About words

This section is for non-musicians only. You will find here explanations and definitions of technical terms I will use if I can not avoid it. I will do my best to avoid it. And I will do my best to get this section right. Please flag any factual error.

12-tone serialism – see serialism

Arpeggio – An arpeggio consists of the notes of a chord played in succession.

Basso continuo/figured bass – Basso continuo designates a) an improvised accompaniment typical for the Baroque period featuring chords (harp, lute, harpsichord…) and a bass instrument (cello, double bass, viola…) and b) the notation for those instruments in Baroque scores. The basso continuo, when realized, provides the bass line in a musical works and thus completes the harmonic part of a polyphonic piece (a piece with multiple voices with different pitch)

Chromaticism – Chromaticism designates the use of a scale that divides the octave in 12 equal intervals of one semi-tone. (c, c sharp, d, d sharp, e, f…) Usually the tonality of pieces from the Classical and Romantic era gravitates around on dominant chromatic scale, C major for example.

Chromatic scale – The Chromatic scale is a musical scale with twelve pitches, each a semitone above the next: C, C sharp, D, D sharp… B.

Circle of fifths – The circle of fifths is a sequence of pitches or key tonalities, represented as a circle, in which the next pitch is found seven semitones higher than the last. It describes the relationship among the 12 tones of the chromatic scale.

Crescendo (Italian: crescere – to grow) Crescendo designates a musical passage characterized by a gradual, steady increase in force.

Coda (Italian: la coda – the tail) – Coda denotes the final movement of a piece of music.

Counterpoint – Counterpoint denotes a compositional technique marked by a coherent combination of distinct melodic lines in vocal and instrumental music. The different voices are no longer heard in rhythmic unison. Nevertheless any dissonance (between the voices) must resolve on proceeding consonance to achieve balance. In a canon for example, a leading voice (violin/solo singer) is imitated by others slightly dephased (basso continuo/choir). Or a choir might sing a principal line while a solo singer adds embellishments. Counterpoint was developed around the 14th century after polyphonic (several distinct melodic lines) music had started to succeed monophony (one single melody) between the 10th and 13th century. Counterpoint in instrumental music reached a peak under Johann Sebastian Bach.

Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (Vienna) – This Vienna based association was founded in 1812 to regroup the musicians and singers who performed Händel’s oratorium  the same year. It’s aim was and still is to foster the performance of classical music. It became the venue for regular concerts in a prestigious building after Emperor Franz-Josef I donated a piece of real estate in the heart of Vienna. Link: http://www.musikverein.at/

Historically informed performance (HIP) – For a historically informed performance the musicians they use period instruments (instruments from the period it was written) to reproduce the sound as the composer and the audience might have heard it. They also try to respect historical performance parameters (size of the concert hall, acoustics etc.)

Key – Pieces composed in the tonal system (as opposed to atonal compositions) usually move around a central key (either minor or major, like C major) that defines the “average” pitch of the piece or its parts.

Klangfarben – The term “Klangfarben” (sound colors) was introduced by the Austrian composer Arnold Schönberg before World War II in the context of sound color melodies. Such was his designation for a “melody of timbre, in which the instrumentation of a piece is as important as the pitch and the rhythm and has its own structural function” (Oxford Companion To Music).

Klangflächen – The term “Klangflächen” (sound surfaces) designates a sound produced by superimposed chords, several tones played simultaneously (clusters). The focus does not lie on a melody, but more one uniform sound over several bars, that can be static or dynamic (pulsating for example). György Ligeti has used this compositional method in a number of pieces.

Legato – Legato (Italian: legare – to tie) describes a way of musical expression. It means that one note is tied to the next one as opposed to staccato where each note is played as an individual sound (with an almost imperceptible break in-between).

Madrigal – A madrigal is a vocal music composition, usually for several voices (polyphonic), sometimes accompanied by instrumental music. It was a standard music form at the beginning of the 17th century, but had to give place to the cantata/serenata (vocal music) and the sonata/suite/ partita (instrumental music) by 1650.

