Essential Musical Terms

The vocabulary of classical music contains such a seemingly endless number of terms that trying to learn even a few of them might seem like a daunting task. Even so, people who are new to classical music should spend time learning a few basic terms. Otherwise, it's almost impossible to talk about the music.

I therefore begin my classes on music history with a list of terms essential to any discussion of classical music. The list is by no means comprehensive. I simply provide a few terms to help those who are new to classical music begin to understand what's going on.

To learn more than what's provided on this page I suggest following the
Classical Tyro Blog where I periodically post articles describing what to listen for in classical music. For now, I recommend, at a minimum, that people new to classical music understand the terms listed below.

Three Elements of Music
1. Melody
comes from a series of notes played one after another. 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 use melody in one of three ways:
  • Monophony: a single melodic line with no accompaniment. Monophonic music 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. 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.
Mozart, Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major

  • 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.
Beethoven, Piano Sonata No. 10 in G major

  • 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.
Brahms, Symphony No. 3 in F major

  • 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.
Haydn, String Quartet in B-flat major, Op. 76, No. 4

  • 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 comments on what is happening in the story or how they are feeling about what is happening.
Mozart, The Magic Flute, "Der Hölle Rache" (aria)

  • 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.
Bach, Cello Suite No. 1 in G major

  • A miniature is a short piece of music that evokes a single mood or emotion. Miniatures, which are most often songs for vocalists or single works for solo piano, are often called “character” pieces.
Chopin, Prelude No. 4 in E minor, Op. 28

This list of 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.)