The vocabulary used in music is quite confusing. Even the definition of some of these terms can be sometimes difficult to understand. It's as if music was reserved to a special private club that limits its members by making their language way more confusing than it should be.
The object of this article is to demystify the subject by offering a list of definitions of the most commonly used terms associated with music theory. In the following list, I will try to use every day words and eliminate all the extra wordy baggage often associated with music.
Because this list is meant to bring the reader up to date quickly, the following definitions are greatly simplified and may even be considered wrong by more advanced musicians. The real purpose of this article is to help beginners understand what is being talked about when surrounded by more advanced (or wordy) musicians.
Group of different notes organized in a logical way. These notes usually define the key of a song.
Jut a fancy word for scale.
An interval is simply the distance between two notes.
Group of notes belonging to a chord played one after the other.
Group of notes played together that are part of the same scale.
Determines the scale the song is built in.
Change of key in the same song.
A Diatonic scale is just another name for the Major scale (also known as the Ionian mode). Sometimes, Diatonic can be used as an adjective to indicate that the scale has seven notes.
A scale that has five notes. The most popular pentatonic scales are the minor pentatonic and the Major pentatonic.
Various notes played at the same time. Chords are built off of harmony.
Series of chords known to work well together. Cadences are often in the form of roman numbers. These numbers simply correspond to the place of the chord in the key of the song.
Here are a few commonly used cadences:
I IV V (Blues cadence)
vi ii V I (Jazz cadence)
Collection of seven modes that were used in the early church. These modes are all related to each other as they re extracted from the Major scale.
The church modes include the following:
Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian and Locrian.
A step is the unit of measure used to define the distance between two notes. The smallest unit of measure used in western music is the half step. Some eastern music is based on quarter steps.
Accidentals are used to change the sound of a note by raising it or lowering it. The flat and sharp symbols are used to alter these notes.
Flattening a note makes it sound a half step lower than it should. The symbol for a flat looks like b.
Sharpening a note makes it sound a half step higher than it should. The symbol for a sharp looks like #.
This Italian word means tied together. In music, playing legato means that the notes are tied together in rhythm creating a musical idea that flows well together.
This Italian word means detached. In music, playing staccato means that the notes are very short creating a bouncing type of effect.
This Italian word literally means the tail. In music, the Coda is the conclusion. The term “da coda” tells the player to go to the end of the piece. The coda sign is represented by the following symbol:
This Italian word literally means the beginning. In music, the Capo is the introduction. The term “da capo” tells the player to go back to the opening of the piece. The symbol for da capo is:
Polymeter defines a piece of music made of several measures made of different time signatures.
Polyrhythm defines a piece of music in which at least two instruments play different types of time signature at the same time.
A syncopation is a note or short musical phrase that breaks the flow of an ongoing rhythm pattern. Syncopations are used to bring life to leads and rhythm sections.
Enharmonic notes are two notes that sound exactly the same but that are spelled differently.
Example: G# and Ab.