Musical terminology

Below is a list of terms used in musical terminology which are likely to occur on printed or sheet music. Many of these terms have an Italian etymology, reinforcing the heritage of much music originating from Italy. In different countries, the terms you see below may be written in the language of that country.

Unless indicated otherwise, these terms are assumed to be Italian (or English) in origin.



  • a, (French) – "at", "to", "by", "for", "in", "in the style of".
  • aber – "but" (German).
  • a cappella – in the manner of chapel music, without instrumental accompaniment.
  • accelerando – gradually increase the tempo; "accelerate".
  • acciaccatura (It.) – "crushing" – A very fast grace note that is "crushed" against the note that follows and takes up no value in the measure.
  • accompagnato (It.) – "accompanied" – The accompaniment must follow the singer who can speed up or slow down at will.
  • adagietto – "rather slow."
  • adagio – "slow."
  • adagissimo – "very slow."
  • ad libitum (commonly ad lib) – the speed and manner are left to the performer.
  • affettuoso – "tenderly".
  • affrettando – "hurrying," pressing onwards.
  • agitato – "agitated."
  • al, alla – "to the", "in the manner of".
  • alla breve – two minim (half-note) beats to a bar, rather than four crotchet (quarter-note) beats.
  • alla marcia – "in the style of a march".
  • allargando – "broadening," "getting a little slower."
  • allegretto – "a little lively," or "moderately fast."
  • allegro – "lively," or "fast."
  • als – "than" (German).
  • altissimo (It.) – "very high"
  • amabile – "amiable", "pleasant".
  • amoroso – "loving".
  • andante – "moderate tempo," just this side of slow.
  • andantino – slightly faster than andante.
  • animato – "animated", "lively".
  • apais – "calmed" (French).
  • a piacere – "at pleasure". Used to indicate that the performer does not have to follow the rhythm strictly.
  • appoggiatura (It.) – "leaning" – A grace note that "leans" on the following note, taking up some of its value in the measure.
  • appassionato – "passionately."
  • arpeggio – literally, like a harp. Used to indicate that the notes of a certain chord are to be played quickly one after another (usually from lowest to highest) instead of at the same moment. In piano music this is sometimes a solution in playing a wide-ranged chord whose notes cannot be played otherwise. Music generated by the limited hardware of video game computers uses a similar technique to create a chord from one tone generator. Arpeggios are also accompaniment patterns. See also broken chord.
  • arco – "played with the bow," as opposed to pizzicato "plucked," in music for bowed instruments.
  • assai – "very."
  • assez– "enough", "sufficiently" (French). Sometimes used in the same sense as assai.
  • attacca – (at the end of a movement): a direction to begin (attack) the next movement immediately, without a gap or pause.
  • Ausdruck – "expression" (German).
  • ausdrucksvoll – "expressively" (German).
  • avec – "with" (French).


  • basso continuo
  • Bisbigliando
  • bocca chiusa (It.) with closed mouth
  • brillante – "brilliantly," "with sparkle."
  • brio – "vigour"; usually in con brio (see next).
  • brioso or con brio – "vigorously."
  • 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 (It.) – "brusquely"


  • calando – "lowering"; gradual slowing and softening
  • cambiare (It.) – "change" – Any change, such as to a new instrument.
  • cantabile – "singingly."
  • cesura or caesura – often called "railroad tracks"; indicates complete break in sound.
  • chiuso (It.: closed) calls for a horn to be muted by hand
  • col legno – "with the wood"; indicates that the strings are to be struck with the wood of the bow; also battuta col legno: "beaten with the wood."
  • coloratura (It.) – "coloration" – Elaborate ornamentation of a vocal line.
  • common time is 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 (It.) – "comfortable" – At moderate speed.
  • con – "with," in very many musical directions, for example con allegrezza ("with liveliness"), con amore ("with tenderness").
  • con amor (It.) – "with love" – Tenderly.
  • con brio (It.) – with spirit
  • con fuoco (It.) – "with fire" – In a fiery manner.
  • con moto – "with motion."
  • con sordino – "with the mute."
  • coperti on a drum, muted with a cloth
  • crescendo progressively louder. Cf. diminuendo.
  • cut time – same as the meter 2/2: two half-note (minim) beats per measure. Notated and played like common time (4/4), except with the beat lengths halved. 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.


