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Music Dictionary

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Aria: A solo song with orchestral accompaniment, commonly found in operas and oratorios


Bach (1685-1750): Universally regarded as one of the supreme musical geniuses of all time, Johann Sebastian Bach created music that ranged from sublime simplicity to exuberant power. He is best known for his cantatas, fugues and two powerfully dramatic representations of the last days and crucifixion of Christ, the St. John Passion and the St. Matthew Passion.

Ballet: A form of classical dance demanding highly developed technique, grace and precision, executed according to specific gestures and flowing patterns. Traditional ballets are usually performed with elaborate costumes and music written by classical composers like Tchaikovsky (Swan Lake, The Nutcracker), Delibes (Coppélia) or Prokofiev (Cinderella).

Baroque period: The period of music history spanning approximately 1600 to1750 and characterized by much ornamentation of melodic lines. Bach, Handel, Vivaldi and Pachelbel were among the composers of this period.

Beat: The basic pulse in music; the marking of metrical divisions by visual or audible means (tapping, counting out loud, pounding , etc.)

Beethoven (1770-1827): One of the most influential composers who ever lived. He radically transformed nearly every musical form in which he worked. His nine symphonies are among his greatest works, and became the models from which most composers ever since have based their symphonies.

Brahms (1833-1897): One of the greatest composers of the Romantic period. Like Beethoven, he was born in Germany but spent most of his life in Vienna. Brahms wrote in forms of the Classical period but these forms had a Romantic temperament. His most famous music includes four symphonies, numerous Hungarian Dances and a Violin Concerto.


Cadenza: A passage in a concerto where the soloist plays an extended passage entirely alone, often improvising on themes previously heard

Cantata: A composition for voices and orchestra in several short movements. Most often the text is based on a religious subject, but there exist cantatas based on secular (non-religious) subjects as well.

Castrato: A male soprano, castrated before puberty, with a brilliant, powerful and flexible voice. Castrati flourished during the Baroque period, and some enjoyed the fame pop stars do today.

Chamber music: Music written for a small number of musicians, one player per part, usually for 2-5 musicians but occasionally up to 10 or 12. Chamber music is meant to be played in a "chamber," or small room.

Choir: An ensemble of singers. The standard "mixed choir" consists of sopranos, altos, tenors and basses.

Chopin (1810-1849): Polish composer who lived all his adult life in Paris, where he wrote almost exclusively piano music, much of it among the most exquisite, romantic and beloved in the repertory.

Classical period: The period of music history spanning approximately 1750 to 1800 and characterized by short balanced themes and clearly defined harmony. Mozart and Haydn are the best-known composers of this period.

Classical music: Usually signifying serious music intended for the concert hall, the term can also mean any kind of music with lasting value (hence, classical jazz, classical pop songs, etc.)

Conductor: The leader of a musical ensemble responsible for controlling such matters as speed, volume, balance and togetherness through the use of silent gestures.

Crescendo: The Italian term for "getting louder"


Debussy (1862-1918): Early 20th-century French composer famous for his "impressionistic" music that features delicately blurred sounds and a special harmony based on the whole-tone scale.

Decrescendo: The Italian term for "getting softer"

Divertimento: An instrumental work in several movements written in a light, entertaining style

Dvorak (1841-1904) : The most famous composer from Czechoslovakia, noted especially for the wonderful melodies he incorporated into his nine symphonies (the last of which is called the "New World" Symphony, written in America) and his Slavonic Dances.


Elgar (1857-1934): The first great English composer since the early Baroque period. Elgar combined a feeling of national pride, nobility and spirituality in a popular style. His Pomp and Circumstance Marches are among his best-known works.


Fugue: A composition, often for a keyboard instrument, in which several musical lines (or "voices" - usually three or four) enter in succession in different ranges with the same theme, which is then extensively developed in further entries of the theme. The most famous composer of fugues was Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750).


Glissando: Italian term for "sliding" between notes.

Gould (1932-1982): One of Canada's most famous pianists, specializing in Bach

Grieg (1843-1907): The greatest composer to come from Norway. Elements of Norwegian folk music color many of his compositions, giving it a unique and distinctive quality. His most famous works include a piano concerto, music for the play Peer Gynt and many Lyric Pieces for piano.

Guarneri: A family of violinmakers from Cremona, Italy. Guiseppe Guarneri made Pinchas Zukerman's instrument in 1734


Handel (1685-1759): Born in the same year as Bach, Handel shares with Bach the distinction of being one of the two greatest composers of the late Baroque period. Most of his music is highly energetic and joyful, including the famous Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks.

Harp: A plucked string instrument with a long history going back to biblical times. The modern harp used in the symphony orchestra has dozens of strings and is so large it stands on the floor rather than being held in the player's lap.

