A | A general term that means ‘for, at, in,’ etc.

Abrupt modulation | (See phrase modulation.)

Absolute music | Music that has no words and no references to stories or imagery (that is, no literary, dramatic, or pictorial associations); as opposed to program music. (Also pure music.)

Absolute pitch | The ability to recognize by ear any pitch or to produce any given pitch of a note. (See also perfect pitch and relative pitch.)

A cappella | A general term that means ‘for choral music without accompaniment.’

A capriccio | A general term that means ‘in a capricious or impulsive manner.’

Accelerando | (Abbreviation: accel.) A tempo marking that means ‘gradually getting faster.’ (Also affrettando, incalzandoor stringendo.)

Accent | A stress or emphasis given to a beat so that it’s louder or longer than another in a measure.

Accidental | A sign for raising (using a sharp or double sharp) or lowering (using a flat or double flat) the pitch of a note or to cancel (using a natural) a previously applied sign.

Accompagnato | A general term that means ‘accompanied.’

Accompaniment | The instrumental or vocal music that supports a melody.

Accordion | A musical instrument with a small keyboard and free-vibrating metal reeds that produce sound using air-blown bellows. (Also squeezebox.)

Acid rock | A type of psychedelic rock from the late 1960s that features heavy amplification, instrumental improvisation, new sound technologies, and light shows.

Acoustic | Music played without electronic amplification.

Acoustics | The science of sound. Also the art of optimizing sound in an enclosed space.


Action | A generic term for the mechanism of various musical instruments (organ: parts that connect the keys with the pipes; piano: operation of a piano’s keys and hammers against its strings; stringed instruments: height of a string above the fingerboard or fretboard; wind instruments: key-mechanism on woodwind instruments).

Adagietto | A tempo marking that means ‘slow,’ but less slow than adagio.

Adagio | A tempo marking that means ‘slow,’ generally slower than andante but faster than largo.

Adagissimo | A tempo marking that means ‘extremely slow,’ slower than largo.

Added chord | A triad with an extra (added) note, such as the added sixth.

Ad libitum | a general term that means ‘as the performer wishes,’ letting the performer improvise the style and tempo. (Also a piacere.)

Aeolian mode | A mode based on the sixth tone of a diatonic scale. (See also natural minor scale.)

Aerophone | a world music classification for wind instruments (like the flute, trumpet, or whistle).

Affettuoso | (See dolce.)

Affrettando | (See accelerando.)

Agitato | A general term that means ‘agitatedly or excitedly.’

Agogic accent | The emphasis given to a note that is longer in duration than surrounding notes.

Air | A short melody or song; a tune.

Alberti bass | A simple accompaniment using broken chords, typically forming an arpeggio of ‘tonic, dominant, mediant, dominant.’

Album | A collection of recorded songs.


Al coda | In music notation, a direction that means ‘go to the coda.’

Aleatory | A type of twentieth-century music in which the elements of a composition or performance (like pitch, rhythm, or form) are left to random chance. (Also chance music or indeterminacy.)

Alla | A general term that means ‘in the style of.’ (Also come.)

Alla breve | (See cut time.)

Allargando | (Abbreviation: allarg.) A tempo marking that means ‘getting slower, and maybe also louder.’

Allegramente | A tempo marking that means ‘quicker.’

Allegretto | A tempo marking that means ‘slightly fast or pretty lively,’ but less than allegro and more than andante.

Allegrissimo | A tempo marking that means ‘very quick,’ between presto and vivacissimo.

Allegro | A tempo marking that means ‘quick, lively, and bright,’ not as fast as presto but faster than allegretto.

Alliteration | the use of the same letter for poetic effect (examples: “Dancing in the Dark” or “No, No, Nannete”).

All’ 8va alta | (See ottava alta.)

All’ 8va bassa | (See ottava bassa.)

All’ 8va sotto | (See ottava bassa.)

Al segno | In music notation, a direction that means ‘go to the sign (.$.).’

Alteration | The raising or lowering a note using an accidental symbol (double sharp, sharp, natural, flat, or double flat).


Altered chord | A chord with one or more diatonic notes replaced by a neighboring pitch in the chromatic scale.

Alternate picking | A guitar playing technique of alternating downward and upward picking strokes in a continuous run; the most common method of using a pick.

Alternate progression | A chord progression that deviates from a common circle progression by using more unusual chords. (See also irregular progression.)

Alternate tuning | (See scordatura.)

Alternative fingering | The different combinations of covered and uncovered holes on a wind instrument that produce the same pitch; often used to simplify playing certain notes or to alter an instrument’s timbre; (Also substitute fingering.)

Altissimo | The highest register of woodwind instruments.

Alto | the second-highest voice in a four-part texture. Also the second-highest member of an instrumental family.

Alto clef | A clef that places middle C on the center line of a musical staff; used mostly for the viola and alto trombone. (Also C-clef.)

Amabile | (See dolce.)

Amateur | A person who pursues some interest for the love of it rather than to profit from it; now widely applied to mean someone less proficient than a professional (although, historically, many ‘amateurs’ have excelled in areas of study ignored by professionals). (See also professional.)

Ambience | The reverberant quality of a sound space (like a room).

Ambient music | A type of environmental music that surrounds the listener without drawing much attention to itself (that is, music that may be interesting but also easy to ignore).

Amen cadence | (See plagal cadence.)

Amoroso | (See dolce.)

Amplifier | (Abbreviation: amp) An electronic device that takes a weak signal from an instrument or microphone and provides the power level needed to operate loudspeakers.


