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A – The musical note, ‘A’, is the sixth degree of the scale of C major. It’s a pretty important note! The ‘Concert A’ has the universal standard of 440Hz, commonly used as the standard for the tuning of instruments … it’s the note that orchestras tune up to. ‘A’ is also the pitch of the second string on the violin (E string = I, A String = II, D String = III, G String = IV).
Accelerando – Becoming gradually faster … accelerating. Usually abbreviated to accel.
Accent – An accent mark (>) means that a note should be given extra emphasis, especially at the initial attack of the sound. Notsues with accents will be louder and more strongly articulated, but not necessarily loud and aggressive! You can also have soft, mellow, singing accents within a quiet dynamic.
Acciaccatura – ‘Crushed note’. The little diddy note or notes, played really quickly and squeezed in before the main note. It’s a type of grace note or ornament, written smaller in the score.
Accidental – These are the signs used for notes that are outside the key signature, or to cancel notes in the key signature. The sharp (♯) raises the note by one semitone, the flat (♭) lowers it by one semitone. The natural (♮) cancels any other accidental. The double sharp (x) and the double flat (?) raise and lower the note respectively by a tone (two semitones).
Adagietto – Slow, but not quite as slow as Adagio. Have a listen to the ‘Adagietto’ from Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, it’s one of the most sublime things in the universe!
Adagio – To be played slowly, from ad agio, meaning 'at ease'. Many a symphony, concerto, sonata etc. will have a slow movement marked Adagio. Have a listen to Samuel Barber’s ‘Adagio for Strings’, it’s one of the most moving, melancholic things in the universe!
Ad libitum – ‘At liberty’. Usually abbreviated to ad lib. The manner of execution is left to the performer. Freedooooooom! ☺
Affettuoso – Affectionate, moving, emotional, tender. Also an indication of a slower tempo, somewhere between adagio and andante.
Agitato – Agitated, restless.
Alla breve – Meaning ‘double the speed’, or in ‘cut time’, so that, for example, 4/4 is given the effect of 2/2, where the basic time unit becomes the minim and not the crotchet. Often notated as a ‘C’ with a line through it (cut common time).
Allargando – ‘Broadening’. Gradually becoming slower. You’ll often find a crescendo where you find an allargando!
Allegretto – Faster than andante, slower than allegro! Fairly brisk and lively, often a bit lighter in style than allegro.
Allegro – Brisk, lively, bright, rapid. Many a virtuoso violin piece is marked allegro!
Alto Clef – Thankfully, violinists only have the one clef, the treble clef. If, heaven forbid, you decide to play the viola, then you’ll need to learn the alto clef, or C-clef, where the middle line of the stave represents the note ‘Middle C’.
Amabile – Amiable, lovable, pleasant.
Amoroso – Loving, affectionate.
Anacrusis – A note, or a series of notes, taking place before the first complete bar. The notes of an anacrusis form the upbeat (or ‘pickup’), ‘unstressed’ notes that precede the ‘stress’ of the first downbeat.
Animato – Animated, lively.
Andante – A moderately slow tempo, somewhere between adagio and allegretto! Often defined as ‘at a walking pace’ … think gentle stroll in the countryside rather than rush hour in London!
Appassionato – Passionately, impassioned.
Appoggiatura – A type of ornament, it’s a more dissonant note that ‘leans’ on a more consonant note, and takes part of its time value. Naughty, kleptomaniacal things! More often than not, the dissonance is a step above or below, resolving up or down onto the main note.
Arco – ‘With the bow’. Usually used after pizzicato, to tell string players to stop plucking and play with the bow.
Arpeggiando, Arpeggiato – a fun and impressive technique in string playing, where the bow bounces back and forth across the strings on broken chords, with each bounce being on a different string. It’s used stunningly effectively in the cadenza of Felix Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor, and maestro Niccolò Paganini based the first of his 24 Caprices around this technique.
Arpeggio – Playing the notes of a chord, one after the other – a ‘spread chord’ or ‘broken chord’ – from the bottom upwards or the top downwards. Don’t forget to practise your arpeggios as well as your scales!! ☺
Articulation – This is like punctuation in language, and like the hardness of consonants vs. the softness of vowels. ‘Articulation’ describes the degree to which notes are separated and the level of ‘attack’ with which they begin and end. This can range from the shortest, spikiest staccato to the smoothest, honeyed legato, and anywhere in between.
