, airs are often played slowly with rubato, and are not dance tunes.

Aleatory  Comes from the Latin term alea, meaning "a game of dice." Aleatory music is also called chance music. Chance or indeterminancy may affect compositional elements, the performance, or both. For example, the performers may throw dice to determine compositional elements such as rhythmic or pitch choices.

Allegretto  A lively and moderately fast tempo. Often considered to be slower than allegro, but faster than andante.

Allegro  A quick, lively and fast tempo (not quite as fast as presto).

Amore  Play with love, lovingly.

Andante  A moderately slow tempo. Often considered to be a walking speed.

Andantino  A slightly slower tempo than andante (andante is a moderately slow tempo).

Animando  Play with increasing animation, liveliness, and expression.

Animato  "Animated" or spirited. Play in a lively, spirited manner.

Appassionato  Play passionately or with intense emotion and feeling.

Arco  Arco is Italian for bow. After a pizzicato (plucked) section of music, arco is often used to indicate the next passage of music should be played with the bow.

Aria  An elaborate vocal solo with instrumental accompaniment, used in genres such as an opera, oratorio or cantata.

Articulation  Articulation describes the manner of providing definition and shape to individual notes or phrases. For string players, this involves both the right and left hand. The main markings are a dot . which means shorten the note, a line _ or slur            which means play the note smoothly, and an accent > which means add a forceful emphasis. These markings are often used in combination with each other, and mean many different things to different musicians.

Assai  Assai means "very" in Italian. It modifies other terms when added to them, e.g. allegro assai means very fast.

Assez  Assez means "enough" or "rather" in French. It modifies other terms when added to them,e.g. assez vif means "rather lively" in French (vif means lively), and assez vite means "rather fast" (vite means fast).

Atonality  Music with an absence of tonality. Traditional tonal structures are intentionally ignored or abandoned in this contemporary form of music.

Au talon  Talon is French for frog, and the term au talon is used in sections of music which should be played with the bow at the frog (other terms for frog include nut or heel).

Augmented  Augmented means raised, and when the term augmented is combined with a specific interval between notes, it means to raise the interval by a half-step. For example, an augmented fourth is a half-step larger than the interval of a perfect fourth.

Ballata  A ballata is a 14th century Italian secular song. It is a monophonic composition often in the following pattern: A b b a A.

Bariolage  Bariolage is a French term which means an "odd mixture of colors," and directs the string player to achieve a contrast in tone colors by playing on different strings. An example of bariolage is when the same note is played, alternating between open strings and stopped strings, or by playing a repeated passage and oscillating between two, three, or four strings. Fingering is often used to indicate bariolage.
• Binary  Binary means dual or two parts.

Blue notes When the third, fifth, or seventh notes of a major scale are flattened, these notes are called blue notes. Blue notes are frequently used in blues and jazz music

Bow lift  The sign for a bow lift is:          and indicates the string player should lift their bow, and return it to its starting point.

Bravura  Play brilliantly with boldness and spirit. The term bravura is sometimes used in passages where virtuosic skill is required of the performer.

Breve  Short.

Brio  Spirited and lively. Con brio means play with spirit in a vivacious manner.

Caccia  Caccia means chase or hunt, and describes a canonic form of music, often with two voices chasing each other with an underlying third part. Hunting music themes were often used in this form of music.

Cantabile  Cantabile means singing, and is a musical direction to play in a singing vocal style.

Cantata  The term cantata means "to be sung" (as opposed to sonata, an instrumental work which means "to be played"). A cantata is a vocal work with instrumental accompaniment. It may be sacred or secular, and often contains sections such as solos, choruses, and recitatives.

Chamber music  The term chamber music describes music suitable for performance in a chamber, meaning a room or small hall instead of a large concert hall. Today, chamber music is used to describe instrumental music performed by a small ensemble such as a quartet, trio or chamber orchestra. 

Coda  An Italian word for "tail," coda is a musical term referring to a concluding section of a composition.

Col legno "With the wood." Col legno means to strike the string with the stick of the bow rather than the hair (it is also called col legno battuto). When there are extended col legno passages in music, some professional violinists use inexpensive bows to avoid damaging their expensive bows.

Col legno tratto is a less commonly used bowing direction. It indicates draw the wood of the bow across the string (use with caution, this can damage the wood of the bow).

Collé  Collé means glued. It is a very short stroke, and begins with the bow lightly contacting the string with a distinct and short, sharp pinch. The bow is then lifted to prepare for the next stroke.

Comodo  Comodo is Italian for a comfortable, leisurely and convenient tempo or speed, neither too fast nor too slow.

Con  Con means "with" or in a style expressive of a certain quality. It is often used to modify another term such as con spirito, meaning to play with a spirited style.

Concerto  An instrumental composition for solo instrument(s), often in three movements, frequently accompanied by an orchestra. The sequence of the movements in a concerto generally is fast-slow-fast.

Concerto grosso  An instrumental concerto for a small group of soloists (called the concertino), which play in contrast to the main body of instrumentalists or orchestra (called the ripieno or tutti).

