10 Essential Musical Terms

A self-contained piece for solo voice, typically with orchestral accompaniment. Arias form a major part of larger works such as operas or oratorios.


The inclusion or imitation of foreign musical styles in Western music. Composers have long drawn on the exotic sounds of other cultures to enrich their own works. In the 18th and 19th centuries, musicians were inspired by influences as varied as Turkish janissary bands and Spanish dance rhythms. In Madama Butterfly, Puccini’s use of pentatonic scales and Japanese and Chinese folk songs represents a type of exoticism.


Folk Music and Folk Song
Music derived from an oral tradition, usually in a simple style and understood to represent the history or “essence” of a nation or cultural group. The term implies a separation between this kind of music and the “higher” form of art music developed by trained composers. Interest in folk songs grew steadily throughout the 19th century, parallel and related to the growth of cultural and political nationalism. Folk songs formed a rich resource for many 19th-century composers as they sought to broaden the classical idiom and evoke rustic settings, traditional cultures, and the distant past.


A musical form based on a brief theme, or “subject,” and its imitation throughout multiple voices of a composition. The term derives from two Latin words meaning “to flee” and “to chase,” reflecting the way that fugal subjects (i.e. repeated musical ideas) figuratively chase one another. The art of fugal composition reached its pinnacle in the works of Johann Sebastian Bach in the 18th century, but fugues can be found in the works of many later composers, both in orchestral music and tin opera, including Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (Act II finale), Verdi’s Falstaff (Act III finale), and in the prelude to Madama Butterfly. The fugal theme from Madama Butterfly’s prelude recurs throughout the opera, evoking the hustle and bustle of Cio-Cio-San’s wedding day.


A percussion instrument, usually flat and round in shape, made out of resonating metal such as bronze or brass. Gongs have a long history, with evidence of their use in China from as early as the third century BC. Typically hung from a frame and played with a mallet, gongs have a very specific timbre. Puccini uses two different kinds of gong in Madama Butterfly to evoke the sounds of the Far East: tuned gongs, which create a pitch when they are hit, and the tam-tam, which creates an unpitched crashing sound.


Musical Quotation
As in the corresponding concept in speech or literature, a composer’s use of a brief passage of pre-existent musical material. The principle is similar to the contemporary notion of sampling, where sounds are taken from a recorded medium and inserted into a new musical work. Musical quotation most frequently entails the borrowing of the melodic line of its source, although it can include borrowed harmony as well. Often, a composer’s use of musical quotation increases the web of meanings of a given passage, as it inspires the listener to make associations with the source’s text, composer, culture, or musical tradition.


Pentatonic Scale
A scale made up of five pitches (from Greek pente, five). The most common pentatonic scale includes the pitches C-D-E-G-A, although other combinations of intervals are possible, including some that have a more “minor” inflection to Western ears. Pentatonic scales have been used in music from many cultures around the world and throughout history, from China, Japan, and Java to European folk music and American popular music, especially the African-American spiritual and jazz. In Madama Butterfly, Puccini used pentatonic melodies and harmonies to represent Cio-Cio-San and her Japanese heritage.


A style of seamless musical composition without obvious repetitions or breaks. The concept may be applied to works as a whole, as in entire operas, or to individual pieces. It is understood in contrast to the various types of strophic song, all of which include some variety of internal repetition (such as the da capo aria and rondeau form). Through-composed songs, even when they are based on strophic texts, include new music for each stanza. The technique of through-composition allows a composer greater invention and flexibility, as the music may change to reflect the dramatic situation and develop organically, rather than being restricted by repetition or other formal limitations.


A movement in Italian theater and opera in the late 19th century that embraced realism and explored areas of society previously ignored on the stage: the poor, the lower-class, the outcast, and the criminal. Characters in verismo operas are often driven to defy reason, morality, and occasionally the law. In order to reflect these emotional extremes, composers developed a musical style that communicates raw and unfiltered passions. Before its exploration on the operatic stage, the verismo aesthetic developed in the realm of literature.


Whole-Tone Scale
A six-note scale (seven including the upper octave) consisting exclusively of whole steps (or “tones”). There are only two possible whole tone scales: C-D-E-F♯-G♯-A♯(or B♭, spelled enharmonically); and C♯-D♯-E♯(or F)-G-A-B. Whole-tone scales and chords are harmonically unstable as they lack the pitches used in chord resolutions typical of the tonal era. In Madama Butterfly, Puccini often uses whole-tone inflections to lend his music an otherworldly or exotic feeling.