  • deciso – "decisively."
  • decrescendo, diminuendo or dim. (It.) – "dwindling" – Play with gradually decreasing volume (cf. crescendo).
  • divisi – (or div.) means literally "divided": 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. (The return from divisi is marked unisono: see in this list.)
  • dolce – "sweetly."
  • dolente – "sorrowfully."
  • dynamics refers to the relative volumes in the execution of a piece of music. See dynamics (music).


  • espressivo – "expressively."
  • estinto – "as soft as possible," "lifeless" (literally "extinguished").


  • fine – "the end," often in phrases like al fine ("to the end").
  • forte – usually marked with f: to be played or sung loudly. The term fortissimo, or ff, means "very loudly." See dynamics.
  • fortepiano – 1. loud, then immediately soft (see dynamics); 2. an early pianoforte.
  • fuoco – "fire"; "con fuoco" means "with fire."


  • geschwind – "quickly." (German)
  • getragen – "sustainedly." (German)
  • giocoso – "gayly."
  • glissando – a continuous sliding from one pitch to another (a "true" glissando), or an incidental scale played while moving from one melodic note to another (an "effective" glissando). See glissando for further information; and compare portamento in this list.
  • grazioso – "gracefully."
  • giusto – strictly, exactly.


  • Hauptstimme – "chief part" (German), designating the contrapuntal line of primary importance, in opposition to Nebenstimme.


  • immer – "always," German.
  • impetuoso – "impetuously."
  • in altissimo – play an octave higher.
  • incalzando – with increasing speed.


  • kräftig – "strongly." (German)


  • lacrimoso – "sadly" (literally "tearfully").
  • lamentoso – "mournfully."
  • langsam – "slowly." (German)
  • larghetto – "somewhat slowly"; not as slow as largo.
  • largo – "slowly."
  • legato – "smoothly"; in a connected manner. See articulation.
  • leggiero – "lightly," "delicately."
  • lent – "slowly." (French)
  • loco – play as written (generally used to cancel an 8va direction).
  • lusingando – "coaxingly."


  • ma – "but."
  • ma non troppo – "but not too much."
  • maestoso – "in a stately fashion," "majestically."
  • mano destra – [played with the] right hand (abbreviation: MD).
  • mano sinistra – [played with the] left hand (abbreviation: MS).
  • marcia – a march; alla marcia means "in the manner of a march."
  • martellato – hammered out.
  • marzial – "martially."
  • mässig – "moderately." (German)
  • MD – see mano destra.
  • meno – "less"; see meno mosso, for example, under mosso.
  • mezza voce – "with subdued or moderated volume," literally "half voice."
  • mezzo – "half"; used in combinations like mezzo forte (mf), meaning "moderately loud."
  • mezzo forte (It.) – "half loudly" – Directs the musician to play moderately loud. See dynamics.
  • mezzo piano (It.) – "half softly" – Directs the musician to play moderately soft. 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.
  • moderato – "moderate," often combined with other terms, for example, "allegro moderato".
  • molto (It.) – "very"
  • morendo – "dying away" in tone or tempo.
  • mosso – "motion"; used in conjunction with "più" or "meno", respectively, for more movingly or less movingly (about tempo).
  • MS – see mano sinistra.
  • munter – "lively". (German)


  • Nebenstimme – (German), "under part." A secondary contrapuntal part, always occurring simultaneously with, and subsidiary to, the Hauptstimme.
  • nicht zu schnell – "not too fast." (German)
  • notes ingales (French); unequal notes; a principally Baroque performance practice of applying long-short rhythms to pairs of notes written as equal.


