Sep 30

The Language of Music: 101

The Language of Music: 101


A little frivolity for today’s offering, an introduction to some of the wonderful phrases used to help musicians understand how the composer intended his music to be played.   People can be musicians all of their lives and never pick up a piece of sheet music and so never come across this fascinating mix of instructions, almost ordering the player to shift playing style as required by the composer.

Sheet music

A photo of the first page of my copy of Chopin Etudes


You can often hear a person telling another person that they “read” music. It should follow, you would think, that the person would be able to also write music but that’s not strictly true in modern vernacular. In terms of representing a musical phrase and not inventing them, as we would understand from the term “song-writer”, someone who can transcribe a performance accurately needs a whole dictionary to himself to do so. Indeed there are almost as many flicks of the pen and punctuation marks as there are in Chinese and many editions of dictionary available describing it all.

For hundreds of years people have added to the arsenal of musical terms and notation and what we end up with today is as miss-mashed a language as can be.  There are terms from all over the world and from many years ago – early transcriptions include fascinating instructions that have survived right through to modern day writing.  A rag-tag collection of terms that, at times, bear no resemblance to the music they are describing – the creator of a work of art need not necessarily be the most articulate in his or her language.


Starting with a busted myth about music……

Many people out side of music think the term “PERFECT PITCH” signifies and absolute unbridled musical ability.  It is also known as “absolute pitch”, the ability to hear a random note and name it immediately without any other reference point.  It’s quite rare and perhaps not unsurprisingly a very annoying trait to have, as listening to anything not  “perfect” in pitch will sound out of tune and further more, it can’t be unlearned or switched off or ignored.  Nor does it signify that the possessor of such ability will be guaranteed to be a fantastic musician.

What we do need in music is a highly developed sense of “RELATIVE PITCH”. This is the ability to identify the interval between a known pitch and the notes that happen before or after it.  This IS something that can be developed and honed and it is usually a big part of a students normal learning experience.  It’s also something you can practice anywhere you can hear music, in the car, in the mall, you can’t always be graded on it in these circumstances but just thinking about the mechanics of it is beneficial.

Moving on to musical terms…..and a random selection of my favourites

Musical terms are there to help describe the mood of a piece of music in its written form.  Written music, just the “dots” if you like, is a very sterile world. The notes comprise of a set of dots with a stem that denote what fraction of a beat the note will last.  A whole note or semi-breve lasts a whole 4 beats and if the song is in in 4/4 time it lasts a whole bar. A minim a half a bar, so you can have two of these in a bar.  A crotchet  = quarter of a beat and so on to hemi-demi-semi quavers which are 1/64th of a beat – yes, you can fit 64 of these little chaps into a bar.  It’s probably this division and representation of notes that makes people say that music and maths go well together, but I am living proof that this isn’t always the case (as my other three-quarters will tell you).

Notes and their lengths are not enough though. We can show a tempo in beats per minute and as long as there’s a clock with a second-hand near you can pretty much get somewhere near this as a clock ticks once a second or 60 bpm (beats per minute) – double that for 120 bpm – the speed of a large number of pop songs.  It’s when it comes to mood that the other terms have their time in the spotlight and they come from everywhere. You find them in German, French, Spanish, and English but by far the majority are written in Italian.

They generally have a specific meaning but there is room for some interpretation – the term for quiet is piano and loud is forte so the pianoforte or piano, as we call it for short, is a “quiet loud” – it describes an instrument that is capable of a very deep range of dynamics, it can be played both quiet and loud. Instruments with a keyboard before the piano had a quite limited dynamic range so the term makes sense for its time.

ANDANTE = At walking pace (or Moving or Going Along) could have a different meaning depending on your age, I certainly walked fast enough at my normal pace to overtake a few pensioners this morning on my way to the shops, so as you can see, it’s a loose term.

The Baton is the stick that the composer uses to mark time and build and quell dynamics. It’s translated as a beater and there are some subtle patterns that are being used to mark time.

This one is for 4/4 time



This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
Attribution: Hankwang at the English language Wikipedia

Depending on the exuberance of the conductor, this may be difficult to see, especially if it’s an emotive piece and the conductor is instructing groups of musicians dynamically at the same time.  Sometimes in addition to the markings on the music, you will see the conductor engaging in real-time facial emotions, smiling through a playful part, and you sometimes see the musicians mirroring these gestures.

The French call the baton “the baguette” for some reason. I fail to see the musical reference in that but I admit ignorance on my part.

Some terms are just plain quirky sounding and I love quirky.

Acciaccatura is pronounced At-cha-ka-too-ra and is the musical version of what percussionists call a “Flam” which is another great word.  The definition is heavy for the tiny action it produces. The Pocket Manual Of Musical Terms by Theodore Baker describes it as

A short accented appoggiatura. a note a second above struck with the principal note and instantly released

Basically you hit two notes at the same time but extra one is released instantly its struck.  It’s heard a lot in baroque and piano music but also for some reason caught on as a technique widely used by jazz organists.

The term A Capella refers to vocal music sung without instruments but originally referred to when there were no instruments in church and the choir had to get on and do it alone, hence – A capella – as in church.

Ad-lib does not signify improvising as such in musical terms, it just gives the player of a passage more freedom to interpret the tempo and mood. The notes he has to play are still the same each time, but he can pick how he does it.

Allegro ma non troppo is one of my favourite phrases as from the first time I heard it I thought the guy who penned it must have been such a cautious man.  It means  “Fast….. but not too much”  Like whipping a set of horses and pulling on the reins at the same time.

Alla Caccia is a great one too.  It means “in the hunting style” Given it’s pronounced  ala-cat-chia, try saying it three times in a row and think about what it means.

How about putting on a Callithumpian concert – A boisterous serenade given to a person who has become the object of popular hostility. Wouldn’t it be great to resurrect this based on today’s political shenanigans.

There are words to describe a musical style, Bossa Nova, Brazilian Portuguese for “New Voice” but meaning “New Sound“, covers the whole genre of music from the region.

The term Breath Bands refers not to a group of wind instruments, but to the humble vocal chords.  As you see, there is a term to cover most eventualities, subtlety and nuance of each instrument, and the mood that was originally intended to be conveyed.

The list goes on and on.  I highly recommend getting your hands on a little pocket version of one of these dictionaries or maybe an app for those times you may need to kill some time but fancy learning something new.  The variety of languages and contexts is mind-boggling and at the end of your wait in the queue at the doctors for example, you will come away having learned something.

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