There are a lot of terms to get acquainted with when you study music history.

I learned that in college.

When I first started my first music history class, I was equal parts intrigued and overwhelmed.

There were so many terms, many of them were in foreign languages, and I had a tendency to get them all mixed up.

If that sounds familiar, then this post is for you!

This is the music history counterpart of The Big List of Music Theory Terms and Definitions, so if you’re struggling with music theory terms also I suggest checking that one out too!

Like the music theory list, this post will be pretty overwhelming if you try to read it all at once. I suggest saving it as a handy reference for the next time you’re wondering what a Capellmeister was or trying to remember when exactly the Baroque period ended.

There are a lot of terms and definitions here. I’ve given examples where applicable and organized them in alphabetical order to make it easier for you to find the one you’re looking for.

I hope this will be a helpful resource for you on your musical journey!

Table of Contents:

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T V W

A

Absolute Music

Music for music’s sake, or music that does not accompany any kind of theme, plot, or story. This is the opposite of program music (see Program Music entry).

Accompanied Recitative

A recitative with an embellished instrumental accompaniment.

Agnus Dei

In English “Lamb of God,” sung in the Mass Ordinary.

Air

A vocal or instrumental piece that is melodic and song-like.

Air de Cour

A type of air popular in France during the Renaissance and Baroque periods.

Alberti Bass

An accompaniment pattern where each chord note is played one at a time. The lowest chord member is played first, then the highest chord member, the middle chord member, and the highest once again. This was a favorite accompaniment pattern of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Example: C, G, E, G or D, A, F#, A.

Alleluia

In English “Praise the Lord”, sung in the Mass Ordinary.

Allemande

A stylized dance that was popular in the Baroque period.

Ambrosian Chant

A type of Medieval plainchant. It is named after St. Ambrose of Milan.

Ametric

Literally means “without meter”. A metric music has no time signature. Unlike metric music, it does not have a clear beat.

Ancient Period

The period of history generally considered by scholars to span from the earliest records to 476 AD.

Antiphon

A psalm that is set to music, often sung in alternation between two choirs.

Antiphoner

A book of antiphons.

Anthem

A piece of music that promotes a nation, religion, or other cause.

Aria

A vocal piece that is melodic or song-like, the operatic version of an air.

Arioso

A less elaborate version of an aria.

Ars Antiqua

In English, “Ancient Art”, used by scholars to refer to French Medieval music styles in the twelfth, thirteenth, and early fourteenth centuries.

Ars Nova

In English, “New Art”, used by scholars to refer to French Medieval music styles in the late fourteenth century.

Ars Subtilior

In English, “Subtler Art”, used by scholars to refer to French and Spanish music styles at the close of the fourteenth century.

Art Music

Music that follows certain fixed, written rules and traditions, often associated with classical music and in opposition to popular styles of music.

Art Song

In the classical tradition, a poem set to music with piano accompaniment.

Atonal

Music that does not have a key. This style of music became popular among avant-garde composers in the twentieth century.

Avant-Garde

A movement in music that experiments beyond traditional ideas of melody, harmony, and rhythm.

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B

Ballade

A poem set to music with a very specific structure. One of three formes fixes of the Medieval period (see Formes Fixes entry).

Ballata

A poem set to music with a very specific structure, popular in Italy during the Medieval period.

Ballet

A formal style of dance set to music, especially popular in Russia and France beginning in the nineteenth century.

Balletto

An Italian vocal piece with a lighthearted style, popular during the late Medieval period.

Bamberg Codex

A Medieval manuscript containing music theory and many French compositions.

Baroque Ornamentation

The practice of ornamenting a piece of music. This was standard practice for instrumentalists during the Baroque period.

Baroque Period

The period of history generally considered by scholars to span from 1600-1750.

Basse Dance

A Burgundian court dance, popular during the late Medieval period.

Basso Continuo (See Figured Bass)

Bebop

A type of jazz with a complex harmony and a fast tempo, popular in America during the mid-twentieth century.

