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Glossary of Musical Terms
(This glossary is part of "The Birthday CD as a Music Education Tool" section of our web site)

Arpeggio A broken chord; The sounding of the notes of a chord in succession; Tones following one another (as in the playing of a harp).
Bandolim A stringed instrument from South America that sounds similar to a guitar.
Bass Drum The largest and lowest-toned drum, having a cylindrical body and two membrane heads.
Beat The marking of time (as by strokes with the hand, foot, baton, a metronome, etc.).
Brass A musical wind instrument of brass or other metal with a cup-shaped mouthpiece, as the trombone, tuba, French horn, and trumpet. When "brass" is used in these 50 explanations however, it just means a combination of trumpets and trombones.
Cabasa A percussion instrument that gets its sound from the rolling of stringed metal beads wrapped around a cylindrical metal plate, which is wrapped around a cylindrical piece of wood with a handle.
Castanets A pair of concave pieces of wood held in the palm of the hand and clicked together, usually to accompany dancing.
Cavaquincho A stringed instrument from South America that sounds similar to a mandolin.
Celesta A small keyboard instrument in which hammers strike on steel plates, producing an ethereal bell-like sound.
Chord The sounding together of three or more tones.
Chord Progression A series of chords that blend well with the melody they accompany.
Chromatic Progressing in semi-tones as opposed to the more oft-used major and minor scales.
Clave One of a pair of wooden sticks or blocks that are held one in each hand and are struck together to accompany music and dancing.
Clavinet A synthesized electronic harpsichord, first popularized in the 70ís
Conga Drum A tall, conical, Afro-Cuban drum played with the hands.
Contrapuntal Of or pertaining to counterpoint.
Countermelody A melody heard, played, or sung simultaneously with another melody as an integral part of the composition. Also called "counterpoint."
Counterpoint Two or more melodies heard, played, or sung simultaneously as an integral part of the composition.
Downbeat The downward stroke of a conductor's arm or baton, indicating the first (accented) beat of a measure.
Drum Set A set of drums containing the bass drum, snare drum, hi-hat, tom-toms, and cymbals. The drum set is played by one person, and provides the percussive rhythms for most kinds of pop and jazz.
Dulcimer A trapezoidal zither with metal strings that are struck with light hammers.
Figure A musical phrase that usually functions as an accompaniment to a melody.
Fill A brief musical phrase that is put into a small segment of a piece to add interest or excitement. A drum fill would briefly add an increased number of percussive attacks to create motion and excitement.
Flugelhorn Similar to a trumpet, except a tiny bit larger, and having a warmer tone.
Frets A set of slightly raised thin bars that run perpendicular to the strings on a guitar or electric bass that allow the performer to find the notes more quickly and play more in tune.
Fretless A stringed instrument without frets, which allows for more expressiveness through the unhampered use of slides, bends, and glissandos.
Glissando A music playing technique performed with a gliding effect by sliding one or more fingers rapidly over the keys of a piano or the strings of a harp (or a guitar).
Glockenspiel A musical instrument composed of a set of graduated steel bars mounted in a frame and struck with hammers.
Harmonic Minor Scale A major scale with the 3rd and 6th degrees lowered one half step. (See Major Key)
Harmony The blending of separate notes to form chords.
Hi-hat A pair of foot operated cymbals
Kettle Drums A drum consisting of a hollow hemisphere of brass, copper, or fiberglass over which is stretched a skin, the tension of which can be modified by hand screws or foot pedals to vary the pitch. Also called a timpini.
Key A system of notes definitely related to each other, based on a particular note and predominating in a piece of music.
Legato To play notes smoothly and connectedly with no breaks between successive notes
Lick (Slang) A musical phrase. A portion of a melody or improvised solo.
Major Key A tonal center based on a major scale, which is a diatonic scale in which the half steps occur between the 3rd and 4th degrees, and the 7th and 8th degrees. Produces a happy uplifting mood.
Marimba A musical instrument, originating in Africa but popularized and modified in Central America, consisting of a set of graduated wooden bars, often with resonators beneath to reinforce the sound, struck with mallets.
Measure The music contained within a certain number of beats. In a piece written in four, each measure would contain four beats.
Melody A succession of tones that produce a series of musical phrases that are combined to make a song.
Minor Key A tonal center based on a minor scale, which is a major scale with the 3rd, 6th, and 7th degrees lowered one half step. Produces a somber or anxious mood.
Modulation Change of key within a composition.
Musical Phrase A collection of notes that can stand on their own as a valid musical idea or expression. These notes could be a portion of a melody or improvised solo, or just sound separately by themselves. (Much like in language, where a "phrase" is a sequence of words that express an idea).
