In my posts, all blue underlined words or phrases should appear in this glossary. By clicking on the word or phrase, it will come straight to this page. This will enable me to use terms repeatedly without having to constantly redefine them. I will only underline a word once in a post. I occasionally italicize a term if I use it again in the same post, sometimes not.

Sorry I can’t take you straight to the word. I’m not sure the WordPress blog software supports it.  Pressing ‘back’ on your browser will return you to your place in the post. Also, the text doesn’t line up very well as WordPress uses proportional fonts (which is a good thing).

Common Composer Markings

adagio         slowly and gracefully
allegretto     fairly quick – faster than andante and usually slower than allegro
allegro        fast
andante      walking speed – moderately slow
appassionato with passion!
arco              played with the bow (as opposed to plucking the strings)
Bartok pizzicato   the strings are to be plucked so hard they hit the fingerboard leading to a harsh sound
battuto (hit)  the bow is made to strike the string, not bow it (arco)
crescendo  gradually getting louder
espressivo  expressive; also a type of coffee 🙂
fortissimo   very loud
grave           very slow – solemn
largo           slow and dignified manner
larghetto    rather slow
lento           to be performed slowly
mezzo-forte moderately loud
molto         qualifier – very; much – e.g. allegro molto = very fast – molto largo = very slowly
piano        soft
pianissimo  very soft
pizzicato   a technique for stringed instruments where strings are plucked with the right hand
presto        very fast
poco          qualifier – a little; to a small degree – e.g. poco adagio – a little faster than adagio
romanze   played with a song-like character
rubato       played freely, not at a fixed tempo
sarabande  a slow, stately Spanish dance in triple time
vivace        lively

A more comprehensive glossary of composer markings can be found here.

Other Relevant Musical Terms

abstract –  music that is not explicitly “about” anything; in contrast to program music, it is non-representational. It is often atonal. Could apply to Beethoven’s Late Quartets; a complex Bach Fugue or extremely Modernist works. You can’t quite put your finger on it; a bit mysterious.

atonal – music that has no tonal centre, and is not in any particular key. Leads to an abstract, often dissonant, sounding music. It can also sound very beautiful!

avante-garde –  movements or individuals at the forefront of innovation and experimentation in their fields.

canon – a piece of music where one voice repeats the part of another, throughout the whole piece.

chamber music – music for small ensembles, originally played in homes by amateur musicians. Due to this, most of the early chamber music was not technically difficult. Over time, the string quartet has become the most popular chamber ensemble. It is now rarely played in homes!

Classical period – for my purposes, quartets written before Beethoven. These are arbitrary periods, as composers did not think in these terms. Many still wrote in a classical style after Beethoven’s death.

Contemporary period – it was quartets written from 1900 to the present but I now no longer find this appropriate. This period is too diverse and I shall rarely use it.

counterpoint – music consisting of two or more lines that sound simultaneously, each played with a different phrasing.

chromaticinterspersing the seven primary tones of a scale with the five normally unused tones.

Deutsche Grammophone (DG) – from Germany, the world’s most prolific classical recording company.

entropy  – I love this word, for me it’s always meant ‘degree of randomness’ but it has some scientific definition as well.

exposition –  the initial presentation of the theme of a composition, movement, or section. The use of the term generally implies that the material will be developed or varied at a later stage.

fugue –  a short melody or phrase, known as the subject – introduced by one instrument, successively taken up by others and developed by interweaving the parts. For a more detailed definition, please read my ‘BACH – The Art of Fugue’ post from May 2016.

glissando – a glide from one pitch to another; used on stringed instruments. A very modern technique, especially when used with micro-tones.

harmony or harmonic background – the sounding of two or more musical notes at the same time to form chords; used to accompany a melody.

harmonics – the creation of a sound effect on stringed instruments. The player gently touches a string above where a note would normally be fingered, then plucks the string. A bell-like sound ensues.

Impressionism  – a movement among various composers in Western classical music, mainly during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, whose music focuses on suggestion and atmosphere, writing about the feeling obtained from some object/event, not about the thing itself. (Thanks Wiki)

je ne sais quoi  –  a pleasant quality that is hard to describe (French)

lyrical – song-like – expressing the composer’s emotions in an imaginative and beautiful way.

miniaturism – fitting a lot of fine music into a small space. (I made it up)

Minimalism – a hotly debated term. Prominent features of the technique include consonant harmony, steady pulse (if not immobile drones), stasis or gradual transformation, and often reiteration of musical phrases or smaller units such as figures, motifs, and cells. (Thanks Wiki)

Modern period – no fixed time frame, but mostly from the 20th century. However there are many quartets from this period that are not modern. String quartets written in a modern style may sound dissonant, harsh, chaotic, angry, even aggressive. They may also be atonal and prone to vast differences in the dynamic range. Some would be considered more noise than music. I think this style died twenty years ago and we left behind all that intellectual baggage! While some composers continue to write confronting music, they are now in the minority.

microtones – intervals smaller than a semitone; the notes between the notes.

Neoclassicism a twentieth century development, particularly popular in the period between the two World Wars, in which composers drew inspiration from certain elements of music from the eighteenth century. A reaction against Modernism.

ostinato– a continually repeated, musical phrase or rhythm (plural ostinati).

pastoral – having the emotional feeling of a countryside e.g. trees, hills, wide open plains.

pentatonic scales – scales containing five notes as compared to the seven notes found in a normal scale
– commonly used in folk music around the world – leading to an ‘open’ feel in the melodies.

recapitulation– repeating a melody that has been played earlier, usually after a development phase.

Romantic period – for my purposes, quartets written after Beethoven up to the 20th century.

serial or 12-tone – The 12 pitches are arranged into a ‘tone-row’ and the composer then has to follow a series of rules in using the tones. For example, no one tone can be repeated until all of the other eleven have been used. Can lead to very difficult music for some listeners.

string quartet – a musical ensemble consisting of two violins, a viola and a cello; a piece written for such an ensemble.

tonal music – a musical system that arranges pitches or chords to induce a hierarchy of perceived relations, stabilities, and attractions. The pitch or triadic chord with the greatest stability is called the tonic, and the root of the tonic chord is considered to be the key of a piece or song; as opposed to atonality, which has no key centre.

tone poem – an instrumental composition intended to portray a particular story or poem, scene or mood.


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