Classical Music Terms Everyone Should Know

From ‘adagio’ to ‘tre corde,’ these are the classical music terms you need to know to get the most out of your listening experience.


Classical music is often seen as an elitist genre, but it doesn’t have to be! In fact, classical music can be enjoyed by everyone, regardless of age or background. To help you get started, we’ve put together a list of classical music terms that everyone should know.

Allegro: A fast tempo, usually around 120-168 beats per minute.

Andante: A moderate tempo, usually around 76-108 beats per minute.

Aria: A solo song for voice and orchestra. Arias are often found in operas and oratorios.

Canon: A type of composition in which two or more voices sing the same melody in harmony with each other. Canons are often based on a pre-existing melody (such as a folk song or nursery rhyme).

Cadenza: A virtuosic solo section that gives the performer a chance to show off their technical skills. Cadenzas are often found in concertos and other works for solo instrument and orchestra.

Chamber music: Music written for a small ensemble of instruments (usually 2-5 players). Chamber music can be either vocal or instrumental.

Chorus: A group of singers who sing together in harmony. Choruses are often found in operas, oratorios, and other works for voice and orchestra.

Clef: A symbol at the beginning of a musical staff that indicates the pitch of the notes that will follow. The three most common clefs are the treble clef (used for high pitches), the bass clef (used for low pitches), and the alto clef (used for middle pitches). Additional clefs, such as the tenor clef and the guitar/viola clef, are sometimes used depending on the range of the instrument or vocal part. clefs determine the pitch range that a musician will read during a performance; instruments/voices that use higher clefs have higher ranges, while those that use lower clefs have lower ranges.( systems used by audio engineers include effects units such as reverbs and compressors.(

Contrapposto: An Italian word meaning “opposite”. In art, contrapposto refers to a pose in which one shoulder is closer to the viewer than the other, creating an S-shaped curve.( In music, contrapposto refers to a type of polyphony in which two voices move in opposite directions.(https://en2minutemusictheorylessonswordpresscom.wordpress

Basic Terms

Classical music has its own language. To fully appreciate and understand the beauty of classical music, it helps to know some of the basic terms. This article will explain some of the most common classical music terms.


In music, pitch is a perception of the frequency of sound waves.Specifically, pitch is the quality that makes it possible to tell whether one sound is ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ than another. We can talk about pitch in relation to other sounds, or on its own. When we refer to the pitch of a particular sound, we are usually talking about its relative position on a scale. For example, we could say that one sound has a higher pitch than another, or that a sound has a higher pitch than usual.

Pitch is one of the main elements of melody, harmony and (to a lesser extent) rhythm. It helps us to create musical structure and to organise sounds in time. In tonal music, it also helps to create a sense of movement and direction.

Pitch is measured in Hertz (Hz). This is the number of times per second that a sound wave vibrates. The higher the frequency, the higher the pitch. The lowest note on a piano has a frequency of about 27 Hz, while the highest note has a frequency of around 4186 Hz.


In music, rhythm is the placement of sound in time. Although the concept of “rhythm” in music originates from Ancient Greece, it has undergone many changes and variants over the years. Today, “rhythm” can be broadly defined as a “repeating pattern of strong and weak musical beats.” However, different styles of music (e.g., classical, jazz, rock) often have different interpretations of what constitutes a “beat.”

In addition to beats, rhythm also encompasses other aspects of music such as tempo (the speed of the beat), meter (the number of beats per measure), and syncopation (a displacement of the regular beat). Rhythm is an important element in all types of music and can help to create a sense of unity, temp, tension/release, etc.


A melody is a linear succession of Pitch level (contour) which always has a definite pitch, and duration. A sustaining melody is one whose Pitch level (contour) does not change over time. A repeating melody is one that recurs periodically. The pitch referred to as the “tonic” provides the starting note and gives its name to the key, while the ultimate goal of most melodies is usually a return to the starting pitch. A tonal melody is one that creates such a sense of resolution.

The basic melodic idea might be as small as a single note, or it could span several notes over several measures. The important thing about melody is that it has a clear beginning, middle and end: in other words, it’s purposeful. When you listen to a piece of music, try to identify the main melodic idea(s). If there are many different themes occurring simultaneously, try to pay attention to the one that seems most important or stands out the most.