Big Band

A large musical ensemble that plays jazz or swing music. Very popular in America during the mid-twentieth century.

Blues

A unique genre of music that was developed by African American musicians after the end of the Civil War. This genre blends traditional African musical elements with other Western styles of music and is closely related to jazz. However, jazz emphasizes instrumental parts and improvisation, while blues emphasizes lyrical content.

Buffo

A male singer in comic operas.

Burgundian Style

A style of Franco=Flemish music that emphasized clear form and structure, popular during the late Medieval period.

Byzantine Chant

A type of Medieval plainchant popular in the Greek Orthodox Church during the Byzantine Empire.

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C

Cabaletta

A type of aria with a repeating rhythmic pattern.

Caccia

A type of hunting song popular in late Medieval and Renaissance Italy.

Cadenza

A virtuosic section near the conclusion of a piece of music. Cadenzas are often improvised.

Call and Response

A technique in which a second singer or instrumentalist responds to what has been played or sung by the first singer or instrumentalist. This technique originated in Africa and was incorporated into many African-American musical styles like jazz and blues.

Canon

A piece of music in which multiple voices or instrument parts repeat the same melody, but begin at different times.

Example: Johann Pachelbel’s Canon in D.

Cantata

A multi-movement work featuring an orchestra and a choir, often religious in nature. J.S. Bach was especially known for his cantatas; they were a part of the liturgy in the German Lutheran churches of his day.

Canticle

A psalm, hymn, or other song of praise to God sung during a church service.

Cantor

During Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque times, the cantor was the director of the choir and all other music in a local church.

Cantus Firmus

In English “fixed song”, the basic melody that is complemented or elaborated by counterpoint. Popular during the Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque periods.

Canzona

A type of Franco-Flemish instrumental music, popular during the Renaissance period.

Canzonetta

A type of vocal music popular in Renaissance and Baroque Italy.

Capellmeister

In English “chapel master”, or a person in charge of all the musical activities in a chapel, church, patron’s household. The German spelling is “Kapellmeister”.

Capriccio

An energetic piece of free-form keyboard music.

Carol

A religious song of celebration, often associated with the Christmas season.

Castrato

A male singer who has undergone castration as a child to ensure that his voice would not change but would remain high. Castratos were held in high esteem during the late Renaissance and Baroque periods (largely because women were not allowed to sing in public choirs at that time so high male voices were in demand). Thankfully, the practice is no longer allowed!

Chaconnne

A stylized dance popular during the Baroque period.

Chamber Music

Music intended for performance by a small group of instrumentalists.

Example: String Quartet Music

Chanson

A piece of vocal music very popular in Medieval and Renaissance France.

Character Piece

A piece of keyboard music that is meant to reflect one idea, character, or thought. Very popular during the Romantic period.

Choirbook

A very large music book that enabled the whole choir to read from it.

Chorale

A hymn of praise originally intended for congregational singing, made popular by Martin Luther during the Protestant Reformation.

Choral Society

A chorus that meets and performs regularly.

Choralis Constantinus

A collection of Renaissance-era Gregorian chant, named after the diocese of Constance who commissioned it.

Chorus

A large group of singers led by a director.

Chromaticism

A movement in music which incorporates notes from the chromatic scale into the harmony. Chromaticism has been present from early on in music history, but it has become especially popular during the Romantic and Modern periods.

Classical Music

Music that follows the historic classical tradition and is distinct from music that is called popular.

Classical Period

The period of history generally considered by scholars to span from 1750-1820.

Clausulae

Polyphony for more than voice, sung over the main melody. Popular during the Medieval period.

Collegium Musicum

In English “College of Music”, a Baroque German society of musicians who gathered together regularly to practice and perform.

Color

The repeating melodic pattern in Medieval isorhythm.

Coloratura

The practice of ornamenting a vocal line, especially in a high voice part.

Comic Opera

A lighthearted opera that has a happy ending.

Composer

A musician who writes an original musical work.

