10 Essential Musical Terms

A style of music that developed in the rural Deep South at the beginning of the 20th century, characterized by a 12-bar form, call and response format, blue notes, and lyrics about hardship and difficulty.


Blue Notes
In blues and jazz, blue notes are pitches that are lowered from their normal position in a diatonic scale. As blue notes, the third and seventh, and occasionally the fifth, scale degrees are lowered by a half step (though the lowered pitch may not be exact, a further expressive feature). Blues singers sometimes call this “worrying” or “bending” the notes. Gershwin’s music is rife with blue notes.


The New York theater district centered around Times Square. When used in connection with the term “musical,” it refers to the popular genre of sung drama that has been performed there since the late 19th century. Although Broadway musicals can take many forms, they usually feature songs separated by spoken dialogue, a contemporary setting, dance numbers, and the popular musical styles of the day.


Call and Response
A musical structure in which different groups of singers (or soloists) seem to respond to one another. The practice of call and response may date to African American work songs, which featured a leader and chorus alternating verses and refrains, or even single phrases. Call and response is a feature of spirituals as well as blues and jazz. The structure may also apply to purely instrumental works or instrumental portions of vocal works.


A group of performers singing together. The chorus’s music can range from simple unison melodies to complex, multi-part singing with a high degree of rhythmic independence. In opera, the composer may use a chorus to represent large groups of characters, such as townspeople, soldiers, or guests at a party.


Jazz spans a vast range of styles and genres. A true American art form, jazz first grew out of performing styles developed by African Americans at the turn of the 20th century and features improvisation, syncopation, blues inflections, and “swing,” an approach to rhythm and phrasing that uses rubato, accents, and other performance choices to create forward drive.


A form of American popular entertainment in the 19th century that featured stereotyped and exaggerated features of African American life. It was performed by white actors wearing blackface makeup and featured dialogue with a buffoonish Southern dialect and mangled grammar. As the 20th century progressed, blackface minstrelsy came to be understood as deeply offensive, a representation that effaced black art and performers while propagating racist stereotypes.


An overlaying of different rhythms that are perceived to be independent of one another. Polyrhythms are common in much African drumming, as well as in jazz. They are also a feature of some spirituals, where polyrhythms can be created through the addition of improvised hand claps and foot stomps.


An African American folk song with a text inspired by sacred writings or ideas. Spirituals grew out of oral traditions during the age of slavery, combining West African and Anglo-American musical features. Drawing on aspects of Protestant hymns, spirituals retell stories from the Old and New Testaments, most often those that describe triumph over powerful enemies and delivery from bondage (such as Moses’s delivery of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt). Musically, spirituals do not belong to either the major or minor mode but instead draw pitches from both. They also feature call and response, interjections such as cries and shouts, syncopation, and an improvisatory approach to the treatment of melodic repetition.


Moving the stress of a musical phrase from a normally strong beat to a normally weak beat. For instance, in 4/4 time, a syncopated phrase might place the stress on beats two and/or four. This effect can be achieved by accenting a weak beat through melodic and/or harmonic means. It can also be achieved by attenuating the strong beat, usually by tying a weak beat to the strong beat that follows it (for instance, tying the fourth beat of a measure to the first beat of the next measure), or by placing a rest on a traditionally strong beat. It is important to note that, to successfully create the effect of syncopation, the overall meter must remain discernible—either played simultaneously in other voices or immediately before or after the period of syncopation. Otherwise, the human ear will naturally “shift” the meter to align with the accented beats and the effect will be lost.