Anacrusis | The unstressed syllable(s) that come before the first accented note in a verse. Also the unstressed note(s) that come before the first strong beat in a bar. (See also pickup note or upbeat.)

Analog | In sound recording, a close (but not perfectly accurate) copy of a signal or sound; as opposed to digital technology.

Analysis | The process of breaking down a subject into smaller, more manageable parts to examine and understand how the subject works.

Ancora | (See replica.)

Andante | A tempo marking that means ‘a moderately slow or walking tempo,’ faster than adagio, but slower than allegretto.

Andantino | A tempo marking that means ‘slow,’ a little faster than andante, but slower than moderato.

Animato | (See con spirito.)

Anthem | In popular music, a ballad played with heavy rock amplification. (Also rock anthem.)

Anticipation | A non-chord tone that is approached by step from a chord tone and then remains the same; it’s basically a note of the second chord played early. An anticipation is always unaccented.

A piacere | (See ad libitum.)

A poco a poco | A general term that means ‘little by little’; used for a change of tempo or volume.

Appalachian dulcimer | A stringed instrument with a long rounded body and a fretted fingerboard, played by bowing, plucking, and strumming. (Also mountain dulcimer.) (See also hammered dulcimer.)

Appassionato | (See con passione.)

Appoggiatura | A non-chord tone that is approached by skip and then steps in the opposite direction; the opposite of an escape tone. Appoggiaturas are always accented; that is, they occur with the second chord.

Aria | A composition for solo voice and instrumental accompaniment found in operas, cantatas, and oratorios.


Arpeggio | A broken chord with notes sounded one after another instead of at the same time; as opposed to a block chord; literally means ‘in the manner of a harp.’

Arrangement | A rewritten piece of existing music that includes additional new material, often for a different set of instruments.

Arranger | A person who reworks preexisting musical compositions.

Art | The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination.

Articulation | The clarity of a musical performance; that is, the way the notes are played in a composition (examples: staccato, legato, glissando, slur, accents, sforzandos, etc.).

Artist | A person who makes his or her craft a fine art.

Art music | A somewhat pretentious term used to describe classical or concert hall music and some forms of jazz (as opposed to popular or traditional music). (Also concert music, erudite musicor serious music.)

Art rock | A type of rock music with ambitious lyrics and melodic, harmonic, or rhythmic experimentation that goes beyond standard pop song forms toward influences in jazz, classical, or avant-garde music.

Ascent | A rising motion in musical pitch.

A-side | The featured song on a vinyl record single. (See also B-side).

Assai | (See molto.)

Assymetrical meter | (See odd meter.)

A tempo | A tempo marking that means ‘return to the previous tempo.’

Atonal music | Music that lacks a tonal center or tonic, moving from one level of dissonance to another without areas of relaxation.

Attack | The initial, clearly defined quality of an audio signal or sound; the opposite of release. (See also decay, releaseand sustain.)


Attenuation | The reduction of an audio signal’s intensity; the opposite of amplification.

Audio | Any sound that has been recorded or reproduced.

Audio engineer | (See recording engineer.)

Audition | The try-out a musician goes through before being accepted into an ensemble, performance, or school.

Augmentation | The lengthening of a rhythm or melody into longer note values, so it’s often twice as long (and therefore twice as slow) as the original; the opposite of diminution. Also the widening of an interval or chord.

Augmentation dot | In music notation, a dot placed after a note or rest to extend its duration. A single dot extends a note or rest by one-half and a second dot extends a note or rest by another quarter of its original value. (Also dot.)

Augmented fifth | (Abbreviation: A5) An interval of a semitone above a perfect fifth; enharmonically equivalent to a minor sixth.

Augmented fourth | (Abbreviation: A4) An interval of a semitone above a perfect fourth; enharmonically equivalent to a diminished fifth. (See also tritone.)

Augmented interval | (Abbreviation: A) An interval that is one semitone (half-step) larger than a corresponding major interval or perfect interval.

Augmented major seventh | A major seventh chord with a raised (or ‘augmented’) fifth.

Augmented second | (Abbreviation: A2) An interval of a semitone above a major second; enharmonically equivalent to a minor third.

Augmented seventh | (Abbreviation: A7) An interval of a semitone above a major seventh; enharmonically equivalent to a unison or octave.

Augmented seventh chord | A dominant seventh chord with a raised (or ‘augmented’) fifth.

Augmented sixth | (Abbreviation: A6) An interval of a semitone above a major sixth; enharmonically equivalent to a minor seventh.

Augmented sixth chord | A chord that includes an augmented sixth note. The three most common types (along with their interval formulas) are Italian (P1, M3, A6), German (P1, M3, P5, A6), and French (P1, M3, A4, A6) augmented sixth chords.

Augmented third | (Abbreviation: A3) An interval of a semitone above a major third; enharmonically equivalent to perfect fourth.

Augmented triad | A triad made of a tonic, major third, and augmented fifth; the chord includes two major thirds stacked on top of each other.

Authentic cadence | A temporary or permanent point of rest in a composition created by a two-chord progression of a dominant chord followed by a tonic chord.

Autoharp | A zither instrument played by strumming a set of strings with the right hand while using the left hand to control damper bars that mute the strings not included in a desired chord.

Avant-garde | The people or artworks that are experimental, innovative, or on the leading edge of a change in artistic style.

Avoided cadence | (See deceptive cadence.)

Axe | A slang term for the guitar.


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