In music, harmony is the use of simultaneous pitches (tones, notes), or chords. The study of harmony involves chords and their construction and chord progressions and the principles of connection that govern them. Harmony is often said to refer to the “vertical” aspects of music, while melody is more concerned with the “horizontal” steps of a song. In jazz and popular music, chords are often augmented with “tensions”. A tension is an additional note added to a chord (usually above the highest note of the triad), giving it a slightly different color.


In music, timbre (/ˈtæmbər/; also known as tone color or tone quality from psychoacoustics) is the perceived sound quality of a musical note, sound or tone. Timbre distinguishes different types of sound production, such as piano, whining, and orchestral strings. It also enables listeners to distinguish different instruments in the same category.
The physical characteristics of sound that determine the perception of timbre include spectrum and envelope. Spectral shape (relative distribution of energy versus frequency) is determined by harmonic and inharmonic components (overtones and partials). A note played on a brass instrument will have different timbre from the same note played on a violin. even if they are both playing at the same loudness and pitch. Envelope is the changes in amplitude (volume) over time at attack (onset), decay, sustain and release phases. While both waveform shape and envelope shape affect timbre perception, waveform shape has proven to have a greater effect for most listeners.
Timbre is an attribute of sound used in musical acoustics to designate the overall character of a particular tone color produced by musical instruments or voices: A flute has a different timbre from a clarinet; a singer producing “head voice” has a different timbre from one producing “chest voice.” The difference between two signals with identical loudness may be described as their “timbral difference.”


In the world of classical music, there are a variety of genres, or categories, into which a piece of music may fall. Here are some of the most common:

Opera: A dramas set to music, usually with singing throughout.

Oratorio: A dramatic work for solo voices, chorus, and orchestra, often based on religious or historical themes.

Chamber music: Small-scale works written for a small group of instruments (usually one to four players). You might see chamber music performed in a living room rather than a concert hall.

Symphony: A large-scale work for orchestra (a group of musicians playing together on various instruments).

Concerto: A work for one or more soloists and orchestra. The soloist(s) show off their virtuosity by playing difficult passages against the accompaniment of the orchestra.

Intermediate Terms


In music, a phrase is a group of notes that expresses an idea or emotion. The smallest phrases are just two or three notes long. Longer phrases may last for several bars (measures) or even the entire length of a piece of music.

The term “phrase” is also used to describe the smallest units of rhetoric, such as sentences and groupings of words within sentences. In this case, the rhetoric parallels the structure and meaning of musical phrases. For example, both music and rhetoric may have identical phrasing (where groups of notes or words are separated by pauses), identical cadences (the way a phrase ends), and identicalAntecedent-Consequent pairings (where one part leads to another).


A cadence is a ending of a phrase, and there are several types. A full or authentic cadence has, in order, a dominant chord (typically built on the fifth scale degree), followed by a tonic chord (typically built on the first scale degree). Half cadences end on the dominant chord while plagal cadences end on the subdominant chord (typically built on the fourth scale degree). Deceptive cadences don’t resolve as expected, using an unrelated chord after the dominant to avoid sounding like the phrase is coming to an end.


Classical music is often described in terms of various musical elements such as tonality, texture, dynamics, and most importantly, form. Broadly speaking, “form” in music refers to the overall structure or plan of a piece, and it encompasses the work’s melody, harmony, rhythm, and dynamics.

Most classical pieces are divided into distinct sections that each have their own unique identity. The introduction of a new section often signal a change in mood or tempo. For example, the first movement of a classical symphony is typically fast-paced and features a prominent main theme that will be developed throughout the rest of the piece. In contrast, the second movement is usually slower and more intimate in nature.

Here are some of the most common musical forms that you’re likely to encounter:

Sonata form: This popular form originated in the 18th century and was used extensively by composers such as Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. It typically consists of three parts: an exposition (introduction of themes), a development (working out of themes), and a recapitulation (restatement of themes).
Rondo form: A rondo is a piece that features a recurring main theme (known as the “refrain”) interspersed with other contrasting sections (known as “episodes”).
Minuet and trio form: This elegant dance-like form was commonly used in the 18th century. It consists of two main sections (the minuet and the trio) which are each repeated once.
Theme and variations form: As its name suggests, this form consists of a melody (the “theme”) that is repeated several times with slight changes each time (the “variations”).
Symphony: A symphony is an large-scale orchestral work that typically consists of four distinct movements. The first movement is usually fast-paced, while the second is slow and lyrical. The third movement is usually in minuet and trio form, while the fourth is fast-paced like the first.


