Music Theory

A Music Terms List for Deeper Understanding

By Hoffman Academy Team

Have you ever encountered a musical term and weren’t sure what it meant? Would you like to deepen your understanding of certain musical terms? Here we have compiled a music terms list that can help you brush up on common musical terms and definitions. We have also included suggestions for pieces that you can look at or even learn that use some of these terms.

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Adagio definition in music

There are many tempo markings in music. Tempo markings tell us how quickly or slowly to play a song, a piece, or a section of a piece. Adagio is a tempo marking that comes from an Italian word that means to play “slowly and with great expression”. 

Allegro definition in music

Another important tempo marking that you will certainly see is Allegro, which translates from Italian to mean “quickly, fast, and bright.” For a piece that is written at this tempo, check out Hoffman Academy’s video lesson for Arabesque by Friedrich Burgmüller!

Andante definition in music

Andante is an Italian tempo marking that means to play “at a walking pace.” Are you looking to learn a new piece that is written at this tempo marking? Check out Hoffman Academy’s video lesson on Andante by JC Bach or this intermediate arrangement of Clair de lune by Claude Debussy!

Definition of motif in music

A motif is a short musical theme that has a special meaning. Motifs are often heard in in film music. Have you heard Darth Vader’s theme from the Imperial March in Star Wars? Even if he’s not on screen yet, when the audience hears this theme, they know that he is about to appear or is being referenced in some way. This type of motif is called a leitmotif, which is usually connected to a person, place, or idea! 

Ostinato definition in music

Ostinato translates from Italian as “stubborn.” In music, an ostinato is a short motif or phrase that stubbornly repeats over and over again. Do you know the phrase “Hark how the bells, sweet silver bells, all seem to say, throw cares away…” from the Carol of the Bells? This melody is a great example of an ostinato!

Definition of articulation in music

Articulation is the way you approach playing a note. Some common articulations are:

  • legato (slur): to play smoothly from one note to the next
  • staccato: to play notes in a short and bouncy manner,
  • accent: to play a note with more presence than the notes around it.

Definition of anacrusis in music 

An anacrusis is more commonly referred to as a pickup note or pickup measure. This is a partial measure or a single note that is unaccented, but leads the musician into the first big beat of the song or piece. A piece that has an anacrusis often ends with a short measure too. If you add the beats of the anacrusis to the beats of that short measure at the end, they will form a full measure! A well-known song with an anacrusis at the beginning is “Happy Birthday!”

Definition of a measure in music

A measure in music is the space between bar lines. The number and kind of beats in a measure will be determined by the time signature, such as 2/4, 4/4, 3/4, 3/8, or 6/8. In most music, the time signature’s top number tells you how many beats will appear within each measure and the bottom number tells you which note represents a single beat. If you see a time signature that says 4/4, there will be four quarter notes in each measure and a single quarter will equal one beat. If you see a time signature that says 3/4, there will be three quarter notes in each measure and a single quarter note will equal one beat. You can learn more about time signatures here.

Definition of phrase in music

Music is built on phrases that act like musical sentences. A phrase has a beginning, middle, and end! There are also different types of phrases, such as a question phrase and answer phrase. When we ask a question statement in English, we tend to end the question by raising our voice. Say “What color is that car?” out loud and listen to how you say it. Did your voice end up? A musical question phrase also ends up, sometimes on the solfege syllable SO. Now say the statement “That car is red” out loud. Did your voice lower at the end? Like in speech, a musical answer phrase lowers as well, often ending on the solfege syllable DO. Want to hear this in action? Watch Joseph Hoffman display this here!

Definition of a bridge in music 

A bridge is a section of a song that differs from the original theme. Think about the song Hot Cross Buns: this song is in the form AABA. In this song, the B section is the bridge. You might have also heard the words “verse” and “chorus.” Verses and choruses differ from the bridge, because a bridge normally only appears once in a song, while there may be many verses and the chorus may be repeated many times! 

Definition of cadenza in music

A cadenza is an ornamental passage that a soloist plays to show their technical skills. Many musicians improvise their cadenzas, meaning that they come up with them during the performance!

Definition of sonata in music

A sonata is a long work for solo piano, or solo instrument with piano accompaniment, in which there are multiple movements (a shorter piece within a longer piece). The first movement often follows the sonata-allegro form. Sonata-allegro form normally begins with an expository section, which states the first and second themes of the piece. After the exposition is the development, in which the themes are intertwined, changed, and move from key to key. The movement then ends with the recapitulation, in which the two themes are restated. The sonata was very popular during the classical and romantic periods. Watch this video to learn more.

Definition of aria in music

An aria is a piece for solo voice with or without instrumental accompaniment. There are also arias written for solo instruments. Vocal arias tend to appear within a large work, such as an opera, and are composed to display the beauty and technical skill of the singer while also telling the story. 

Definition of cantata in music

A cantata is a vocal composition that is often written for choir, orchestra, and sometimes includes voice soloists. Cantatas can be secular, written for the concert hall, or sacred, written for church. 

Definition of fugue in music

A fugue is a work that was very popular in the baroque period, but has influenced music ever since. Within a fugue, there can be three, four, or even five separate voices that are based around a subject, or musical theme. This musical theme is passed from voice to voice. A fugue follows the exposition, development, and recapitulation form, similar to the sonata-allegro form.  

Are you a beginning piano student who is looking for more music term definitions? Check out our Music Terms for Beginners list!

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