Composition

An original work of music.

Concert Band

An ensemble made up of brass, percussion, and woodwind instruments. A few keyboard and/or stringed instruments may be present. Increasingly popular throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Concerto

A musical work featuring a soloist who is accompanied by an orchestra.

Concerto Grosso

Like a concerto, but with multiple soloists rather than just one. This type of concerto was very popular during the Baroque period.

Conductor

A person who directs a group of musicians during a musical performance.

Conductus

A type of vocal music with a devotional text, popular during the Medieval period.

Consort Music

Music for a small group of instrumentalists, popular in England during the Renaissance period.

Contenance Angloise

This “English manner” refers to the English style of harmonization popular during the Renaissance period. This style used intervals of thirds and sixths, making it distinct from the other styles of its day.

Contrafactum

A song which uses a familiar tune, yet has different lyrics.

Counterpoint

A type of polyphony where two or more voices move independently. Most counterpoint follows very strict rules regarding voice movement (no parallel or direct fifths, etc.).

Credo

A musical setting of the Nicene Creed, sung as part of the Mass.

Cyclic Mass

A type of Mass that had a musical theme tying each movement together as one cycle, popular during the Renaissance period.

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D

De Capo Aria

An aria made up of an A section, then a B section, followed by an embellished A section. Very popular in Baroque-era operas and oratorios.

Discant

A countermelody that is usually sung above the soprano part. This practice began in Medieval times.

Diva

This meant something hundreds of years ago than it does today. Back then it referred to a woman with an exceptional singing voice who often took the leading role in operas.

Doxology

Part of the liturgy in many churches. A song of praise to God.

Dry Recitative

A recitative with a simple instrumental accompaniment.

Duo Sonata

A type of sonata that was common in the Baroque period, performed by one soloist and two basso continuo players.

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E

Electro-Acoustic Music

Becoming popular during the mid-twentieth century, this genre blends live acoustic instruments with electronic sounds.

Electronic Music

Music that is made up of electronic sounds and/or electronic instruments. It became popular during the twentieth century.

Ensemble

A performing group of singers or instrumentalists.

Equal Temperament

The system of tuning that prevailed in Baroque times and still does today. This system calls for each note to be tuned an equal distance apart, making major and minor harmony possible.

Estampie

A type of dance that was popular in Medieval times.

Etude

A short instrumental exercise that emphasizes a particular skill or technique.

Exoticism

A movement in music that tries to emulate the sounds and styles of music in far away nations.

Experimental Music

A type of music that experiments with pushing the traditional boundaries of music, associated with Modernist techniques and the avant-garde. This name was coined in the twentieth century.

Expressionism

A movement in music that tries to convey the artist’s emotions, often by distorting or blurring traditional harmony and form.

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F

Fantasia

In English “fantasy”, an free-form instrumental work that encourages improvisation on the part of the performer. Popular during the Renaissance and Baroque periods.

Fauxbourdon

A style of harmonization popular in the Renaissance. This style relies on parallel movement between the voice parts.

Figured Bass

A system of numbers and symbols that indicate what chords should be played in the bass line. Usually the bass note is notated in the music and the player will fill in the rest of the chord members on top of it, depending on what the numbers and symbols indicate. Very common in music from the Baroque era.

Example: An E in the bass with a 6 written underneath it, indicating that a first inversion triad is to be played. That would be E, G, C.

Finale

The final movement of a multi-movement musical work. Often grand and sweeping in nature.

Florid Organum

A type of organum in which the upper voice is free-flowing and embellished.

Formes Fixes

Three popular forms of music in France during the Medieval period (see Ballade, Rondeau, and Virelais entries).

Franconian Notation

A type of musical notation developed in the late Medieval period by Franco of Cologne. This type of musical notation was the first to indicate rhythm as well as pitch.

Free Jazz

A type of jazz which relies heavily on improvisation and often transcends the traditional limits of jazz theory. This style became popular during the mid-twentieth century.

