ArtsBank, Inc.

Music Concepts, Terms & Theory

  • Key:  The core set of notes on which a piece is based.  Think of this as “home base”.  A piece in B-flat will usually begin and end on B-flat.  Sometimes the music will modulate (change) into a new key in the middle of a piece, which becomes the new “home base”.

  • Major: This describes the key.  In its basic form, a major key sounds “happy”.

    (C major is C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C)

  • Minor:  This also describes the key.  In its basic form, a minor key sounds “sad”.

    (C minor is C-D-Eb-F-G-Ab-Bb-C)

  • Tempo: how fast or slow the music is played.

  • Metronome Marking: Specifies speed as “beats per minute”.  A metronome marking of 60 means that the music has one beat per second.

  • Beat: The basic pulse or “heartbeat” of the music. These beats are grouped into basic units (measures or bars) that form the basic rhythmic track of the piece.  A LOT of music, especially pop and rock, uses four beats to a measure.

  • Meter:  Displayed as two numbers, which tell the musician how many and what kind of notes make up each measure.  A waltz is usually in 3/4 (three beats per measure; thequarter note gets the beat).  Here’s an interesting video that plays a snippet of a song in a few different meters.

  • Syncopation: when the rhythm gives a bit of a “hiccup”, or “trip”. If you’ve listened to anyragtime, you’ve heard syncopation.

  • Off-beats: The “pah” in “oom-pah”

  • Triplet: Basically, it’s dividing one beat into three equal parts. A lot of music divides that beat into two parts. Think “an-i-mal an-i-mal an-i-mal”, where “an” falls on your beat. Say it with a steady pulse.

  • Interval: Distance between two notes. C–>D is a second, C–>E is a third, etc.

    Chord: Notes played simultaneously as a harmonic unit.  Probably the first chord that comes to mind is a triad, which has three notes based on thirds.  C-E-G is a triad (C to E is a third, and E to G is a third).

  • Suspension: In a progression of chords, one note of a chord stays put for a beat or so while the other notes have moved to the next chord. The lagging note will then move into its proper position. So instead of going from C-F-A directly to C-E-G, the F might stay for a beat before resolving down to E.

  • Melody:  The tune. A series of musical notes that forms the primary “narration” of a song.  The melody is what you go home whistling – it’s typically the first thing you remember when thinking about a song.

  • Countermelody:  This is the ice cream to the apple pie.  Both are great on their own, and can stand alone.  But when combined, they produce an extra level of deliciousness.  The countermelody is another tuneful phrase like a melody, but it is used to support the melody, not to be the star (though a good countermelody can sometimes upstage the star!)

    (thanks to the husband for the a la mode analogy)

  • Theme: A musical idea of a piece (or section of a piece).  It’s similar to how a theme works in a novel.  There can be multiple themes, they can be short or long, and they can be manipulated (i.e. starts out in three but you hear it in four later on). When analyzing a piece of music, themes are mapped out and designated A, B, C, D, etc. in the order in which they appear in the piece. There are various ways to indicate if and how a theme has changed, such as using an apostrophe after the letter (A’)

  • Motif: A musical idea. It can be rhythmic, melodic or harmonic.  Motifs help to create unity throughout the piece.  Perhaps the most recognizable is the “da-da-da-dummm” of Beethoven’s fifth symphony.  Themes and motifs are related; I think of a motif as more of a fragment or phrase and a theme as a sentence.

  • Movement: A section of a piece of music, usually self-contained.  Symphonies and concertos typically have 3-4 movements. There is usually a break after each movement, although that line gets blurred sometimes.  Movements often have different moods and themes from the other movements in the piece.

  • Arpeggio: Chords that are played one note at a time, instead of all at once.

  • Form: The song’s blueprint.  Probably the most familiar would be a pop song, which often has a verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, verse, chorus.  Or something very similar. Mid-South Community College (AR) has a nice page outlining musical form.

  • Sonata: A composition for piano alone, or for another instrument with piano accompaniment, usually consisting of three to four movements.

  • Woodwinds: Clarinet, flute, oboe, bassoon, saxophone, etc.

  • Brass: Trumpet, trombone, French horn, tuba, euphonium, baritone, etc.

  • Keyboards: Piano, organ, harpsichord, etc.

  • Percussion: Drums, timpani, xylophone, gong, and many other fun toys.  Basically anything you smack or shake (more thanks to my husband for supplying that last bit)

  • Range: This describes how high or low an instrument or voice reaches.  Flutes are high-range, tubas are low-range.  Saxes and French horns are in the middle.

  • Tone color: The particular qualities of an instrument’s sound. Is it nasal? Mellow? Bright? Differences happen not only between instruments, but also within the same instrument. For example, a trumpet often sounds quite different when played for jazz than when played for orchestra.

  • Dynamics: The volume of music.

  • Piano: In this case, it means “soft”, not to be confused with the keyboard instrument.

  • Forte: Loud

  • Mezzo: Medium, middle.  Mezzo piano is medium soft, mezzo forte is medium loud.Mezzo doesn’t stand on its own, it’s used as a modifier.

  • Crescendo: Gradually get louder

  • Decresendo: Gradually get softer.

  • Articulation: How the notes are played in terms of length, smoothness, etc.

  • Staccato: Separated, usually interpreted as “short”

  • Legato:Long, connected, smooth

  • Accent: There are several different types, but they commonly have some sort of emphasis on the front end of the note

  • Trill: A rapid back-and-forth between two adjacent notes. Listen to any march, and you’ll probably hear some trills in the flutes and piccolo.


"When I examine myself and my method of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing knowledge."
(Albert Einstein)