Artificial harmonics – Harmonics are produced by touching the string veeeery lightly at one of the harmonic nodes located along the string. This way, when you bow or pluck it, the whole string vibrates, both above and below the finger, producing harmonic overtones. There are two types of harmonics: natural harmonics and artificial harmonics. Natural ones are produced on open strings, with just one finger lightly touching. Artificial ones are produced on stopped strings, with the lower finger pressing down (thus ‘shortening’ the string) and the upper finger lightly touching. Harmonics have a really special tone ‘colour’, a delightfully airy, flutelike quality.
Assai – ’Very’, ‘Much’, e.g. allegro assai, ‘very fast’.
A tempo – go back to the original or previous tempo, after having sped up or slowed down.
Attacca – ‘Attack’. Usually used at the end of a movement to indicate that the next movement should follow without a break.
Bar – Music is organised into bars (or measures), separated by vertical barlines, and with each bar containing a certain number of beats. This number is specified in the time signature at the beginning of the stave, or, if you fancy having a different number, at the beginning of the bar itself! By neatly batching up the notes into bars, the music becomes significantly easier to assimilate. It also helps to convey the ‘feel’ of the beat structure: strong beats and weak beats; downbeats and upbeats
Bariolage – A virtuosic bowing technique that involves rapidly oscillating between notes on different strings, with a repeated note (usually an open string) in between. It’s used absolutely brilliantly in the Preludio of Partita No. 3 in E major by Johann Sebastian Bach. There’s also a bedazzling cadenza-like passage of bariolage towards the end of Fritz Kreisler’s Praeludium and Allegro in the Style of Pugnani.
Bartók pizzicato – ‘Slap’ pizzicato. A technique in which the string is pulled away from the fingerboard so that it snaps back percussively onto the fingerboard.
Bass – The lowest of the standard four voice ranges (soprano, alto, tenor, bass). Often refers to the lowest regions of musical pitch, e.g. the lowest note in a chord, or the lowest melodic line.
Beat – The basic unit of time in mensural music – the thing you tap your foot to … the thing the conductor waves her arms to! Beats are ‘felt’ differently depending on where they are in the bar, so, as a general rule: a two-beat bar is strong-weak; a three-beat bar is strong-weak-weak: a four-beat bar is strong-weak-strong(ish)-weak!
Bellicoso – Warlike, aggressive.
Bravura – Boldness, extroversion, virtuosity; great technical skill and brilliance shown in performance. Often used as a performance direction, con bravura, as in, ‘with bravura’.
Breve (double whole note) – A note equal to two semibreves (or two whole notes). Not used very often, except in church music, it’s the longest note value used in modern notation.
Bridge – The ornate, upright, wooden device that holds the violin’s strings in place, supported above the soundboard. It isn’t glued or fixed to the instrument! … it’s kept in place by the pressure of the strings.
Brio – Vivacity, liveliness; e.g. con brio, ‘with fire’, ‘with spirit’.
Cadenza – An extended ornamental passage, usually near the end of a concerto movement, usually featuring the soloist alone, usually pretty rhythmically ‘free’, and usually pretty ‘showy-offy’! Some cadenzas are written by the composers themselves, some by the performers themselves, and some by other people.
Cantabile – ‘Singable’, ‘Songlike’. Played in a singing style. The ultimate aim of the violinist … to get as close to the human voice as possible!
Chamber music – Music for smaller ensembles, usually with each person playing their own specific part – duos, trios, quartets, quintets, sextets, septets, octets, nonets, dectets!
Chin rest – The specially shaped device, attached at the front-bottom of the violin, that allows the instrument to be held comfortably under the violinist’s jaw (it should really be called a jaw rest!).
Chopping – A highly percussive technique, in which the bow (at the heel) is struck against the strings to produce a short, sharp, ‘scratch’ tone of indeterminate pitch.
Chord – Two or more notes sounding together – in glorious (or not so glorious) harmony!