Free Organum

A type of organum which places one note against another, with much less embellishment than florid organum.

Fuging Tune

A type of choral music which became popular in America during the mid-eighteenth century.

Fugue

A complex form of instrumental music in which a subject is introduced and then developed between multiple voices. Very popular during the Baroque period.

Futurism

A movement in music which rejected traditional instruments and harmonization in favor of electric and mechanical sounds. Popular during the twentieth century.

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G

Galant Style

A style of music that became popular during the Classical period. This style was lighter and more elegant than the formal, complex Baroque style of music.

Galliard

A popular dance form during the Renaissance period.

Gallican Chant

An ancient type of plainchant tracing its origins back to the early church in Gaul.

Gavotte

A stylized dance popular during the Baroque period.

Gebrauchsmusik

In English “music for use”, or music that serves a specific purpose and is intended for performance by amaetur musicians.

Genre

A categorical group that has certain defining characteristics.

Examples: blues, jazz, folk music.

Gigue

A stylized dance popular during the Renaissance and Baroque eras.

Glogauer Liederbuch

A manuscript of Medieval music named after the town of Glogau, which is the present-day Polish town of Glogow.

Gloria

A song of praise to God sung as part of the Mass.

Gradual

A book containing the music for Mass.

Grand Opera

An elaborate multi-act opera that was popular during the nineteenth century.

Gregorian Chant

A type of Medieval plainchant named after Pope Gregory I.

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H

Heightened Neumes

The earliest pitch indications in music notation, used on a four-line music staff before the five-line staff was invented.

Historical Periods

Certain time periods that tend to share general characteristics in music, art, and philosophy.

Example: The Romantic Period.

Hocket

A popular Medieval technique that splits the melody between two voices or instruments.

Homophony

Music that has more than one line or part, and the parts move together with the same basic rhythm and structure.

Hymn

A song of praise or prayer to God.

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I

Idee Fixe

In English “fixed idea” or the primary idea or thought in a piece of music. A common musical concept in the Romantic period.

Imitation

A technique in which a composer repeats a melody in one voice or part after it was played or sung in a different voice or part.

Impresario

The manager of a theater or opera house who oversees the productions.

Impressionism

A movement in music that uses impressions and ambiguity to convey the emotion or atmosphere the composer desires.

Improvisation

The art of adding to or embellishing the written music in real time, without prior practice. This is especially associated with jazz music, though it is practiced in other genres as well.

Incidental Music

Background music in a play or film that creates a particular mood or feeling that corresponds to the story’s plot.

Indeterminacy

A movement in music that leaves some part of the performance (the instrument, the rhythm, the key, etc.) up to the performer. This movement reached its height in the twentieth century. It is especially associated with the works of Avant-garde composer John Cage.

Isorhythm

A Medieval compositional technique in which a repeating rhythm, called the talea, is intertwined with repeating pitches, called the color.

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J

Jazz

A unique genre of music that was developed by African American musicians after the end of the Civil War. This genre blends traditional African musical elements with other Western styles of music.

Jongleur

A traveling musician in Medieval Europe.

Just Intonation

A system of tuning that was common from Ancient times until the Medieval period. This system tunes each note a fixed, unequal distance apart.

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K

Klangfarbenmelodie

Yes, that is a mouthful. This German term translates to “sound-color melody” in English, and refers to the practice of dividing one line of music between two instruments to add more color to the sound. This technique was invented and named by Austrian-American composer Arnold Schoenberg in the twentieth century.

Kyrie

A shortened name for the Kyrie Eleison, or “Lord have Mercy” sung in the Mass Ordinary.

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L

Lai

A multi-stanza poem set to music, very popular in Medieval times.

Lauda

A religious song popular in Italy during the Medieval and Renaissance periods.

Leitmotif

In English “leading motive”, or a the primary motive of a musical work that keeps reappearing. Leitmotifs are especially associated with the work of Romantic composer Richard Wagner.

Libretto

The lyrics that accompany an opera.

