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Learning musical terms

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Learning all the many musical terms used in music theory is a lot like learning vocabulary for a foreign language (or several!). In this guide we look at some useful learning techniques.

Musical terms

Most musical terms are in Italian, but you will also have to learn some terms in French and German as well as in English, of course. Given that most of the terms are in Italian, it makes sense to learn those first, and then compare the French and German equivalents.

As with learning a foreign language, one good way to learn all these new terms is by practice, but it's very unlikely you'll come across every single term required for the exam in your instrumental playing.

Usually it will be useful to learn terms by knowing their musical meaning. However, sometimes it can be difficult to do this because the terms can be quite vague or imprecise, for example sostenuto (sustained). Only by playing various pieces marked, for example Andante sostenuto would you really get a feel for what sostenuto (and, indeed, the rather vague andante) really mean. For the purposes of music theory exams, though, you simply need to remember the standard English translations of each of these terms.

Some words all mean similar things, but with slightly different slants to the meaning. For example, mesto, dolente, triste and lacrimoso all mean "sad" - and you might translate them as "mournful", "doleful", "sorrowful" and "tearful" respectively, but for the purposes of an exam, it is useful to remember them all as "sad".

Learning by Tempo

Most of the musical terms you need to learn are related to tempo, and it can be helpful to imagine them all on a scale from slow to fast. You will probably have seen such a scale printed on your metronome, and that's a very good way of getting a feel for just how fast (in precise, metronomic terms) a given tempo is. This is also a good way of learning what one tempo means in terms of another more familiar tempo.

You will almost certainly have seen metronome markings accompanying a descriptive musical term. Normally these give the number of a specified rhythmic value (for example, a crotchet) within one bar - say, "crotchet = 120" meaning that the music should be played at the speed of 120 crotchet beats to one minute. You might occasionally hear this rate referred to as "120 BPM".

Here is a table of most of the tempo-related terms you will encounter, ranked from slow to fast, and with approximate metronome markings. Often there is a great degree of variation in the use of these terms, for musical reasons, so for example you might sometimes perform veloce slower than scherzando, but never as slow as andante! The terms are arranged into groups of approximately "slow", "medium" and "fast" tempo.

gravevery slow, solemn, seriousSlow
largo, langsamslow, stately
larghettorather slow (not as slow as largo)
lento, lent, langsamslow
adagiettorather slow (faster than adagio)
andanteat a medium ("walking") speedMedium
andantinoslightly faster than andante
moderatomoderately (allegro moderato: moderately quick)
allegrettofairly quick (but not as quick as allegro)
allegroquick (literally "cheerful")
scherzandoplayful, jokingFast
animatoanimated, lively
prestofast (faster than allegro)
vivacelively, quick
volanteflying, fast

Meaning and Language

Composers of all nationalities, since the 18th century, mostly used Italian terms for performance indications. Where German or French (or indeed English) terms are used, this is often simply a reflection of the composer's nationality or the choice of the publisher for a particular market. Many German and Austrian composers (Mozart, Beethoven...) used Italian terms particularly until the 19th century, but later you will often find German terms (Schumann, Brahms...).

Some composers use both Italian and German terms together; Mahler would often mix both languages,using Italian for a tempo indication and German for a stylistic indication. For example, the second movement of his 3rd Symphony is marked "Tempo di Menuetto. Sehr mässig", the third movement is marked "Comodo. Scherzando. Ohne Hast", and the fourth movement "Sehr langsam. Misterioso".

Diminutives and Superlatives

Some words are derived from others, which in grammatical terms we call a "diminutive". If your name were Robert, then "Rob" or "Bob" or "Robbie" would be diminutives of your proper name. In music, we see this effect in, for example allegro and allegretto. Usually in Italian, the diminutive version is a longer word (in this case, allegretto is the diminutive of allegro), and implies "a little", "quite", or "fairly" - for example, allegro means "quick" and allegretto means "fairly quick". When referring to indications of speed or tempo, the diminutive version normally implies less of the original. So, for quick tempos (such as allegro), "less" allegro would mean slower. However, for already slow tempos such as largo, "less" largo actually means faster (less slow!).

Another way of thinking of diminutives is to think of them as poco ("a little") plus the original word. So for example, poco allegro would mean the same as allegretto.

It is worth learning the diminutives alongside the original terms, and remembering how they are related to eacher. Here is a list of terms with diminutives:

largoslow, stately
andanteat a medium ("walking") speed
allegroquick (literally "cheerful")

Superlatives are a little like the opposite of diminutives, and imply "very", or a strengthening or augmentation of the original term. These are much more easy to recognise, and you will certainly be familiar with words such as fortissimo (very loud), which is the superlative of forte (loud): a superlative in Italian will typically end in "-issimo". Similarly, presto means "fast" and prestissimo means "very fast".

As with the use of poco for a diminutive, you can think of a superlative as molto ("very" or "much") plus the original. So for example, molto vivace would mean the same as vivacissimo.

Bear in mind however that you can find "-issimo" added to almost any tempo marking, and the meaning in each case is always that of "very" plus the original (e.g., allegrissimo: very allegro, agitatissimo: very agitato, etc.)

An exception: pochettino is a diminutive form of poco, but poco means "a little" already, so what would "a little a little" mean? In fact, pochettino in music means "very little", and taken further, the superlative pochissimo means "as little as possible".

A Learning Tip

Here is a great technique to use when trying to learn lots of new vocabulary.

  1. Start off with all the words you want to know written on separate pieces of paper (Post-It notes, with the gluey section cut off or folded over, are great for this). Write the English meaning on one side and the Italian (or German, or French) on the other side.
  2. Next, get five envelopes, and mark them with numbers 1 to 5. Put the envelopes to one side for the moment.
  3. Now put all your pieces of paper in a hat, shuffle them about, and pick out ten.
  4. Hold these slips of paper like a pack of cards, and look at the face of the first one. Try and remember the translation, and speak it out loud, then check if you got it right by turning the slip of paper over. If you got it right, put the paper into a "yes" pile; if you got it wrong, put it in a "no" pile.
  5. When you've got through all ten, you should have a pile of "yes" slips and a pile of "no" slips. (If you have no "no" slips, great!). Put all the "no" slips into the envelope marked "1", and all the "yes" slips into the envelope marked "2". Now go and do something else for the rest of the day.
  6. The next day, pick out the pack of slips in envelope "2". Go through step (4) again with these slips. Put your "yes" pile into envelope "3", and your "no" pile back to envelope "1". Next, repeat with envelope "1", advancing any you get right into envelope "2", and returning any you get wrong into envelope "1".
  7. Every day, repeat steps 4-6, each day starting with the highest-numbered envelope that has slips in it, advancing your "yes" slips into the next highest envelope. Start with the highest-numbered envelope, then the next-highest, and so on from 5 down to 1. Every time you get one wrong, even if it was in envelope "5", it must go back to envelope "1" again. Every time envelope "1" becomes empty, take another ten bits of paper from your hat and start them off in envelope "1". When a slip makes it past envelope "5", then you can be confident that you've learnt that one!

Eventually, all of your slips of paper will make it out of envelope "5" and into your long-term memory. Make sure that you write out the words in the first place (step 1) - that's part of the learning process! - and make sure that you speak your answers out loud (step 4). And of course, don't cheat...

It's worth repeating the whole exercise in the week before your exam, just to make sure that you've remembered everything!


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