Chromatic – The chromatic scale divides the octave into 12 equal intervals of a semitone. Chromaticism involves moving up and down this scale in semitones.
Clef – The symbol at the beginning of the stave tells us what the pitches of the notes on the stave are. The pitch and the octave-register of the notes will be different depending on the clef. Violin music is (almost!) always in treble clef. Instruments that are lower-pitched use the bass clef, and violists, oh those poor violists, have to learn the alto clef! ☺
Coda – ‘Tail’. The concluding passage of a piece or movement, often as an addition to the basic structure or standard form. Rounds things off nicely!
Coffee – An elixir; essential fuel for long and highly productive practice sessions.
Col legno – ‘With the wood’. This tells the string player to strike the string with the stick of the bow (yes … THE STICK!), and not the hair. It produces a wonderfully percussive effect, especially when a whole string section of the orchestra does it! Col legno battuto is when you hit the string with the wood (this is the usual way). Col legno tratto is when you drag the wood across the string (this is the very unusual way!). There’s a fantastic example of col legno in the final movement (‘Dream of a Witches' Sabbath’) of Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique.
Common time – Another name for 4/4 time, denoted by the letter ‘C’ as the time signature.
Comodo – ‘Comfortable’, ‘Convenient’; e.g. tempo comodo, at a comfortable, moderate speed.
Compound time – A time signature in which each beat is subdivided into three equal parts, e.g. 6/8 (two beats of three quavers each, compound duple time); 9/8 (three beats of three quavers each, compound triple time); 12/8 (four beats of three quavers each, compound quadruple time).
Concerto – A piece, typically in three movements, written for one or more soloists with orchestral accompaniment. Many of the great composers have written violin concertos – Johann Sebastian Bach, Antonio Vivaldi, Ludwig van Beethoven, Alban Berg, Jean Sibelius, William Walton, Johannes Brahms, Dmitri Shostakovich, Edward Elgar, Felix Mendelssohn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Samuel Barber, Béla Bartók, Sergei Prokofiev, Niccolò Paganini, Max Bruch, Camille Saint-Saëns, György Ligeti, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Benjamin Britten, Antonín Dvořák – to name a few!
Con sordino – ‘With mute’. A direction telling the violinist to use a mute. Usually abbreviated to con sord.
Crescendo – ‘Growing’, ‘Increasing’. Gradually getting louder. Often abbreviated to cresc. The opposite is decrescendo, or, more commonly, diminuendo (dim.)
Crotchet – ‘Quarter note’ in American. Quarter of the value of the semibreve (whole note).
Da capo – ‘From the head’. An instruction to go back to the beginning of a piece, often abbreviated to d.c.
Demisemiquaver – ‘Thirty-second note’ in American. 1/32 of the value of the semibreve (whole note). Half the value of the semiquaver (sixteenth note).
Détaché – Each note played with a separate bow stroke. Even though détaché means ‘detached’, the notes should not be separated or disconnected! Move smoothly and seamlessly from one note to the next, even weight and consistent sound throughout.
Diatonic – Notes that belong exclusively to one key without any chromatic alteration.
Diminuendo – ‘Diminishing’. Gradually getting quieter. Often abbreviated to dim. The equivalent of decrescendo, the opposite of crescendo.
Divisi – ‘Divided’. Often abbreviated to div. and very often used in orchestral scores, this is where players reading music from the same parts, from the same staves, are asked to share the notes amongst themselves, dividing them between players. For example, a passage that features two simultaneous lines of music can be divided between two violinists, where double stopping is non-optimal or impossible! One player plays the top note, the other the bottom. Ah, teamwork! ☺
Dolce – ‘Sweet’. To be played softly, tenderly, sweetly. Dolcissimo, very sweet! Mm-mmm! ☺
Dolente – ‘Doleful’. Sad, plaintive ☹
Doloroso – Sorrowful, painful. ☹
Dominant – The fifth degree of the major or minor scale.
Double dot – A double-dotted note is a note with two small dots after it, indicating that it should be prolonged by three quarters of its original length.