Lieder

A type of German song that often featured a voice part with piano accompaniment. Very popular during the Classical and Romantic periods.

Liturgical Drama

A musical drama with a religious or devotional theme that may or may not be performed as part of a church service.

Lute Ayre

A genre popular among lute players during the English Renaissance.

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M

Madrigal

A piece of music for one or more voices which often used word painting, not usually accompanied by instruments. Very popular during the Renaissance period.

Maelzel’s Metronome

A device that helps musicians keep time by producing a series of clicks that correspond to the beat of the music. Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, who first marketed the device in the 1800s and claimed it was his own design (hence the designation “Maelzel’s Metronome”). In reality, he actually stole the design from fellow inventor Dietrich Nikolaus Winkel.

Magnus Liber Organi

A collection of organum from the Medieval period.

March

A piece of music with a strong beat, usually written in duple meter. American composer John Phillip Sousa was especially well known for his marches.

Masque

Mass

The formal church service in Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches.

Mass Ordinary

The part of Mass liturgy that is the same in every season.

Mass Proper

The part of Mass liturgy that changes to correspond with the Church calendar.

Mean-Tone Temperament

A system of tuning in which all fifths are slightly unequal, popular during the late Renaissance and Baroque periods.

Medieval Period

The period of history generally considered by scholars to span from 476-1450.

Mensural Notation

A type of notation from the late Medieval and Renaissance periods that allowed rhythm as well as pitch to be indicated in the score.

Melodrama

A grand, emotionally charged drama that is often accompanied by instrumental music.

Minimalism

A movement in music that embraces simplicity in music, often changing one aspect of the music gradually as the composition is played or sung. This movement gained popularity in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

Minnelieder

Love songs popular in Medieval Germany.

Minnesingers

Traveling musicians in Medieval Germany.

Minstrel

Traveling musicians during the Medieval period.

Minuet

A dance that is usually written in triple meter, popular during the Baroque and Classical periods.

Modern Period

The period of history generally considered by scholars to span from 1900-the present day.

Modernist

One who supports or identifies with the Modern movement in the arts.

Monody

A song for one voice, often lamenting. Popular in ancient Greece.

Monophony

Music that has only one line or part.

Mordent

A type of musical ornament where one note moves quickly to the note above or below it and then returns to the first note. Shorter than a trill.

Motet

A piece of vocal music, usually short and religious in nature.

Movement

One stand-alone section within a larger piece of music.

Example: Symphonies often have four movements.

Mozarabic Chant

An early form of plainchant popular in the Iberian church during the Medieval period

Music Drama

A play or drama in which vocal and/or instrumental music is woven into the plot.

Music Genre

A category of music that fits certain characteristic criteria. Examples: Opera, Jazz, Chamber Music.

Music Video

A video accompanying a song or piece of music, popular in the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Musica Enchiriadis

A treatise on polyphony dating from the early Medieval period.

Musica Ficta

In the Medieval and Renaissance period, notes that were written with accidentals to avoid unaccepted intervals like tritones.

Musica Reservata

A Renaissance style of emotionally expressive music.

Musica Transalpina

A collection of madrigals from Renaissance England.

Musical Theatre

A production that combines drama, music, and dance. These productions can be traced back to the Ancient period in Greece, but they reached a high point of popularity in America during the twentieth century.

Musique Concrete

Music as a blend of recorded sounds. This name was coined by Modern composer Pierre Schaeffer in the mid-twentieth century.

Musique Mesuree

A style of balanced vocal music popular during the French Renaissance.

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Nationalism

A movement in music which tries to capture the spirit of each individual nation and codify a “national style”. This movement was very popular during the Romantic period.

Neapolitan Chord

A major triad built on the lowered second degree of the scale. Named after the Neapolitan school of opera composers in Baroque-era Italy. Often used as a predominant chord. Example: Dd, F, Ab forms a Neapolitan chord in the key of C major.

Neo-Classicism

A twentieth-century movement in music to return to many of the styles and principles of music in the Classical period.

