10 Essential Musical Terms

A self-contained piece for solo voice, usually accompanied by orchestra. In opera, arias mostly appear during a pause in dramatic action when a character is reflecting on their emotions. Most arias are lyrical, with a tune that can be hummed, and many arias include musical repetition. Arias are not unique to opera, as they also appear in oratorios, cantatas, and other vocal genres.


A designation for music and art produced approximately between the years 1600 and 1750. In music history, the beginning of the Baroque period coincides with the invention of opera as a genre, and its end coincides with the death of the composer Johann Sebastian Bach. Originally, the word “baroque” was a term for oddly shaped pearls; it was first applied to music in the 1730s by critics who preferred a simpler, less ornamented style and thus found the intricate counterpoint of 17th-century music to be reminiscent of these bizarre natural gems.


A male singer who underwent surgical castration before puberty and thus retained the vocal range of a young boy. Castrati performed both sacred and secular music for nearly 400 years—the earliest recorded castrati joined church choirs in the 1550s; the last known castrato died in 1922—but they reached their zenith in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, when they were commonly cast as the heroic male lead in operas.


The highest male vocal type, with a range equivalent to a female mezzo-soprano or soprano. Countertenors have the deep speaking voices typical of adult males, but they carefully train their falsetto (“head”) range so they can sing remarkably high lines of music. Today, countertenors often sing roles that were originally written for castrati.


A form of harmonic accompaniment, also called “basso continuo,” used throughout the Baroque period. Continuo accompaniments are typically notated as a single line of bass notes, with small Arabic numerals indicating chords that will be improvised by the performer. The instrumentation of a continuo accompaniment is also variable and can consist of one or more instruments; today, the continuo part in opera is typically played by harpsichord and cello, while the continuo part in sacred music is usually played by an organ. As the name implies, “continuo” (the term is related to the English word “continuous”) often occurs throughout Baroque works, but it is most easily heard in Baroque opera during sections of recitative, since recitative is usually accompanied by continuo alone.


Da capo aria
An aria that follows an A–B–A structure, with an opening “A” section; a contrasting “B” section; and a return of the complete “A” section, typically with added (improvised) ornamentation. The term “da capo,” which means “from the head” (or “from the top”), describes this return to the beginning of the piece. The da capoaria is the basic musical building block of Baroque opera.


An embellishment to the melody, rhythm, or harmony of music, intended to make the music more impressive and ornate. Ornamentation can either be indicated by the composer or improvised by the performer. In da capo arias, performers typically add a good deal of ornamentation when the A section returns.


Prima donna and primo uomo
Literally “first woman” and “first man,” the terms prima donna and primo uomo refer to the singers with the greatest number of arias in a Baroque opera. For instance, in Agrippina, Poppea has 11 discrete arias while Agrippina has only 8; thus, Poppea is the prima donna, while Agrippina, despite being the title character, is relegated to the status of seconda donna (“second lady”). Since opera stars were notoriously high-maintenance, the term prima donna later came to be applied to people who are demanding and self-centered, regardless of their gender or profession.


A type of singing that imitates the accents and inflections of natural speech. Composers often employ recitative for passages of text that involve quick dialogue and the advancement of plot, since the style allows singers to move rapidly through a large amount of text. Recitative may be accompanied by a single instrument (such as a harpsichord), a small ensemble, or the whole orchestra. The term is derived from an Italian verb meaning “to recite.”


Simile Aria
An aria that uses a simile or metaphor to describe how a character is feeling. Since simile arias efficiently express an emotional state without relying on particular details of an opera’s plot, Baroque composers often used the same simile aria in multiple operas.