Double Stopping – Playing on two strings at the same time to produce two notes at the same time. Even though it’s called double stopping – and ‘stopping’ means to make a note by pressing the string against the fingerboard – one or both of the strings can be open and it’s still called double stopping!
Downbeat – The first, and ‘strong’, beat of the bar. Grrrrr!
Down-bow – Any bow stroke that travels to the right (assuming you are holding the bow in the right hand and the violin in the left hand!!)
Duplet – Two in the time of three. A note-grouping of two, which fits into the length of three of its note-type. Indicated by a little figure ‘2’ placed above or below.
Dynamics – Relating to the volume and the ‘character’ of the sound. The most common dynamic markings are: ppp (pianississimo – very very soft); pp (pianissimo – very soft); p (piano – soft); mp (mezzo piano – moderately soft); mf (mezzo forte – moderately loud); f (forte – loud); ff (fortissimo – very loud); fff (fortississimo – very very loud).
Echo – The imitation in music of the natural echo effect; for passages of music that happen twice, the repetition is played with less volume and less force than the original statement.
Energico – ‘Energetic’, strong.
Enharmonic – Refers to notes that have the same pitch, but a different name, e.g. C#/Db, or F/E#. The choice of sharp, flat, double sharp, double flat, is known as the enharmonic spelling of a note.
Ensemble – A group of performers of any size, from just two all the way up to an entire orchestra; usually applied to smaller chamber-music groups. The word ‘ensemble’ is also used to describe how well they play together, as a collective, how unified the timing, balance, style, etc. of the group is.
Equal temperament – A system of tuning the scale so that the octave is divided into 12 equal semitones. This is the standard tuning for the Western 12-note chromatic scale; the way a piano is tuned.
Espressivo – ‘Expressive’. Played with added expression, heightened emotional commitment.
Étude – A piece designed to focus in on one particular instrumental or compositional technique, to train the performer in that technique, and for the performer to then show off that technique! There are a good many books of violin études, such as those by Rodolphe Kreutzer, Jakob Dont, Pierre Rode, Federigo Fiorillo, Henryk Wieniawski, Niccolò Paganini, Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst … but, for the most part, these tend not to be the greatest pieces of music! We need to look to the piano for études that are also transcendentally brilliant pieces – Frédéric Chopin, Franz Liszt, Robert Schumann, Claude Debussy, Alexander Scriabin, Sergei Rachmaninov, György Ligeti – not a bad list!
Expression – Expression is the ‘umbrella’ term for all of the emotionally expressive qualities that go into music making. These include things like dynamics, tempo, rubato, phrasing, articulation, vibrato, timbre, facial expressions! ☺
Extension – An established hand ‘frame’ along the violin’s fingerboard is called a position; reaching backwards or forwards out of this frame, without shifting, is called an extension.
Fermata – Another word for ‘pause’. The fermata/pause sign (?) indicates that a note (or a rest!) should be prolonged/stretched at the performer’s discretion (within reason!).
Feroce – ‘Fierce’. Ferociously.
F-holes – The violin family’s sound holes, shaped like the letter ‘f’, helping to project the instrument’s sound more efficiently.
Finale – The last movement of a multi-movement work.
Fine – ‘End’, ‘Close’. Repeat a passage but only to the place marked fine.
Fine tuners – Also called fine ‘adjusters’. Screws (usually metal) attached to the violin’s tailpiece that can be turned to make very small changes to the pitch of the string. Turning clockwise, the pitch becomes higher (the string is under more tension) and turning anti-clockwise, the pitch becomes lower (the string is under less tension).
Fingerboard – The smooth playing surface (usually made of wood) under the violin’s strings. Pressing the string down onto the fingerboard changes the vibrating length of the string and thus changes the pitch of the note produced.
Fingered octaves – Playing a passage of double-stop octaves with an alternating finger pattern, e.g. 1-3 and then 2-4 (as opposed to a non-alternating pattern, e.g. 1-4 and then 1-4, or 1-3 and then 1-3).
