Musical Vocabulary Words Study Guide

Updated on Jul 15, 2011

Practice exercises for this study guide can be found at:

Musical Vocabulary Words Practice Exercises

This lesson is all about musical terms. These are the fancy terms you may see in a symphony program or concert announcement. You might even find them in CD liner notes or a biography bout your favorite musician. You'll understand music on a deeper, more comprehensive level by taking the time to learn these terms. Some might even lead you to research new information about music. What does a nocturne sound like? How does a contralto sing? Who's considered the most talented maestro in history? How about the most important virtuoso? If you discover a fascinating new type of music or performer, all the better.


  • allegro brisk or rapid in tempo; lively
  • atonal without key; musical notes that are not related by any mode or key
  • baroque a style of seventeenth-century (1600–1750) music written by composers such as Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi

[This can also be a style of architecture and art created during the same era. All were characterized by very ornate and irregular forms.]

  • contralto the lowest female vocal range, between alto and tenor—conversely, the highest male vocal range
  • dissonance an unstable combination of musical notes or a discordant sound

[Think of an orchestra tuning their instruments. Individual notes sound fine but simultaneously, this can be pretty harsh. Outside of the music world, this word means inconsistency or disagreement.]

  • elegy a sad or mournful musical composition or lament, usually for someone who has died

[This word also applies to sad poems and may remind you of "eulogy," which is a speech that is commonly given at a person's funeral.]

  • falsetto a high singing method used by male singers; an artificially highpitched voice
  • fugue a composition or musical form that states a theme and then repeats it in various forms throughout the song

[In the world of psychiatry, this means a period of memory loss, as when a person later recovers but doesn't remember what happened during the fugue.]

  • interlude an instrumental piece of music played between parts of a song, between acts in a drama, or another break in the performance

[Think halftime show during a football game. This is what happens during intermission. This can also refer to a period of time in which a person takes a break from something.]

  • maestro a master conductor of music; an expert in composing, teaching, or conducting music

[The Yoda of the music world.]

  • monotone an unchanging tone, a series of identical sounds; a single tone without harmony or variation in pitch
  • nocturne dreamy music; a composition of dreamy character, especially one for the piano
  • orchestra a group of musicians gathered to play musical compositions, often including string, woodwind, brass, and percussion players, and a conductor in front to lead the music
  • overture a musical composition that introduces an opera, play, ballet, or other performance

[Note that outside of music, this word can mean an opening or initiating move toward negotiations or a new relationship.]

  • recital a musical performance by one person or a small group

[This works for music, as well as dance and even speeches.]

  • reprise a repetition of a musical passage or return to an earlier theme

[The musical version of TV reruns.]

  • serenade a performance of vocal or instrumental music, especially in the open air at night
  • tempo the speed at which music is performed, the pace
  • unison notes at the same pitch; the performance of two or more parts at the same pitch; all voices singing together in perfect agreement or harmony
  • virtuoso an extremely talented person who excels in musical technique and/or execution

[Note that this word is often used to indicate an exceptional performer of any kind, whether musically inclined or not.]

Practice exercises for this study guide can be found at:

Musical Vocabulary Words Practice Exercises

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