Hoffman Academy Blog

Music Terms for Beginning Piano Students


Arpeggio, solfège, pentascale –ever feel like you need to learn a whole new language when you enter the world of music? We’ve compiled a glossary of our most asked about music terms so you can be up on piano lingo.

Accent 

To accent a note means to emphasize it by playing it louder than the notes around it. In written music, an accented note has a > symbol placed above or below it.

Accompaniment

The accompaniment is the part of the music that supports the melody. It’s usually simpler than the melody and based on chords. One great thing about the piano is that you can play both the accompaniment and the melody on the same instrument.

Arpeggio

An arpeggio is a chord played one note at a time. For example, a C major arpeggio would be performed by playing the notes C, E, G, one at a time.

Beat

The beat is the underlying rhythmic pulse of the music. It’s divided into even intervals. Although beat can speed up or slow down during a piece of music, the distance between each beat in time stays regular.

Chord

A chord is more than one note played together at the same time. Learn more about how to read and play piano chords.

Dynamics

Dynamics are the difference in volume throughout a piece of music. If you’re playing with good dynamics, that means you’re playing soft when the music should be soft and loud when the music should be loud. Sometimes composers will mark the dynamics on the sheet music, and other times you can choose what dynamics to play. Dynamics help you express emotion in a musical performance. Read all about dynamics.

Eighth Notes 

Notes are named by what fraction of a whole note they take up in time. An eighth note is as long as one eighth of a whole note. That means in the time it takes to play one whole note, you can play eight eighth notes.

Five-Seven Chord

This chord, usually written V7 with a Roman numeral five and an Arabic numeral 7, is a chord that is used a lot in Western music. To find the notes that can be in a V7 chord, first find the fifth tone of a scale, and then play every other note going up for a total of four notes. For example, in the key of C, you’ll play G (fifth tone of the C major scale), B, D, and F.

Forte

This dynamic marking means to play loud.

Fortissimo 

This dynamic marking means to play very loud.

Glissando

A glissando is a rapid stream of notes either going up or down. When you play a glissando, run the back of your fingers over the keys, hitting each one. Learn how to play a glissando in Lesson 22.

Half Step 

The half step is the shortest distance between two tones on the piano. A white key with a black key next to it are a half step apart, and so are two white keys with no black key between them.

Legato

Playing music legato means to play it smooth and connected. There will be no break in the sound between the notes in a legato section of a piece.

Major Scale

In most Western music, a piece of music will use a certain set of musical tones called a scale. The major scale is the most common. It’s made up primarily of whole steps, with a half step between the third and fourth tone and another half step between the seventh and the first tone.

Melody

The melody is the star of the show when it comes to music. When you’re humming along with a piece of music, what part are you humming? It’s almost always the melody.

Mezzo

The word mezzo comes from Italian, and in music it means “medium.” When placed before a dynamic marking, as in mezzo piano or mezzo forte, it means medium soft or medium loud. Piano is softer than mezzo piano. Forte is louder than mezzo forte.

Minor Scale

A minor scale is a type of musical scale that is very common in Western music, though not as common as the major scale. In the minor scale you’ll find a half step between the second and third tones of the scale. Minor scales are often associated with sad, scary, or exciting music.

Pentascale

A pentascale is a scale of only five notes. In piano, we sometimes learn pentascales first because it takes only five fingers to play them. You can play a pentascale without changing your hand position on the keyboard.

Pianissimo

This dynamic marking means to play very quietly.

Piano

The word piano comes from Italian, and it means to play softly. The instrument we call a piano was once called a pianoforte because you could play it softly and loudly. Other keyboard instruments that plucked or struck strings had only one volume, like the harpsichord (loud) and the clavichord (soft and a little softer).

Quarter Note 

A quarter note is a note that takes up as much time as one quarter of a whole note. A whole note will be held for the same amount of time it would take to play four quarter notes.

Rhythm

In music, the rhythm tells you when to play each note. It’s the pattern of sound in time. It’s different from the beat. Imagine a tap dancer. Her feet tap out a rhythm, but her heart has a regular beat. 

Sixteenth Note

The sixteenth note takes up only one sixteenth of the amount of time that a whole note takes. You can play sixteen sixteenth notes in the same time it takes to play one whole note. They’re very fast!

Slur

When you slur two notes together, you play one right after the other without any break in the sound between them. A slur marking in music is drawn with a curved line connecting two notes either above or below.

Solfège 

Solfège is a way of naming notes in a musical scale. The first note of the scale is called Do, then comes Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, Ti, and back to Do. Read more about solfège and why we use it at Hoffman Academy.

Staccato

A staccato note is played with a short, disconnected sound. On the piano, play staccato by pressing a key quickly and then lifting your finger up immediately. This is in contrast to legato notes which are smooth and connected.

Syncopation

A syncopated rhythm emphasizes beats that normally don’t get emphasized. In most rhythms, notes happen on the quarter note beat, and any notes that don’t happen on that beat come between notes that do. Syncopation puts notes off the beat without notes on the beat around them. While playing syncopated rhythms can be tricky, mastering syncopation is a simple matter of practice.

Ta, Ti-Ti

These syllables, ta, ti-ti, tim-ki, and others were developed by Kodály as part of his method of teaching music to children. In the same way that solfège helps us name notes and understand the relationship between the tones, these rhythm syllables help us to name rhythms and understand their relationship in time.

Tempo

Tempo means how fast or slow a piece of music is being played. Musicians often talk about tempo using Italian words like largo (slow), andante (walking), moderato (moderate), allegro (fast), allegretto (very fast).

Tenuto

A tenuto mark means to hold a note for its full time value and maybe even a little more. In written music, a tenuto is indicated by a dash drawn above or below a note.

Tie

When two notes are tied, hold the note for the time value of both notes. For example, two quarter notes tied together would be held as long as a half note. Tied notes are always the same note. If a note is tied, you’ll see a curved line drawn between the notes. This is the same marking as a slur, except that a slur is always between two different pitches while a tie is between two notes of the same pitch.

Transpose

When you transpose a song on the piano, you play it in a different position on the keyboard while keeping the relationships between all the notes the same. In other words, you play the same song in a different key signature. Say you wanted to play the song Hot Cross Buns from Lesson 1 on white keys instead of black keys. Just put the same fingers you used on the three black keys on C, D, and E instead. Then play the song using the same fingers in the same order as before. You’ll have transposed Hot Cross Buns from the key of F# to the key of C.

Whole Step

A whole step is equal to two half steps. If two white keys next to each other on the piano have a black key in between them, those two white keys are a whole step apart.

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