Music Theory Concepts

This page will be a bit of a “cheat sheet” to keep track of the music theory gobbledygook I talk about in the blog.

Flat (♭): This symbol lowers the pitch by one half-step.
Sharp (♯): This symbol raises the pitch by one half-step.
Natural (♮): Returns the pitch to its normal state.
Key:  The core set of notes on which a piece is based.  Think of this as “home base”.  A piece in B♭ will usually begin and end on B♭.  Sometimes the music will modulate (change) into a new key in the middle of a piece, which becomes the new “home base”.
Tonic: Not the drink, but the first note of the scale, or “home base” (B♭ is the tonic in the key of B♭).

  • Major: This describes the key.  In its most simplistic form, a major key sounds “happy.”
    (C major is C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C)
  • Minor:  This also describes the key.  In its most simplistic form, a minor key sounds “sad.”
    (C minor is C-D-E♭-F-G-A♭-B♭-C)

Tempo: how fast or slow the music is played.
Metronome Marking: specifies speed as “beats per minute”.  A metronome marking of 60 means that the music has one beat per second.
Beat: the basic pulse or “heartbeat” of the music. These beats are grouped into basic units (measures or bars) that form the basic rhythmic track of the piece.  A LOT of music, especially pop and rock, uses four beats to a measure.  Waltzes use three beats per measure.  The famous Dave Brubeck song “Take Five” uses (you guessed it!) five beats per measure.  Sometimes when a piece is in four, it’s going so fast that it feels more like it is in two.
Meter:  Displayed as two numbers, which tell the musician how many and what kind of notes make up each measure.  A waltz is usually in 3/4 (three beats per measure; the quarter note gets the beat).  Here’s an interesting video that plays a snippet of a song in a few different meters.
Syncopation: when the rhythm gives a bit of a “hiccup”, or “trip”. If you’ve listened to any ragtime, you’ve heard syncopation.
Off-beats: The “pah” in “oom-pah”
Triplet: Basically, dividing one beat into three equal parts. A lot of music divides that beat into two parts. Think “an-i-mal an-i-mal an-i-mal”, where “an” falls on your beat. Say it with a steady pulse.
Quarter note: The basic building block of music notation. In a LOT of music, the quarter note is what gets one beat.
Essential-Music-Theory.com has a nice page that talks about note values and how they relate to each other.
Hemiola: When in 3/4 time, accenting two measures so they sound like three measures of 2/4 time.

Ritardando: graduated decrease in tempo
Accelerando: graduated increase in tempo
A tempo: return to the original tempo
Subito: Suddenly

Interval: Distance between two notes. C–>D is a second, C–>E is a third, etc.
Notes played simultaneously as a harmonic unit.  Probably the first chord that comes to mind is a triad, which has three notes based on thirds.  C-E-G is a triad (C to E is a third, and E to G is a third).
Suspension: In a progression of chords, one note of a chord stays put for a beat or so while the other notes have moved to the next chord. The lagging note will then move into its proper position. So instead of going from C-F-A directly to C-E-G, the F might stay for a beat before resolving down to E.

Melody:  The tune. A series of musical notes that forms the primary “narration” of a song.  The melody is what you go home whistling – it’s typically the first thing you remember when thinking about a song.
Countermelody:  This is the ice cream to the apple pie.  Both are great on their own, and can stand alone.  But when combined, they produce an extra level of deliciousness.  The countermelody is another tuneful phrase like a melody, but it is used to support the melody, not to be the star (though a good countermelody can sometimes upstage the star!)
(thanks to the husband for the a la mode analogy)
Theme: A musical idea of a piece (or section of a piece).  It’s similar to how a theme works in a novel.  There can be multiple themes, they can be short or long, and they can be manipulated (i.e. starts out in three but you hear it in four later on). When analyzing a piece of music, themes are mapped out and designated A, B, C, D, etc. in the order in which they appear in the piece. There are various ways to indicate if and how a theme has changed, such as using an apostrophe after the letter (A’)
Motif: A musical idea. It can be rhythmic, melodic or harmonic.  Motifs help to create unity throughout the piece.  Perhaps the most recognizable is the “da-da-da-dummm” of Beethoven’s fifth symphony.  Themes and motifs are related; I think of a motif as more of a fragment or phrase and a theme as a sentence.
Coda: The closing section of a piece. Sometimes it is a short new motif as opposed to a straight repeat of prevoius themes.
Movement: A section of a piece of music, usually self-contained.  Symphonies and concertos typically have 3-4 movements. There is usually a break after each movement, although that line gets blurred sometimes.  Movements often have different moods and themes from the other movements in the piece.
Arpeggio: Chords that are played one note at a time, instead of all at once.
Form: The song’s blueprint.  Probably the most familiar would be a pop song, which often has a verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, verse, chorus.  Or something very similar. We map out sections using letters (A,B,C, etc.) and additional symbols (A’, B”, C’ etc.). The symbols give information as to whether something has changed.

Sonata: A composition for piano alone, or for another instrument with piano accompaniment, usually consisting of three to four movements.

Woodwinds: clarinet, flute, oboe, bassoon, saxophone, etc.
Brass: trumpet, trombone, French horn, tuba, euphonium, baritone, etc.
Keyboards: piano, organ, harpsichord, etc.
Percussion: drums, timpani, xylophone, gong, and many other fun toys.  Basically anything you smack or shake (more thanks to my husband for supplying that last bit)

Range: This describes how high or low an instrument or voice reaches.  Flutes are high-range, tubas are low-range.  Saxes and French horns are in the middle.
Tone color: the particular qualities of an instrument’s sound. Is it nasal? Mellow? Bright? Differences happen not only between instruments, but also within the same instrument. For example, a trumpet often sounds quite different when played for jazz than when played for orchestra.

Dynamics: The volume of music.
Piano: In this case, it means “soft”, not to be confused with the keyboard instrument.
Forte: Loud
Mezzo: Medium, middle.  Mezzo piano is medium soft, mezzo forte is medium loud. Mezzo doesn’t stand on its own, it’s used as a modifier.
Crescendo: Gradually get louder
Decresendo: Gradually get softer.

Articulation: how the notes are played in terms of length, smoothness, etc.
Staccato: separated, usually interpreted as “short”
Legato: long, connected, smooth
Accent: there are several different types, but they commonly have some sort of emphasis on the front end of the note
Pizzicato: plucking the strings instead of bowing them

Trill: a rapid back-and-forth between two adjacent notes. Listen to any march, and you’ll probably hear some trills in the flutes and piccolo.
Tremolo: either 1) rapid repetition on a single note or 2) rapid back-and-forth between two non-adjacent notes.