Musical Terminology


The musical terminology listed below provides a brief description which helps define a musical word or phrase used throughout your musical training.  Each term marked with a plus sign (+)  has a link to a more detailed narrative, chart or sound file that provides an additional description of the given term. Click on the plus (+) sign following the description of the term and you will be linked to a more comprehensive analysis of the term or phrase.  

Please check back often, as this page will be updated with more detailed descriptions and links to interactive media.


Accent – To emphasize a note or chord (often done at the beginning of a measure).


ArpeggioNotes of a chord played in succession


Back Beat - To accent the notes not generally accented.


Bar - A units of beats.  A measure.


Bar Line -  The lines running across the staff which divide it into measures or bars.


Bass – The lower notes or pitches (also referred to as the Bass Clef). (+)


Blue Note – The note between the 4th and 5th interval of a pentatonic scale


Bridge - See release.


Cacophonic - Sounding unpleasant or ugly.


Chord -  Three or more notes sounded together. The notes that make up a chord come from the scale.


Chord Progression -  Two or more chords played together. (+)


Chorus – Also referred to as Refrain.  The section of the song that repeats after each verse.


Chromatic – Notes played in have steps consecutively


Clef – The symbol (bass or treble) which identifies the staff lines and its corresponding notes. (+)


Closed Position – A note or chord hat is completely fretted


Common Time – 4/4 time or the same as the Key Signature utilizing four beats per measure. (+)


Cut Time – When we count 2/4 as opposed to 4/4 time.  It indicates there are two beats per measure and the half note receives one beat. (+)


Degrees – The tones or steps of a scale.


Dominant – A tone or chord that is a 5th degree above the tonic or root.


Enharmonic – The musical term for a sharp and a flat or the same note.


Half - When referring to intervals, a movement of one fret. (+)


Harmony – The combination of musical notes in a chord.  Also, to create accompanying notes or chords for a melody.


Holler - A popular song style which originated outdoors.


Hot - Having strong rhtym and inspired improvisation.


Interval-  The distance in pitch between two notes. (+)


Inversion –  Changing or reversing the position of notes in a chord.  The notes of a chord are rearranged to a tone other than the root note being on the bass string.


Jam Session -  Improvisation by various musicians, normally in informal settings.


Keynote – The first and last note on which a scale begins.


Key Signature – When using the staff line and clef, this indicates the notes that will be sharpened or flatted each time they appear on the staff line.  The sharps and flats are placed right after the clef symbol.


Leading Note (Tone) – The 7th degree of a scale.


Lick - A repeated harmonic unit.  Also see "riff".


Measure (See Bar) – The area between two bar lines. The regular grouping of beats.


Mediant – The 3rd scale degree.


Melody – A series of tones played in succession to provide an agreeable sound.


Melodic – relating to melody.


Melodic Embellishments - Variations on a melody.


Meter – Rhythm that continuously repeats a single basic pattern


Mode – An arrangement of eight diatonic notes in an octave according to several patterns dating to ancient Grecian times.  The 7 modes include the Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian.


Modulation – To change from one key to another key in the process of playing a song.


Natural Notes – The musical alphabet of notes A through G, excluding the sharps or flats.


Notes – Symbols in standard musical notation designated with ovals and flags or  numbers in tablature which designate the fret to be played.  They represent the musical sounds or pitches to be played.


Octave – The interval of the 8th note in the scale.


Open Chord – A chord that has open notes as part of its chord structure.


Open Note – When a string is played without a finger holding down a note or tone at a given fret.


Passing Tone – A melodic tone or phrase played from one interval or chord to the next in semi-tonal or tonal increments.


Pitch – A musical sound.


Pentatonic Scale – A five note scale played in either major or minor patterns.


Quartet - four players performing or singing music together.


Quintet - five players performing or singing music together.


Relative Minor – The sixth interval of a major scale.


Release - The contrasting section of a popular song.


Repeat – A sign at the end of a measure and section of a composition signified by two dots. It indicates that you repeat to the beginning of that section.


Rhythm – Recurrence of a pattern or notes or chords that include all aspects of accent meter and timing of a piece of music.


Rhythmic Embellishment - The enhancement of a melodic line through spontaneous variation.


Riff - A repeated harmonic unit. Also see "lick".


Root – The first note of a scale or chord.  The root gives the chord its name.


Root Position – The chord position in which the root note is on the lowest (bass) string.


Scale Degree – The name of a particular note in a scale in relationship to the tonic (root) of the scale. 


Semitone – A movement or interval of one note (or fret). (+)


Sharp – To raise a note or pitch by one half step or semitone.


Staff -  Five lines with four spaces upon which musical notes and symbols are placed. (+)


Stomp tune - a melody intended to be incorporated into dance.


Syncopation – When the accented note falls on the up beat (weak beat) rather than the down beat (strong beat).


Subdominant – The 4th scale degree.


Submediant – The 6th scale degree.


Supertonic – The 2nd scale degree.


Tablature – A short hand system of musical notation based on fret numbers rather than standard musical notation used primarily for fretted instruments. (+)


Tempo – The rate of speed indicating how fast or slow the music is to be played.


Time Signature – A sign that appears at the beginning of a staff line at the clef indicating the beats per measure.  The top number indicates how many beats are played in a measure and the bottom number indicates the measure or type of note receiving one beat. (+)


Tone -  A movement or interval of two notes (or frets). (+)


Tonic – The first scale degree of a keynote of a scale.


Transcription - The adaptation of a composition to a medium other than its original one. (+)


Transposition – To change note for note or chord for chord the melody or chord progression of a musical composition.


Treble – The higher notes or pitches (also referenced as the Treble Clef) (+)


Triad – A three note chord consisting of a version of a root, third and fifth.


Twelve Bar Blues - A blues song of three four-bar sections.


Triplet – Three 8th notes playes in rapid succession.


Verse – A section or division of a song that changes its story or words each time it repeats.


Vibrato - A quick, subtle variation of pitch.


Whole – When referring to intervals, a movement of two frets. (+)


Whole Note -  In time signatures, a note that receives the full count of a measure.  In 4/4 time a note that would receive a count of four.


Work Song - A song used to coordinate or energize work.



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