Mannheim School – The Mannheim School is a modern term coined for a group of German composers performing and teaching in Mannheim in the 18th century. They were supported by the Elector Palatine Carl Theodor, head of the local court, and part of the court’s orchestra. The Mannheim School, parallel to like-minded composers in Vienna, experimented with new musical forms and laid the foundation of the symphony as it was later developed by Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Members of this group were among others Johann Stamitz and Franz Xaver Richter.

Mighty Five – The Mighty Five was a group of Russian composers uniting Modest Mussorgsky, Mily Balakirev, Cesar Cui, Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Borodin in the quest of composing “Russian” music, devoid of any influences from contemporary music from Western Europe, namely the German Romanticism. The idea was to go back to folklorist melodies and traditional subjects taken from everyday’s reality and mythology. They made the headlines for some time through their violent critic of anyone not adhering to their principles, but their aesthetic ideas had no lasting influence.

Minuet – A minuet is a dance usually in a 3/4 metre popular between the mid-16th century and the end of the 18th. It later became the form of one of the movements in symphonies and chamber music. From the beginning of the 19th century on, the minuet as the form of a movement was gradually replaced by the scherzo.

Octave – An octave is the tonal space covering eight tones.

Opera buffa – An opera buffa is a comic opera, often with characters from everyday life.

Opera seria – An opera seria is an opera with an earnest subject, often drawn from mythology.

Pizzicato (Plural: pizzicati, Italian: pizzicare – to pluck) – Pizzicato indicates that the musicians pluck the strings (of the violin, viola, cello, double bass) instead of playing them with the bow.

Ricercar (Plural: ricercari, Italian: ricercare – to explore) – A ricercar is a type of instrumental piece common during the 16th and 17th century, often written for a solo instrument like the bass viol or the lute. In some cases, a ricercar may explore the permutations of a given theme. The 20th century composer György Ligeti picked this idea up in his “Musica Ricercata”, a piano cycle of ten pieces linked to each other through common elements played at a different pace or in a different pitch.

Rondo – A rondo is characterized by a principal theme alternating with one or more contrasting themes. Possible patterns include: ABA, ABACA, or ABACABA. In the 19th century the rondo was often used as the form of the last movement of a piece of chamber music.

Scherzo – A scherzo is a quick, light movement or piece, often in a triple metre and a contrasting middle section.

Serialism – Serialism is a composing technique introduced by the Austrian composer Arnold Schönberg (1874-1951). It relies on the ordered arrangement of musical elements i.e. pitches, intervals or durations within a piece in a way that structures the piece in sets/clusters, rows or series. Most commonly the elements arranged in the series are the 12 notes of the equal-tempered scale. 12-tone serialism (duodecaphony) where only the pitch is governed by serial thinking, as it was used by Schönberg, could be compared to the different ways of re-arranging 12 pearls of different colors on a string. Total serialism as it was used by Pierre Boulez applies serial thinking also to dynamics and rhythm. Tough stuff! 🙄

Staccato (Italian: staccare – to divide) – The mention staccato in a score indicates that several consecutive notes of shortened duration are played with a short pause in-between. The contrary would be legato where the notes are linked one to the next one.

Stanza – A stanza is a set of text lines in a poem or a prayer. Equivalent of a verse.

Tempo (Plural: tempi, Italian: il tempo – the time) – Tempo designates the speed at which a piece is performed. Along with the key, the tempo formally defines a musical piece. It ranges from largo (40 to 60 beats per minute) to prestissimo (200 to 208 beats per minute).

Tremolo – A vocal technique where the same note is repeated fast several times to produce the effect of a drawn-out note and to enhance the dramatic effect.

Tristan Chord – A chord formed by the notes F, B, D♯ and G♯ used in Richard Wagner’s opera “Tristan und Isolde”. The chord creates a tension that is not being resolved by a return to a corresponding harmony, and Wagner thus creates a psychological effect of  never-ending sounds and melodies. It is noteworthy that Wagner did not invent this chord as it has been used previously by Ludwig van Beethoven and Frédéric Chopin for example. However he was the first to use it in a specific function. 😳


Zarzuela – A zarzuela is a Spanish lyric-dramatic genre, comparable to the French operette or the Italian opera buffa.

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