Continuo  Also known as basso continuo or figured bass, the term continuo describes a bass part in a composition, often with numbers over the notes to indicate harmonic intervals that should be played above the bass line. During the Baroque period, the figured bass or continuo was commonly used by a keyboard player such as a harpsichord to provide harmonic accompaniments (a cello frequently played the continuo part along with the harpsichord).

Crescendo  Crescendo (cresc.) means to gradually become louder, and is indicated by the sign:

Da capo (D.C.) repeat from the beginning.

Da segno (D.S.) repeat from the sign.

• D.C. al Coda means go back to the beginning of the piece, play to the "Coda" sign:          , then jump to the Coda section to finish the piece (Coda means "tail," and refers to a concluding section of a piece).

D.C. al Fine means go back to the beginning, and end at the Fine marking (D.C. is an abbreviation for "da capo," and means "from the beginning" and Fine means "end").

Détaché  Détaché indicates a smooth, separate bow strokes should be used for each note (it does not mean detached or disconnected). Notes are of equal value, and are produced with an even, seamless stroke with no variation in pressure.

Détaché lancé   Détaché lancé is a variation of the détaché bow stroke, and is a slightly separated bow stroke that gently articulates the notes with an unaccented, distinct break between each note. It is often used in combination with the louré or porté stroke to perform several separated notes in the same bow. A combination of a line with a dot over or under it is often used to indicate this bowing.

Diminuendo  Diminuendo (dim.) means to gradually become softer. The term decrescendo (decresc. or decr.) also means to become softer, and is indicated by the sign:

Dolce  Dolce is a direction to play sweetly, softly and gently.

Down bow  The sign for down bow is           and indicates a downward stroke of the bow from frog to tip.

Drone  A drone is a continuous pitch, held for an extended time beneath the melody to serve as an aural reference point. In early music, drones generally were not notated in manuscripts, so performers should use their judgment in using them. In fiddle music, drones are often played as double stops, with the fiddler playing a drone on one string, while playing the melody on another.

Dynamics  A term that indicates the degree of loudness or softness in music. When the dynamic level is changed instantaneously, it is called terraced or changed dynamics (this was popular during the Baroque period). When the Italian word "issimo" is added to a dynamic term, it means very, extremely, or as much as is possible. e.g. pianissimo means "as soft as is possible" and fortissimo means "as loud as is possible."

Fermata  The sign              under or over a note or rest indicates the note or rest should be held and prolonged at the discretion of the performer or conductor (this sign is also called a "hold" or by the nickname "bird’s eye").

First and second endings  First and second endings are repeat signs, and should be played as follows: play the first ending the first time through the music, repeat to the beginning of the section, then skip over the first ending and play the second ending.

Flautando  Flautando is a bowing direction to bow slightly over the fingerboard to produce a flutelike sound eff

Forte  Forte means loud, and is indicated by the marking: f

Fortissimo  Fortissimo means the music should be very loud, and is indicated by the marking: ff

Fortississimo  Fortississimo means the music should be played as loudly as possible, and is indicated by the marking: fff

Fuoco  Fuoco means "Fire" and indicates the musician should play with fire in a fiery, spirited manner.

Glissando  Glissando is an ornamental effect notated by a wavy or straight line between two notes, indicating a continuous slide in pitch.

Grace note  A grace note is used to ornament a note, and is written in a small font indicating the musician should quickly play the grace note, then the note it is attached to (the grace note is not part of the rhythmic value of the measure).

Grandioso  Play with majestic grandeur.

Grave  Play in a slow and solemn manner.

Harmonics  Harmonics are overtones of the string and produce soft flute like sounds when the string is lightly touched at specific fractional divisions (nodal points). Natural harmonics are produced on open strings, and artificial or stopped harmonics are produced on stopped strings.
• Harmony  Harmony is created when pitches are combined simultaneously.

Homophonic  A form of musical texture with a melody and chordal accompaniment.

Hornpipe  A lively British dance, popular during the 16th–18th centuries. The country dance version of the hornpipe was similar to the jig, but with a different meter (often in 3/2). Composers frequently used the lively country dance rhythm of the hornpipe dance for movements in dance suites and incidental theater music. Other meters used in the hornpipe dance were 2/4 and 4/4.

Impressionism  Impressionism began as an artistic movement, and was used to describe a style of art which was designed to convey an impression rather than a literal depiction of the scene. This term was applied to music, particularly to compositions written by French composers in the early 20th century such as Debussy and Ravel when they wrote music that sought to convey subtle impressions, moods and emotions through compositional techniques such as new chord combinations, sonorities and harmonies, colorful instrumentation, and exotic scales.

Incidental music  Music supplementing a spoken drama such as music composed for a play. Incidental music could be introducing a play (such as an overture), between acts (an interlude), or as a supplement to spoken parts or dramatic elements.

Jeté  Jeté means "thrown" in French. In this bow stroke, the bow is thrown on the string, and then bounces for several notes in the same bow direction. The height and speed of the bounce are regulated through factors such as the amount of pressure used by the index finger, and where the bow is initially thrown or placed. Dots above or under the notes may be used to indicate jeté.