A Small Refresher in Musical Terms

2011Symposium_1_2Unless I make an effort to read scores, there are some musical terms that I am apt to forget because either I just don’t come across them that often in music I am apt to be teaching to my students, or because the definition has become distorted by common misuse. Today, I thought it would be beneficial for me and hopeful you as well, to dust off some of these musical terms.

15ma means to play two octaves higher than written. It’s cousin, 15mb means to play two octaves lower than written. Both terms are an abbreviation of the Italian word quindicesima, which means fifteenth. When 15mb is used, the b is an abbreviation for basso, and indicates that the music should be played two octaves lower than written.

l’istesso literally means “the same.” It is most often used in reference to tempo, as in l’istesso tempo, meaning to continue in the same tempo. Frequently this marking occurs where the music transitions from one section or style to another. The change suggests a change in tempo, and so the composer contradicts this inclination by instructing the performer to continue without changing the tempo. Students who try to remember the meaning of words in other languages may mistake l’istesso for meaning less, or a slowing down.

Strophic is a term that refers to music in which the same music is used for several music_words_largedifferent verses of lyrics. We teach songs like this all the time, but because there is only one musical section, it is easy to overlook labeling the form. Strophic songs have no refrain or chorus, but only repeated verses. An example of a strophic song is “Deck the Halls,” which has many verses all sung to the same melody.

Classical Music, though not strictly a musical term, is nonetheless one of the most controversial and often misused terms in music education. The meaning of classical music has become unclear because of inconsistent use. Strictly speaking, it is used to refer to music written in a particular style characteristic of art music written from the mid-18th century through the early 19th century. Mozart and Haydn were two composers who lived in this time period and wrote music in the classic style. The music is characterized by strict formal organization in which balance is of primary importance. The music is fashioned after classical Greek architecture where windows and columns were always placed in equal numbers on either side of center, creating a balanced appearance. The term classical music is often used to refer to art music of any style or period, creating the confusion I mentioned earlier. This results in phrases like “20th century classical music” which is meant to describe art music written in the twentieth century.

image05Cambiata is a specific melodic pattern in which two non-chord tones on either side of the resolution precede that resolution. Generally the pattern begins with a chord tone, followed by a descending second to the first non-chord tone, followed by a descending third to the second non-chord tone, followed by an ascending second to the resolution. The cambiata can be inverted by reversing those directions.

Ben as in ben marcato. The word “ben” in Italian means “well;” it is a form of bene. When preceding another word, it strengthens the word; therefore, ben marcato means “well marked.” Gershwin marked the first movement of his Three Preludes, “Allegro ben ritmato e deciso,” which means “fast, well rhythmic and decisive.” Though not correct English, the intent is that the music be played with more than passing attention to the rhythmic aspects.

Alla This is actually a combination of two Italian words; al meaning “to the,” and la, meaning the. Because articles in Italian specify gender, it is correct to translate alla Marcia as “to the march” and not “to the the march.” It is also not correct to translate alla Marcia as “in the style of” or ‘to be played as a march.” The term means that at that point in the score, the music is a march. However, in French, a la means “in the manner of” so “a la mars” translates from French to English “in the manner of a march.”

These are but a few of the musical terms that I have to be careful with. Perhaps the meanings of some of these words have at times eluded you as well. It might be helpful to all of us to share musical terms that we are unsure of, and build a community glossary. Feel free to use the comments section to throw your term into the ring.






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