Fingering – Which left-hand fingers to use and which string to use them on! In violin playing, we use the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, & 4th fingers on either the G, D, A, or E string. It would be fair to say that there are ‘good’ fingerings and ‘bad’ fingerings: musical and unmusical ones; stylistic and unstylistic ones; reliable and unreliable ones; cheap and expensive ones! More often than not, it’s possible to play the same note on different strings, and so the choice of fingering will greatly affect the timbre, the ‘colour’, of the sound, and the ease with which notes can be played. In fast passages, it is wise to choose ‘economical’ fingerings, minimising movements – like unnecessary shifts and string crossings - that might slow us down and muddy the waters! Most sheet music comes with recommended fingerings, the little numbers above or below the notes. Remember, these are only suggestions, and you should always explore other possibilities. That way, you’ll find the fingering that feels, and sounds, right for YOU!
Flat – The symbol (♭) that lowers the pitch of a note by a semitone. Also used to describe inexact intonation that is on the low side.
Flautando – ‘Flute-like’. To play with a point of contact that is nearer, or ‘over’, the fingerboard in order to produce an airy, fluty, panpipey tone!
Form – The arrangement of musical structures in time, the organisation of the elements.
Forte – Loud, strong. Abbreviated to f. (fortissimo, ff = very loud; fortississimo, fff = very very loud; fortissississimo, ffff = very very very loud!).
Fortepiano – Loud, then immediately quiet. Strong, then immediately soft. Abbreviated to fp.
Funebre – ‘Funereal’. Gloomy.
Fuoco – con fuoco, ‘With fire’. Fast and wild!
Furioso – Furiously.
G.P. – General Pause or ‘Grand Pause’. An indication that the entire ensemble has a rest and so nobody should play! Shhhhhhh!
Giocoso – Playful, lively, merry, humorous.
Giusto – ‘Just’, ‘Exact’, (e.g. tempo giusto, in strict time)
Glissando – A slide, upwards or downwards, from one pitch to another. One of the great things about the violin family of instruments is that, unlike the piano, you can play all the microtones between notes by sliding the finger up or down the string. This means you can do a really good glissando! It’s a really expressive device that emulates the natural way we move between notes when we sing. A glissando is notated by a diagonal straight or wavy line connecting the highest and lowest pitches.
Grace notes – Quick little ornamental notes printed in smaller type in the score. Often used to embellish a melody, like putting ornaments on the mantlepiece, decorating it and elaborating on it whilst maintaining the melody's original structure.
Grandioso – ‘Grandiose’, grandly.
Grazioso – Graceful, elegant.
Groove – Steady, replicating, propulsive rhythmic gestures of music that are 'felt' and responded to kinaesthetically.
Hairpins – The colloquial word used to describe the crescendo (?) and diminuendo (?) signs.
Harmonic – Very special notes produced in a very special way … revealing the magic of the harmonic series! Harmonics are made by touching the string veeeery lightly, as opposed to stopping it (pressing down). At particular points (harmonic nodes) along the string, 1/2, 1/3, 1/4, etc. specific notes are produced. Try this … choose a string and, whilst bowing, slide the finger up and down its full length. Make sure you touch the string very gently indeed, no pressing down at all. This way you can hear all the harmonics that can be produced on that string. There are two types of harmonic on the violin: 1) Natural Harmonics – these occur naturally along the open string and are made using one finger; and 2) Artificial Harmonics – these are made using two fingers, a lower finger (usually the 1st) that presses down on the string and an upper finger (usually the 4th) that touches lightly.
Harmony – The simultaneous sounding of notes to produce chords and chord progressions. Harmony is the vertical element of music, as opposed to melody, the horizontal.
Heel – The ‘frog’ of the bow; the heavy bit where you hold it (opposite end to the ‘tip’, or ‘point’).
Hemidemisemiquaver – ‘Sixty-fourth note’ in American. 1/64 of the value of the semibreve (whole note). Half the value of the demisemiquaver (thirty-second note).
Hooked bowing – ‘Hooking’ two notes into one bow; each note has its own impulse and there’s usually a stop in between each impulse. This technique is usually used for connecting a series of uneven note values (e.g. dotted rhythms) in order to avoid unintended and unwanted accents on the shorter notes.
