Musical Terms – Practical Guide

Due to many influential composers living in Italy in the Renaissance period, the standard language of music still today is Italian. Therefore, we have written a compact glossary of music terms. This article should give answers to the most important and common musical markings that appear in our – and generally any – sheet music.

The subcategories:

  • Dynamics (static and changes)
  • Tempo markings
  • Expressive terms
  • Articulation terms
  • Chord symbols

Dynamics

Static Dynamics

SymbolPronounciationMeaning
pppPiano pianissimoExtremely soft
ppPianissimoVery soft
pPianoSoft
mpMezzo-pianoHalf soft
mfMezzo-forteHalf loud
fForteLoud
ffFortissimoVery loud
fffForte fortissimoExtremely loud
Excerpt from Habanera by Bizet showcasing dynamics.
An example of dynamics in Bizet’s Habanera.

Changes of Dynamics

Italian TermTranslation
CrescendoBecoming louder
DecrescendoSee 'Diminuendo'
DiminuendoBecoming softer

Tempo Markings

Italian TermTranslation
LentoVery slow
AdagioSlow
AndanteModerately slow, “at a walking pace”
ModeratoAt a moderate speed
AllegroFast
PrestoVery fast
PrestissimoExtremely fast
Meno mossoA new, slower tempo
Piú mossoA new, faster tempo
RitardandoSlowing
AccelerandoAccelerating

Expression and Moods

Italian TermTranslation
CantabileIn a singing style (often ‘legato’)
DolceSweetly
EspressivoExpressively
MaestosoMajestically
MisteriosoMysteriously
VivaceLively, up-tempo

Articulation

Italian TermTranslation
LegatoTied together
Marcato"Marked", forcefully
PortatoBetween ‘staccato’ and ‘legato’ (semi-long).
StaccatoDetached notes with very short articulation. The opposite of ‘legato’.

Chord Symbols

We occasionally add chord symbols to our piano sheet music. They are shown right above the upper staff. Their use is optional; with them you can create your own alternative accompaniment. They are also very useful if you play with a band.

  • The chord root letter only = major chord
  • The chord root and letter ‘m’ = minor chord
  • The chord root and number ‘7’ = minor seventh chord
Chord symbols in a piano score. Example from the piece "Korobeiniki".
Chord symbols in a piano score (The ‘Tetris Theme”, Korobeiniki).

Read more about different kinds of chords in Wikipedia.

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