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Terminology – A-Da

If there’s one thing I’ve gotten scolded for in my lessons, it’s failing to know the definition of a term in my sheet music. Even beyond that, it’s embarrassing to be corrected on a piece of terminology that you thought you knew the meaning of! With that in mind, I’m beginning to compile a list of basic music terms that every musician should know. If you see one that isn’t included here, or think of one for a later part of the alphabet, let me know!

First seen on my Patreon!

Al coda – “to the coda,” in Italian. Follows the phrases “Da capo” and “Dal segno,” meaning that a piece should be repeated from that point until the coda. Typically a piece is played through once, ignoring the departure point for the coda, until the D. S. al coda is reached. Then it replayed from the sign until the point where the coda is signified, and then the music jumps to the coda.

Al fine – “to the end,” in Italian. Works in the same way as “al coda,” but instead of indicating to repeat until a coda, the player should simply replay from the indicated point until the end.

Atonal – music written without regard to traditional tonality or keys.

Band, concert– A large ensemble composed of wind and percussion instruments. Can include many combinations of wind and percussion. Large bands often have most, if not all wind and percussion parts represented by people who can play more than one, to allow for the widest range of repertoire.

Band, jazz – an ensemble that plays primarily jazz music. Often comprised of a rhythm section and a horn section. The overall size of the group can vary, with small groups being called combos and large groups being called big bands.

Band, marching – an ensemble usually comprised of wind and percussion instruments that performs while marching. They often perform in parades and at sporting events, where they perform choreography and may use props outside of their instruments and uniforms.

Bisbigliando – a very fast unmeasured tremolo in strings.

Chairs – the seat order for musicians in instrumental ensembles. First Chair is considered a position of distinction, but all chairs positions are important to the music. A solo is much less moving without the orchestra behind it.

Chamber music – ‘classical’ music (of the genre, not the necessarily era) written for small groups of musicians — two to ten musicians on average. Each player is equally important in the composition.

Chromatic – the term for a musical line moving by half-steps. “Chromaticism” refers to the practice of adding pitches outside of the diatonic scale and chords to a musical line.

Col legno battuto – “hit with the wood,” frequently shortened to “col legno.” To strike the strings of a string instrument with the wood of the bow, as opposed to the strings.

Comp – from “accompany.” To play chord changes underneath an improvised solo. Some improv may be done while comping, but the general idea is to keep it simple and emphasize the rhythm and chord changes for the soloist and audience.

Concertmaster – the first chair of the first violin section in an orchestra. Plays the note off of which the rest of the orchestra tunes before a concert. Comes on before the conductor, usually receives applause. Receives most violin solos in their orchestra.

Consonance – the harmony of two or more notes. An interval or chord that is pleasant to the ear because of the mathematical relationship between the pitches of which it is made.

Counterpoint – the practice of arranging multiple musical lines to be harmonically dependent while being independent in their contour and rhythm. Bach was a huge proponent of proper counterpoint. There are five “species,” or types, as laid out in Johann Joseph Fux’s work, Gradus ad Parnassum.

Da capo – “From the head,” in Italian. Means to repeat from the top of the piece until a specified point. Usually abbreviated to “D.C.”

Dal segno – “From the sign,” in Italian. Means to repeat from the “sign,” which is usually a stylized S, until the point specified. Usually abbreviated to “D.S.”


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