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Glossary of musical terms

Although a good working knowledge of musical terms is indispensable to musician and music lover alike, how many could, hand on heart, say they really knew them all? Here are some familiar terms and some more exotic ones too. Some of them are obvious but irresistible (‘tepidamente’, ‘hardi’), some wonderfully sonorous (‘schmetternd’, bisbigliando’), and a number will doubtless provoke the rather guilty reaction of “Oh, so that’s what it means!”

It is, unfortunately, impractical to include some of the most interesting musical instructions because they are hardly in general use: Satie urging the pianist to play ‘like a nightingale with toothache’; Messiaen asking for a sound ‘like someone sharpening a scythe’. Moreover, a list of words in languages other than English necessarily omits such evocative instructions as Percy Grainger’s ‘clatteringly’ and ‘slow off lots’.

Many French terms have been omitted because for an English reader their meaning is obvious (‘furieux’, ‘nerveux’) or because they are exactly the same in English (‘vague’, ‘nonchalant’). The enormous canon of terms found in German romantic music can only be touched upon, but it is a start.

Of course, knowing the words is just the beginning. The performer has to realise, for instance, that ‘allegro’ is a style as much as a speed, and that a Brahms ‘grazioso’ is nothing like a Mozart one. How often, though, has a performer wasted hours of practice time trying to get to the heart of the piece, only to find that, with just one word, which was there all the time, the music suddenly leaps into life? Ignore these words at your peril. They unlock the secrets of the score.

accarezzevole – caressingly
affretando – hurrying, pushing on
agevole – easy, relaxed
angiosciosamente – with anguish

bisbigliando – whispering
brusco – rough, harsh

camminando – strolling, at a moderate pace
celeramente – rapidly
come sta – as written
commosso – moved, excited

diluendo – dying away
duramente – harshly

estinguendo – dying away
estinto – almost inaudible

fastoso – pompous
fiacco – weak, languishing
fieramente – proudly
flebile ­– plaintive, mourning
focoso – fiery
frettevole – hurried

gemendo – moaning, lamenting
giustamente – precise, in time
gradevole – pleasant, agreeable
grandisonante – sonorous, loud
gusto (con) – with relish

islancio ­– impetuously
istesso (l’) – the same

leggiadro – graceful, charming
leno – faint, weak
liscio – smooth, even
lusingando – flattering, coaxing

mancando – dying away
martellato ­– hammered
misurato – measured, in time

netto – clear, distinct

pauroso – timid, fearful
paventato – fearfully
piangendo – crying, plaintive
poi – then, afterwards

rabbia (con) – with rage, furious
rinforzando – stronger, louder
risoluto – resolute, energetic
rimettendosi – resuming original speed

sbalzato – impetuous, with dash
sciolto – free, unconstrained
scordato – out of tune
scucito – detached
sempre – always
senza – without
singhiozzando – sobbing
sino – as far as, until
slentando – becoming slower
snello – nimble, graceful
spianato – smooth, even
sta – as written
stiracchiando – stretching out, slowing down
strascicando – dragging
straziante – agonising, heart-rending
strepitoso – noisy, boisterous
svegliato – awakened, animated

teneramente – tenderly
trascinare – to drag
tratto – drawn out

uguale – equal, uniform
undulazione – vibrato (strings)

velato – veiled
volteggiando – crossing hands (keyboard)

compiled by Neil Sissons

Neil Sissons is a pianist and composer. He has worked extensively as a repetiteur and accompanist, and has taught at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama and other colleges.

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