Haydn (1732-1809): Along with Mozart, Haydn was one of the two greatest composers of the Classical period. He is best remembered as the composer who first brought both the symphony and the string quartet to a high level of formal mastery (he did not invent either, as is sometimes claimed). Drama, elegance, and many surprises are found in his music. He wrote over 100 symphonies and almost as many string quartets. [more...]


Intermezzo: A short musical interlude between acts or sections of a longer work

Interval: The distance between two different pitches played either simultaneously or in succession. The interval between C and F, for instance, is a fourth.

Improvise: To make up music on the spur of the moment according to the musician's whim; in other words, the musician does not follow notes on a printed page, but rather relies on his or her own imagination to create music that bears a spiritual relation to the original source.


Jazz: A kind of music that developed in the southern United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Elements of music from western Africa, American gospel singing and European harmony all went into forming the various types of jazz, which include ragtime, blues, Dixieland, swing, be-bop, and cool. Jazz relies heavily on improvisation, and is characterized by much use of syncopated rhythms.


Mendelssohn: A German composer, virtuoso pianist and one of the first important conductors in the history of this profession. His music is classical in style but often romantic in spirit, as seen in his music to accompany Shakespeare's play A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Metronome: A mechanical device invented early in the 19th century to help musicians keep strict time when playing. The number of "clicks" per minute can be varied from 40 to 208 on the most commonly used models.

Minuet: An elegant ballroom dance common in the 18th century, characterized by small, dainty steps danced in leisurely, triple meter.

Mozart (1756-1791): Possibly the best-known and most beloved composer of all time. He exemplified the terms child prodigy and genius to an extent greater than anyone else did, writing piano pieces at the age of five and full-length operas at 12. The sheer beauty, graceful charm and deep expressiveness of his music have endeared it to millions of people around the world.


Opera: A drama, usually in three or four long acts, set to music for solo voices, chorus and orchestra and incorporating costumes, lighting effects and scenic design.

Oratorio: A long composition similar in content and structure to opera but performed in a concert hall without acting, costumes, lighting effects or scenery.


Ragtime: An early type of jazz, in vogue from about 1895 to 1920, usually written out rather than improvised. Most ragtime was played on the piano. Scott Joplin was the most famous composer of ragtime.

Ravel (1875-1937): French composer often linked with Debussy for his Impressionist music, but actually more Classically oriented. Dance rhythms and Spanish influences are found in many of his works, such as Bolero and the Rapsodie espagnol [more...]

Romantic period: Period of music history spanning the 19th century and characterized by heightened emotional states, exaggerated gestures and evocations of nature. Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms, Wagner and Tchaikovsky are some famous composers of this period.


Scherzo: The Italian word for "jest" or "joke." In music this usually takes the form of an instrumental piece in rapid triple meter and often full of rhythmic surprises, humor and abrupt shifts of loud and soft, high and low, and other contrasting elements.

Stradivari (1644?-1737): Born in Cremona Italy, Antonio Stradivari remains probably the most famous violinmaker of all time. Stradivarius is the Latin version of his name, which he used to sign each of his instruments.


Tchaikovsky (1840-1893): Russian composer famous for his intensely emotional moods, grand sweep, heartfelt melodies and dazzling orchestration. Typical of all these qualities are the 1812 Overture, the Pathetique Symphony and the tone poem Romeo and Juliet.


Vaudeville: A variety show meant to be presented in a music hall, with popular songs, dances, mimes, actors and stand-up comics.

Verdi (1813-1901): The most famous composer of Italian opera in the latter half of the 19th century. Believable characters, direct emotional appeal and a wealth of memorable melodies are all features of Verdi's operas, among which Rigoletto, La Traviata and Aida are his best-known.

Vivaldi (1678-1741): Best-known Italian composer of the Baroque period. He wrote an enormous amount of music, including concertos for nearly every instrument in use at the time, especially the violin. His most famous work, The Four Seasons, is actually a series of four violin concertos which incorporate descriptive musical elements relevant to each season.


Wagner (1813-1883): The most famous composer of German opera in the 19th century. Wagner's operas are conceived on a grand scale and usually deal with deeply spiritual and philosophical issues set to music of passionate intensity. His harmonic style became the basis of much 20th-century music. Tannhäuser, Lohengrin and Tristan and Isolde are among his operas.

Waltz: A ballroom dance that became immensely popular in the 19th century, especially in Vienna. Triple meter and a strong emphasis on the first beat ("UM-pah-pah") characterize it. Johann Strauss II wrote many memorable waltzes, including On the Beautiful Blue Danube.


Zukerman: Pinchas Zukerman is an Israeli-born violinist, violist, and conductor. He is the Music Director of the National Arts Centre Orchestra. Learn more about Pinchas Zukerman.