Neo-Romanticism

A twentieth-century movement in music to return to many of the styles and principles of music in the Romantic period.

Neumes

The first markings in early musical notation, which have been replaced by our modern note and rest symbols. Neumes indicated pitch, but the earliest types did not indicate rhythm.

Nocturne

In English “nocturnal”, a keyboard work which reflects or is inspired by the night.

Notation

The system in which music is written down in the form of notes and rest. Notation became standard in the Medieval period, replacing oral tradition as the primary means of teaching and learning music.

Notes Inegales

In English “unequal notes”, a practice in which two notes which are written as being equal in length are played in a way that is not equal. This practice was common during the Baroque and Classical periods.

Notre Dame Polyphony

An early school of polyphony based at the Notre Dame Cathedral during the Medieval period.

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O

Obbligato

An important instrumental line which is markedly different from the other parts and should not be omitted; it is “obligatory”.

Odhecaton A, B, and C

A three-part anthology of popular songs from Renaissance Italy, published by Venetian printer Ottaviano Petrucci.

Offertory

An instrumental piece played during the collection of tithes and offerings during a church service.

Office

The series of daily non-Mass services in the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches.

Old Hall Manuscript

The world’s largest collection of sacred music from Medieval England.

Old Roman Chant

An early form of plainchant that traces its roots back to the Early Christian Church in Rome.

Opera

A high form of musical drama first popular during the Baroque period.

Opera Buffa

A type of comic opera that deals with everyday people and situations.

Opera Comique

A type of opera that alternates between singing and speaking parts, popular in France during the Baroque period.

Opera Seria

A type of opera that is serious and tragic, popular in Italy during the Baroque period.

Operetta

A short, lighthearted opera that alternates between singing and speaking parts.

Oral Tradition

The practice of teaching music through only oral means. This was the way music was always taught before musical notation became widespread during the Medieval period.

Oratorio

Similar to an opera but dealing with a religious theme.

Example: George Frederic Handel’s Messiah.

Organum

Polyphonic plainchant, popular during the Medieval period.

Ostinato

In English “obstinate”, a stubborn repeating rhythmic or melodic pattern.

Ostinato Bass

An bass line which uses an ostinato pattern (see Ground Bass entry).

Overdotting

The practice of holding a dotted note out slightly longer than the music indicates. A common practice during the Baroque period.

Overture

An instrumental introduction at the beginning of a multi-movement musical work.

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P

Parlor Song

A genre of piano and vocal music intended for performance by amateur musicians in their own homes, popular in America during the Romantic period.

Parody Mass

A type of Mass that includes musical quotations from other non-liturgical sources, popular during the Renaissance period.

Partbook

A book which contains the music for one voice or instrumental part, popular during the Renaissance and Baroque periods.

Passion

A musical reflection on the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

Example: J.S. Bach‘s St. John Passion

Performance Practice

The traditional way of performing music from certain periods with certain conventions and techniques.

Piano Trio

A type of trio often consisting of piano, violin, and cello, popular during the Romantic period.

Plainchant

Various styles of monophonic chant used in the liturgy, popular throughout the Medieval period.

Polonaise

A Polish style of dance.

Polytonality

A compositional technique in which one or more keys are used at the same time. Popular during the twentieth century.

Popular Music

Music that is based on popular styles and is distinct from the classical music tradition.

Prelude

The first piece of music in a multi-movement work or the musical introduction to a church service.

Prepared Piano

A piano that has objects placed inside near or on the strings to produce a sound that it normally would not, especially associated with the works of Modern composer John Cage.

Prima Donna

The leading soprano singer in an opera.

Primitivism

A movement in music which tries to emulate the music styles of primitive cultures, popular in the twentieth century.

Example: Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

Program Music

Music that accompanies a theme, plot, or story. This is the opposite of absolute music (see Absolute Music entry).

Psalm

An ancient song of praise to God from the Book of Psalms in the Hebrew Old Testament.