Texture is a musical term that refers to the overall sound of a piece of music. It is determined by the number of voices or parts, the range of each voice or part, the type of instruments used, and the type of sound produced by each instrument.

There are four main types of texture in music: monophonic, polyphonic, homophonic, and heterophonic.

Monophonic texture is created when there is only one voice or part sounding at a time. This is the simplest type of texture and is often found in Gregorian chants and folk songs.

Polyphonic texture occurs when there are two or more independent voices or parts sounding at the same time. This can create a very complex sound, as each voice or part interacts with the others. Counterpoint is a type of polyphonic texture in which two or more voices or parts move independently but come together to create harmony at certain points.

Homophonic texture occurs when there is one melody with accompaniment. The melody stands out from the accompaniment, which provides support without competing with the melody. This is the most common type of texture found in popular music.

Heterophonic texture occurs when two or more voices or parts sound the same melody but with slight variations. This gives the piece a more intricate sound as each voice or part interacts with the others.

Advanced Terms

If you’re new to the world of classical music, there are some terms you should know. Here are a few of the most important ones. Tempo – the speed of the music. Dynamics – how loud or quiet the music is. Articulation – how the notes are played. These are just a few of the terms you should know.


In music, a motif is a short, recurring musical idea or phrase, often characterized by its melodic shape or rhythmic figure. The word may also refer to an overall theme of a work of music, or a recurring element in the work (e.g., “the fire motif in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5”). Motifs may be described as cells, modules, phrases, or portions of larger themes.


A leitmotif is a musical phrase associated with a particular character, place, mood, or idea in an opera or other long musical work. It’s like a recurrent theme that helps to unify the work and create a sense of dramatic purpose. The word comes from the German for “leading motif.”

Here’s an example from Richard Wagner’s opera Lohengrin. In this piece, the leitmotif associated with the swan (which is actually a magical being in disguise) appears several times throughout the work:

You can hear the swan motif at 0:37, 0:46, 1:03, and 1:14.


In music, counterpoint is the relationship between voices that are harmonically interdependent (polyphony) yet independent in rhythm and contour. It has been most commonly identified in the European classical tradition, strongly developing during the Renaissance and in much of the common practice period, especially in the Baroque. The term originates from the Latin punctus contra punctum meaning “point against point”, i.e. note against note.

Counterpoint generally involves musical lines with strongly independent profiles, though a line may be made up of multiple melodic motifs with greater or less independence from each other. Counterpoint often employs a “rule of the octave”, but this guideline is far from absolute, counterpoint within anygiven musical composition will usually exhibit a considerable degree of freeform surface activity while at the same time maintaining a reasonably consistent overall voice leading through all sections or movements of Counterpoint may occur either simultaneously (in which case it is called polyphony) or successively (a style called heterophony).

In 18th-century Europe didactic writings on composition became popular with Commentary on Fugal Composition by Johann Joseph Fux published in 1725 as perhaps the most widely known example, but there are many others.


In music, a fugue (/fjuːɡ/ fewg) is a contrapuntal compositional technique in two or more voices, built on a subject (a musical theme) that is introduced at the beginning in imitation (repetition at different pitches) and recurs periodically throughout the piece. Fugues follow certain rules of counterpoint.

Most fugues have three sections: an exposition, a development, and a final entry that contains the return of the subject in the fugue tonic. Some fugues also have a recapitulation.

A fugue begins with the exposition and is written according to certain predefined rules; in later sections, however, the composer has much more freedom. A tonally closed fugue (that is, one in which all entries are in the same key) features entries by Subject 1 in tonic, followed by Subject 2 in tonic (at a different pitch level or an octave above or below Subject 1), followed by Subject 1 in the dominant (usually 5th scale degree), followed by Subject 2 in the dominant, and so on. When subsequent entries of both Subjects occur together at the same time (which occasionally happens after each statement of either Subject), this is called a “double fugue”.

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