Glossary of music terms and what they mean

Music theory can be confusing at times. Here are a handful of music terms you’ll need to be aware of when collaborating with fellow musicians.

For a breakdown of common music industry terms, click here.

  • Beats and bars – A beat is a single unit of measure. A bar is a section of music containing a number of beats. The number of beats per bar is determined by the time signature. The time signature is represented by a fraction. The bottom number identifies a kind of note, while the top number identifies how many of those notes in each bar. 4/4 is common in popular music, meaning four quarter-note beats per bar.
  • Chord – When multiple tones are played at once. For example a C major chord is constructed of a C (first note in the scale), E (third note in the scale), and G (fifth note in the scale). There are many different types of chords and they don’t always follow the same first, third, fifth note rule.
  • Coda – The concluding section of a piece of music, separate from the rest of the piece. It is independent of the usual verse, chorus, bridge structure. For example from 4:05 of The Beatles – Hey Jude, the “Nah, nah, nah” bit is a coda.
  • Crescendo – A gradual increase of intensity, leading to a progressive increase in volume.
  • Harmony – When multiple tones are played together in a pleasing way. This can be from different instruments such as an orchestra or can be from multiple versions of the same instrument. Take the multiple vocal lines from Bohemian Rhapsody for example. The vocalists aren’t singing the same note, but fuse together perfectly.
  • Flat/sharp – One semi-tone shift in pitch. Flat is one semi-tone lower and sharp is one semi-tone higher. For example, D-flat is the same as C-sharp and D-sharp is the same as E-flat. If someone says your instrument is sharp or flat, it means you’re too high or low respectively.
  • Key – Denotes the scale the piece is played in. Most notes played in the piece will stick to the scale. With ‘accidentals’ being the sharps and flats played outside of the scale.
  • Major/minor – The key of a piece will also note whether it is major or minor. The notes associated with a major scale or chord is slightly different than a minor scale or chord. With major usually sounding more upbeat or happy, and minor usually sounding more melancholy or sad.
  • Melody – A combination of pitch and rhythm played in succession, to create the basis of a tune. Creating an original song is all about creating inventive and pleasing melodies.
  • Pitch – The frequency of a sound. High pitch = high frequency = rapid vibration. Low pitch = low frequency = slow vibration.
  • Scale – Patterns of tones and semi-tones to create a sequence of notes.
  • Solo – A segment of music played by one musician, with no or a small amount of support. For example, take the four minute guitar solo in Lynyrd Skynyrd – Free Bird from 4:55.
  • Tempo – The pace of a piece of music, measured in beats per minute or BPM. Popular music can be any speed, with typical speeds ranging from around 60BPM (one beat per second), up to around 160BPM (two-three beats per second), with 120BPM being a pretty common middle ground.
  • Timbre – All parts of the sound that aren’t pitch or loudness. Timbre is the character or quality of a sound. The same note on different instruments do not have the same timbre.

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