Essential Musical Terms

The vocabulary of music contains a seemingly endless number of terms, and though it may at times seem daunting, people who are new to classical music should spend a little time learning the vocabulary.

To help you get started I have provided a handful of basic terms that I believe everyone should know. My list is by no means comprehensive. I have simply provided a few terms to help someone who is new to classical music get started.

To learn more than what's provided on this page I recommend following
my blog, where I will periodically post articles describing what to listen for in classical music. For now, let’s simply make sure everyone understands, at a minimum, the terms listed below.

Three Elements of Music
1. Melody
comes from a series of notes played one after another, and it's not stretching the definition to say that you can think of a melody as a musical “sentence.” Just as speaking one word after another can create a single, coherent verbal idea, a series of notes played one after another can create a single musical idea. In general, composers can use melody in one of three ways:
  • Monophony: a single melodic line with no accompaniment, a type of music that is pure melody.
  • Polyphony: two or more melodic lines played simultaneously, weaving together somewhat like a children’s round. Polyphonic music is sometimes referred to as “counterpoint.”
  • Homophony: a single melodic line supported by an accompaniment. I have no way of quantifying this, but I would say that most music from the last 250 years is homophonic. At the very least, almost all popular songs are homophonic.
2. Harmony is created when two or more different pitches are played at the same time. Unlike melody, which might be described as a “horizontal” arrangement of notes, harmony is a “vertical” arrangement of notes. In classical music, harmony is often described as “major” or “minor.” Music composed in a major key generally sounds “bright” or “happy.” Music in a minor key generally sounds “dark” or “sad.” (Those descriptions are an oversimplification, but should provide a good place to begin.)

In regard to harmony, you should also know that a musical composition providing a central tone is described as
tonal. In tonal music, listeners will sense that the music is at rest whenever they hear the central tone. A piece of music that does not provide a central tone is atonal. In atonal music, no single tone provides listeners with a sense of rest, a feeling that the piece has reached a harmonic conclusion.

3. Rhythm
is found in how notes are arranged and measured in time. Rhythm is normally decided by the duration of the notes and how they are accented. In short, rhythm refers to the “beat” you feel when listening to music. The regular pattern of beats that helps define musical rhythm is known as meter, which can generally be used in one of three ways:
  • Duple Meter: a division of the beat into groups of two.
  • Triple Meter: a division of the beat into groups of three.
  • Odd Meter: a division of the beat into groups of twos and threes. A piece of music emphasizing the beat in groups of five, for example, can be subdivided into subgroups of 2 + 3 or 3 + 2.

Types of Classical Music
Familiarity with the terms on this list allows listeners to know what they will be hearing before the music begins — somewhat like knowing beforehand whether a concert will feature a four-piece rock band or a jazz band of twenty musicians. Although this list could be much longer, the types of music encountered most often are listed below:

  • A concerto provides listeners with a solo instrument accompanied by an orchestra. Concertos are traditionally composed in three movements: 1) moderately fast 2) slow 3) fast and upbeat.
  • A sonata is a piece composed for solo piano or some other solo instrument accompanied by a piano. Some sonatas, like concertos, are divided into three movements: 1) fast 2) slow 3) fast. Other sonatas are divided into four movements: 1) fast 2) slow 3) triple-meter dance 4) fast and upbeat.
  • A symphony is a multi-movement piece of music composed for an orchestra. Symphonies are traditionally composed in four movements. 1) fast 2) slow 3) triple-meter dance 4) fast and upbeat.
  • Chamber Music provides listeners with a small group of instrumentalists, such as a trio, quartet, or quintet. The most significant type of chamber music is the string quartet, which traditionally contains two violins, a viola, and a cello.
  • An opera is a dramatic (sometimes comedic) work for orchestra and voices — somewhat like a theatrical play in which the actors sing their lines rather than speaking them. The show stoppers in an opera are usually the arias, the “songs” in which the action of the story pauses momentarily while a singer (or two) comments on what is happening in the story or how they are feeling about what is happening.
  • A suite is a piece of music divided into several sections or “movements.” Initially, suites contained a collection of dances. Eventually, however, suites were most often composed as multi-movement instrumental compositions.
  • A miniature is a short piece of music that evokes a single mood, idea, or person. Miniatures, which are most often songs for vocalists or single works for solo piano, are often called “character” pieces.
This list of “essential” terms could go on and on, and my definitions are by no means complete. I hope, however, that I have given those who are new to classical music enough information to get started. As for other terms that come up in discussions about music, I recommend the convenient online glossary of terms provided by Naxos. For those who would like to purchase a reference book, I recommend the comprehensive Harvard Dictionary of Music or the less comprehensive — and less expensive — NPR Classical Music Companion. Click on the links below to purchase those books from Amazon.