Octave A tone on the eighth degree from a given tone, or the interval encompassed by such tones.
Offbeat An imaginary beat placed halfway between two beats. If you were tapping your feet, the upbeat would occur when your toe reached its highest point off the ground.
Ornament A tone or group of tones applied as decoration to a principal melodic tone.
Piccolo A small flute sounding an octave higher than the ordinary flute.
Pizzicato Played by plucking the strings with the finger instead of using a bow, as on a violin.
Register The compass or range of a voice or an instrument. A part of this range produced in the same way and having the same quality: the head register of the human voice, the upper register of the clarinet.
Reverb Shortened form of reverberation. A repeated echo. Reverb can occur naturally, as in a large room, or it can be produced artificially through electronic processing.
Rhythm Section The section of the band most responsible for the rhythmic aspect of the music. Usually contains drum set, percussion, bass, piano and guitar, but not necessarily all of the above.
Ride Cymbal Drum sets usually have two types of cymbals. The crash cymbal provides explosive clamoring sounds, whereas the ride cymbal provides a gentler background sizzle.
Riff A melodic phrase, often constantly repeated, forming an accompaniment or part of an accompaniment for a soloist.
Ritard A gradual slowing of the tempo.
Rubato The action or practice of temporarily disregarding strict tempo during performance: having certain notes arbitrarily lengthened while others are correspondingly shortened, or vice versa.
Run (Slang) A musical phrase. A portion of a melody or improvised solo. A rapid scale passage.
Shakuhachi A Japanese flute made of bamboo and played vertically (as opposed to horizontally).
Sitar A plucked stringed instrument from India, with six main strings, movable frets, many side strings, and sympathetic strings. The main strings may be also pulled from side to side, creating added subtle pitch variations. The main strings are plucked by a plectrum which is worn on the index finger of the right hand.
Snare One of the strings of tightly spiraled metal stretched across the skin of a snare drum.
Snare Drum A small double-headed drum with snares placed across the lower head to produce a rattling or reverberating effect. It is carried on the side of the body with a shoulder strap in marching bands. In jazz and pop, the snare drum is placed on a stationary stand and integrated into the drum set.
Staccato Composed of notes in a short, detached manner.
Synchopated The displacement of the beats or accents in a passage so that strong beats become weak or vice versa.
Synth (short for Synthesizer) Any of various electronic, sometimes portable consoles or modules, usually computerized, for creating, modifying, and combining tones or reproducing the sounds of musical instruments by controlling voltage patterns, operated by means of keyboards, joysticks, sliders, or knobs.
Tabla A pair of hand drums used in Indian music, that are tuned to the main tones of the Raga (scale). A virtuoso performer can draw a seemingly limitless variety of timbre and pitch from the tabla.
Tag To repeat a portion of the ending of a piece in order to make it more conclusive and dramatic.
Tamboura A 4 or 5-stringed instrument used in Indian music, that is plucked in open-string position only. The strings are tuned to the main tones of the Raga (scale), and provide a continuous drone accompaniment.
Tambourine A small drum consisting of a circular frame with a skin stretched over it and several pairs of metal jingles attached to the frame, played by striking with the knuckles, shaking, and the like.
Timbales Two conjoined Afro-Cuban drums, similar to bongos, but wider in diameter and played with drumsticks instead of the hands.
Timbre Tone quality
Time Signature Two numerals written at the beginning of a musical score indicating the number of beats in each measure, and the kind of note receiving one beat.
Tom-Tom A drum of American Indian or Asian origin, commonly played with the hands. In pop and jazz, tom-toms are integrated into the drum set, are played with drumsticks, and are used primarily in fills. Tom-toms sound lower in pitch than the snare drum, but higher in pitch than the bass drum.
Tonic The first note of a scale; the keynote
Tremolo A quivering or fluttering. On strings, an effect produced by the rapid alternation of an up and down bow. In singing, an unsteady tone. On a vibraphone, the rapid alternation of chord tones produced by the mallets striking the metal bars of the vibraphone in drum roll fashion.
Triangle A musical percussion instrument that consists of a steel triangle, open at one corner, and is struck with a steel rod.
Trill An ornament consisting of the rapid alternation of two adjacent tones.
Vibraphone A musical percussion instrument that resembles a marimba and is played with mallets, but instead of wooden bars, it has metal bars with electronically powered resonators, for sustaining tone or creating vibrato.
Vibrato A rapid alternation in pitch that imparts warmth and color to a tone.
Zither A musical instrument, consisting of a flat sounding-box with numerous strings stretched over it, that is placed on a horizontal surface and played with a plectrum and the fingertips.