Psalmody

The practice of arranging and singing Psalms in church services.

Polyphony

Music that has more than one line or part, and the parts move independently with different structures and rhythms.

Popular Music

Music that is based on popular styles and is distinct from the classical music tradition.

Postlude

The musical conclusion of many church services.

Pythagorean Intonation

A system of tuning in which notes are tuned by perfect fifths, popular during the Medieval period.

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Q

Quadrivium

In Medieval times, the curriculum taught at a liberal arts university. Included four mathematical arts, of which music was one.

Quotation

A section of a composition that is quoted or reproduced in another composition. Modernist composer Charles Ives was particularly known for using quotations in many of his works.

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R

Ragtime

A unique style of keyboard music which features a strong, steady beat in the left and with a syncopated beat in the right hand. Ragtime is especially associated with early Modern composer Scott Joplin.

Recital

A performance by instrumentalists which became popular during the Romantic period. Recitals are still common for music students today.

Recitative

A vocal piece that is less melodic and more speech-like thank an aria.

Renaissance

The period of history generally considered by scholars to span from 1450-1600.

Requiem

A Mass for the dead.

Rock and Roll

A genre of music that originated in the mid-twentieth century, a sort of blend between blues and country that evolved into a distinct style of its own.

Romantic Period

The period of history generally considered by scholars to span from 1820-1900.

Rondeau

A poem set to music. One of three formes fixes of the Medieval period (see Formes Fixes entry).

Rondo

A piece of keyboard music that follows a set form with an alternating A section, popular during the Classical period.

Rhythmic Mode

Various patterns of long and short notes that were popular during the Medieval period.

Ritornello

An instrumental interlude during a musical movement, common during the Baroque and Classical periods.

Rocket Theme

An arpeggio which ascends rapidly over many octaves, made popular during the eighteenth century by the Mannheim school of composers.

Rubato

Gradually play slower, then faster, slower, faster, etc. instead of keeping a steady tempo. The idea is to play rubato as evenly as possible, so the length of the piece stays the same. This technique is especially associated with the work of Romantic composer Frederic Chopin. Example: a piece that is four minutes long when played at a steady tempo will still be four minutes long when played with rubato. The rubato version will just have more tempo fluctuations within that four minutes.

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S

Sacred Music

Music that is used in religious services and ceremonies or for non-liturgical, private religious purposes.

Sanctus

In English, “holy”, sung during the Mass.

Secular Music

Music that is not intended for use in religious services and ceremonies or for other religious purposes.

Serialism

A movement in music which uses a series of chromatic notes as the basis for a composition, pioneered by Modern composer Arnold Schoenberg.

Socialist Realism

A type of propaganda employed by the Soviet government, requiring music and other arts to meet state approval by espousing appropriate “Soviet ideals”. Many Modern composers like Dmitri Shostakovich ran afoul of the government by failing (or refusing) to meet this standard in their work.

Solfege

A system in which each scale degree is assigned a syllable: do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do. The system was invented in the Medieval period by Italian Guido di Arezzo, the same man who invented our system for musical notation (see Notation entry above). Have you ever heard the song “Do-Re-Mi” from The Sound of Music? In that song, Maria is using solfege to teach the Von Trapp children how to sing.

Sonata

An instrumental work featuring an exposition, a development, and a recapitulation, especially popular during the Classical and Romantic periods.

Sonatina

A shortened version of a sonata.

Song Cycle

A group of songs that are meant to be performed together, often centering around one theme.

Example: Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel’s Das Jahr (TheYear).

Spiritual

A type of religious song developed by the African American slave community, often focusing on themes of freedom and deliverance from oppression.

Sprechgesang

A blend between speaking and singing, used in Expressionist music.

Stadtpfeifer

In English, “town piper”, or the resident German musician in German towns in the Baroque period.

Fun Fact: So many of J.S. Bach’s family members were stadtpfiefers that the term became interchangeable with “Bach”.

String Quartet

A small string ensemble consisting of two violinists, one violist, and one cellist. First became popular during the Classical period.