  • ossia – Denotes an alternative way of performing a passage often notated with a footnote, additional small notes, or an additional staff.


  • piano – marked p, a directive to play or sing softly. The related term pianissimo, pp, means "very softly." See dynamics.
  • pesante – "heavy and ponderous."
  • piacevole – "pleasant."
  • piangevole – "plaintive"; in the style of a lament.
  • più – "more"; see mosso for an example.
  • pizzicato – "plucked," in music for bowed strings; as opposed to arco, which means "played with the bow", and which is inserted to cancel a pizzicato direction.
  • pochettino (poch) – "rather little."
  • poco – "a little", as in poco più allegro ("a little faster"), for example.
  • 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 – 1. generally, sliding in pitch from one note to another (especially in singing; more often called glissando in instrumental music); 2. in piano music, an articulation between legato and staccato, like portato, in this list.
  • portato – non-legato but not as short as staccato (same as portamento [2], in this list).
  • precipitato – "precipitately."
  • prestissimo – "extremely quickly."
  • presto – "very quickly."
  • prima volta – "the first time"; for example prima volta senza accompanimento ("the first time without accompaniment").
  • primo – "first."


  • quasi – "as if," "almost."


  • rallentando – (rall.), "progressively slower".
  • rasch – "fast." (German)
  • restez – (Fr.) – remain on a note or string
  • rinforzando – (rf), "stressed by extra force"; sometimes like a sudden crescendo, but often applied to a single note.
  • ritardando – (rit.) "progressively slower."
  • ritenuto – (riten.) "holding back," or "slower" (usually more so than a ritardando; and it may, unlike ritardando, apply to a single note).
  • roulade – a florid vocal phrase. (French)
  • rubato – flexibility of tempo, within a musical phrase, for expressive effect.


  • scherzando – "playfully."
  • scherzo – "a joke."
  • schneller – "faster" (German)
  • scordatura is an alternate tuning used for the open strings of a string instrument.
  • sempre – "always."
  • senza – "without."
  • senza sordino – "without mute."
  • sforzando or sfz – giving a strong accent
  • simile – "similarly"—i.e. continue applying the preceding directive, whatever it was, to the following passage.
  • soave – "smoothly."
  • sostenuto – "sustainedly."
  • sotto voce – soft tones, literally "under voice" used as a direction instructing the singer or instrumentalist to proceed in a more understated or more subtle fashion.
  • spiritoso – "spiritedly."
  • staccato – an indication to play with a sharp attack, and briefly. In music notation a small dot under or over the note indicates that the note is to be sounded staccato.
  • smorzando (or smorz.) – smother the notes; "dying away."
  • subito – "suddenly."
  • sul ponticello – in string playing, an indication to bow very near to the bridge, producing a characteristic glassy sound, which emphasizes the higher harmonics at the expense of the fundamental
  • sul tasto – in string playing, an indication to bow over the fingerboard


  • tempo (It.) – "time" – The speed of a piece of music.
  • tenutoheld; an instruction to touch on a note slightly longer than usual, but without generally altering the note's value.
  • tremolo – 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 – ("tc"; sometimes inaccurately tre corda) literally "three strings"; an instruction to release the soft pedal (in piano music). See una corda.
  • tutti – "all together," usually used in an orchestral or choral score when the orchestra or all voices come in.


  • una corda ("one string") – a directive in piano music for the musician to depress the soft pedal, 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) "in unison"; several players are to play exactly the same notes within the written part, as opposed to splitting simultaneous notes among themselves. Often used to mark the return from divisi (see in this list).


  • vivace – "lively," "up-tempo."
  • V.S. (volti subito) – "turn page quickly". Found often in orchestral parts.


  • wolno A Polish word meaning "slowly". Found as directive in "The Elephant" from "Carnival of the Animals" by Saint-Saens. Rarely used and hard to find!


  • Zeitmass – tempo. (German)

See also

External links

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