10 Essential Musical Terms

A type of song, often associated with folk music, that tells a story. Ballads typically feature a “strophic” structure (i.e., the same melody is sung over and over with changing text) and predominantly syllabic melodies. In addition, ballads are usually sung by a solo performer, even though the text might include quoted speech as well as descriptions of actions and events. Examples of ballads in the Anglophone tradition include “Oh My Darling, Clementine,” “Streets of Laredo,” and “Barbara Allen.”


A group of performers singing together with multiple voices per part. In opera, a composer may use a chorus to represent large groups of characters, such as townspeople or guests at a party. Music for a chorus can range from simple unison melodies to complex, multi-part singing with a high degree of rhythmic and melodic independence.


The relative intensity in the volume of a musical sound. When indicated in a score, dynamics are communicated by a set of standard Italian terms and symbols: f for forte, p for piano, mf for mezzo-forte, and so on. The concept of dynamics comprises not only the degree of loudness but also the movement between different dynamic levels. For instance, crescendo (related to the English word “increase”) means “growing louder,” while diminuendo (from the same root as the English word “diminish”) means “growing softer.”


Literally “leading theme” in German, a leitmotif is a recurring musical motto that represents a person, place, emotion, idea, object, or any other element in a musical or dramatic work. The use of leitmotifs helps give structural unity to a composition, and leitmotifs may be combined to form a dense web of thematic material. The idea originated in the mid-19th century and is especially associated with the work of Richard Wagner.


A German word meaning “total art work,” typically used to describe an opera in which the various components—words, music, story, stage design, etc.—are created together. Although not originally coined by Wagner, the term has come to be closely associated with his operas, and Wagner theorized the term extensively in his essays “The Artwork of the Future” (1849) and “Opera and Drama” (1850–51). Wagner admitted that a Gesamtkunstwerk could be created by several artists working together, but he preferred to ensure his own work’s “totality” by crafting all parts himself, writing both the words and music for his operas and sometimes even directing and designing productions. Today, the term can be used to theorize other kinds of performing arts that feature numerous inextricable elements; if none of these elements (which may include visual, sonic, or other kinds of media) can be removed without destroying the integrity of the work, scholars may refer to the piece as a Gesamtkunstwerk.


Major and Minor
Western music written since around 1600 has utilized two main strategies for organizing pitches. “Major” music is based on a scale consisting of primarily whole steps but with half steps between scale degrees 3 and 4 and between scale degrees 7 and 1. “Minor” music, by contrast, is based on a scale with half steps between scale degrees 2 and 3 and between scale degrees 5 and 6. Music composed in a major key typically sounds bright, cheery, or optimistic, while pieces in a minor key may sound somber, sinister, or plaintive.


An aspect of composition, orchestration is the art of choosing which instruments should play each part of a musical work. Successful orchestration requires both practical considerations (for instance, that a given melody is within an instrument’s range) and more creative elements (for instance, whether an instrument’s unique timbre is suited to the emotions or ideas that a melody needs to express).


An instrumental piece that occurs before an opera’s first act and serves as an introduction to an opera. After the conductor enters the orchestra pit and takes a bow, the music for the overture begins. Overtures set the mood for the opera and often feature the opera’s main musical themes. Most overtures last only a few minutes, but the overture to Der Fliegende Holländer clocks in at a whopping 11 minutes in length. In fact, in the years following Der Fliegende Holländer’s premiere, the overture was often performed in orchestral concerts as a stand-alone work, and Wagner even published an essay to help listeners understand how the overture’s music reflected the story of the Flying Dutchman and his desperate search for a bride.


Program Music
Music that relates a story through musical sounds alone. It is important to note that program music does not have words; instead, the music itself is supposed to evoke the ideas and images of the story. Examples of program music include Paul Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. By contrast, music that does not tell a story is called “absolute music.” Most symphonies and sonatas are examples of absolute music, although Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, often called the “Pastoral Symphony” in reference to its scenes of springtime parties and storms, is a notable exception. In the 19th century, a schism developed in German musical circles between those who believed that absolute music was superior and those who preferred program music, a camp that included Wagner’s friend and supporter (and later father-in-law) Franz Liszt.


Literally meaning “time” in Italian, the word “tempo” refers to the speed of a piece of music. It is indicated in a score by a variety of conventional (often Italian) words that not only provide direction on the composer’s desired rate of speed but also carry associations of gesture and character. Additional tempo markings may indicate when a composer asks for a section of music to speed up or slow down.