Stochastic Music

A style of Neo-Classical music in which many musical elements are determined by chance.

Style Luthe

A style of music which used many arpeggiated patterns, popular during the Baroque period.

Subject

The principle melody in a fugue, developed and passed around between all of the voices as the fugue progresses.

Suite

A group of stylized dances usually played as a set, especially popular during the Baroque period.

Symphonic Poem

A single-movement orchestral work that develops a theme, story, or idea. Popular during the Romantic period.

Symphony

A grand four-movement orchestral work, made popular by Ludwig van Beethoven and many Romantic composers.

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T

Tablature

A type of music notation where instrumental fingering rather than pitches are written.

Talea

The repeating rhythmic pattern in Medieval isorhythm.

Texture

A way to describe how many different parts are in a piece of music and whether the parts move independently from each other or not.

Examples: monophony, homophony, polyphony.

Thematic Development

The practice of developing the theme by making slight changes, such as transposing to a different key, while keeping the main characteristics of the theme intact.

Theme

The main musical idea in a composition, usually a combination of melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic elements around which the piece is based.

Third Stream

A blend of classical and jazz music styles. This name was invented in the mid-twentieth century by Modern composer Gunther Schuller.

Timbre

The color and character of a musical note.

Tin Pan Alley

An important music publishing center in New York City during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Some of America’s most popular hits were published here, including “God Bless America”, “Let Me Call You Sweetheart”, and “Shine On Harvest Moon”.

Toccata

A free-from instrumental piece that requires technical virtuosity, popular during the Baroque period.

Trecento

The prolific development of music and the arts in fourteenth century Italy.

Trent Codices

Seven manuscripts of sacred vocal music from Renaissance Italy. Named after the Italian city of Trent, where they are located.

Trill

A rapid alternation of a note with the note above or below it. This ornament was very popular during the Baroque period.

Trio

A composition for three singers or instrumentalists. Very popular from the Baroque period onward, also very common in jazz music.

Trobairiz

Female troubadours in Medieval France.

Trouvere

A traveling poet-composer in Medieval France.

Trouveresse

A female trouvere.

Tristan Chord

Containing the notes F, B, G#, and D#, this half-diminished seventh chord was used at the opening of Richard Wagner’s legendary opera Tristan and Isolde. This is one of the most famous chords in music history, perhaps because Wagner chose not to resolve the chord’s dissonance in the traditional way which was an uncommon practice in his day.

Twelve-Bar Blues

A kind of blues where a certain harmonic progression of I, IV, and V or V7 chords are used over twelve bars or measures.

Twelve-Tone Serialism

A movement in music in which all twelve semitones of the scale are emphasized equally, resulting in a piece without a key or tonal center. This techique was first invented in the early twentieth century by Modern composer Josef Matthias Hauer.

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V

Vaudeville

An entertaining combo of music, dance, and light comedy that became popular in the late 1800s.

Villancico

Originally a religious or love poem set to music, very popular in Spain during the Renaissance. The meaning eventually evolved to mean “Christmas carol”.

Virelais

A French verse set to music. One of three formes fixes of the Medieval period (see Formes Fixes entry above).

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W

Walking Bass

A bass line that “walks” from one chord to the next, either in an ascending or descending pattern. This style was common in the Baroque era and is now seen often in jazz and blues.

Waltz

A dance with a feeling in three, very common from the Classical period onward.

Western Music

Music originating in the Western world or from the Western tradition, as distinct from Eastern and other non-Western musical schools and traditions.

Worcester Fragments

A collection of twenty-five pieces of sacred vocal music from the Medieval period. Many of the pieces were discovered in the Worcester Cathedral in England, which is how they got their name.

Word Painting

Also called text painting, this technique refers to composing music to fit the words of the text. Examples: An ascending melody to reflect lyrics about a sunrise or dissonance to correspond with tension and drama in the text.

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Did I leave out any music history terms? Let me know in the comments!

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