Improvisation – Composing in real time, extemporaneous music making. The creative act of immediate, spontaneous, ‘in the moment’ composition, with little or no reliance on notated music. Improvisation will usually take place within pre-existing and unifying frameworks, such as chord progressions, melodic lines, stylistic norms, instrumental techniques, narrative arcs, visual imagery, etc.
Interpretation – Deciding how to perform piece of music. The sum of these decisions (conscious and unconscious!) is the interpretation. The score to a musician is like the script to an actor, everything needs interpreting. Musical notation cannot specify everything (or even a tiny fraction of everything!) and so, to realise the intentions of the composer, the meaning of the music, we need to make decisions about how to best communicate. These include choices about tempo, dynamics, phrasing, vibrato, fingerings, bowings, rubato, articulation etc., and large-scale decisions about structure, the pacing of musical climaxes, stylistic integrity, and so on …
Interval – The distance in pitch between two notes.
Intonation – Accuracy of pitch, the quality (the good, the bad and the ugly!) of your tuning. If the pitch is lower than intended then it’s described as flat. If it’s higher, then it’s sharp.
Intro – Introduction, opening section; the musical material at the beginning that precedes the main structural substance of the piece.
Irregular time signature – Time signatures that don’t indicate duple, triple, or quadruple time, and where the beats don’t fall into equal groupings, e.g. 5/4 (five crotchet beats in the bar), or 7/8 (seven quaver beats in the bar).
Jeté – ‘Thrown’. A bowing technique (also known as ricochet) in which the bow is dropped onto the string and allowed to bounce several times in order to produce a series of quick notes.
Key – The adherence of a passage of music to one of the major or minor scales or tonalities. Most pieces will have a principal key – like C major, Db major, A minor, F# minor – acting like a planet around which everything orbits! If we move to a different key – a different planet! – then that’s called a modulation. The thing that tells us which key we are in – which planet we are inhabiting! – is the key signature.
Key signature – The group of sharp or flat signs at the beginning of each stave (or, if it changes, along the stave) to indicate the key of the music that follows. The positions of the sharp or flat signs tell us which notes, in all octaves, need to be sharpened (raised by a semitone) or flattened (lowered by a semitone). There are 15 diatonic key signatures, each one having a major and a minor version:
The Sharp Keys:
C major / A minor
G major / E minor (F#)
D major / B minor (F#, C#)
A major / F# minor (F#, C#, G#)
E major / C# minor (F#, C#, G#, D#)
B major / G# minor (F#, C#, G#, D#, A#)
F# major / D# minor (F#, C#, G#, D#, A#, E#)
C# major / A# minor (F#, C#, G#, D#, A#, E#, B#)
The Flat Keys:
C major / A minor
F major / D minor (Bb)
Bb major / G minor (Bb, Eb)
Eb major / C minor (Bb, Eb, Ab)
Ab major / F minor (Bb, Eb, Ab, Dd)
Db major / Bb minor (Bb, Eb, Ab, Dd, Gb)
Gb major / Eb minor (Bb, Eb, Ab, Dd, Gb, Cb)
Cb major / Ab minor (Bb, Eb, Ab, Dd, Gb, Cb, Fb)
Lacrimoso, lagrimoso – ‘Lachrymose’. Tearfully.
Lamentando, lamentoso – ‘Lamenting’, mournfully
Largo – ‘Broad’. A slow tempo and a dignified style. Have a listen to the ‘Largo’ from Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor, ‘From the New World’.
Leading note – The seventh degree of the scale. So called because of its tendency to rise, or ‘lead’, to the tonic.
Ledger Lines – The little lines placed above or below the stave for those notes that are too high or too low to be placed on the stave itself.
Left-hand pizzicato – Plucking the strings with the fingers of the left hand, as opposed to the usual right. Indicated by a little cross (+) written above or below the note.
Legato – Smoooooooth! Literally, it means ‘tied together’. Legato notes should be totally connected, no hint of a break or silence between them. The opposite of legato is staccato.
Leggiero – Lightly, delicately.
Lento – ‘Slow’. To be performed in a slow tempo.
Lugubre – ‘Lugubrious’. Mournful.
Luthier – Someone who makes or repairs string instruments.
Maestoso – ‘Majestic’. Majestically.
Major Scale – One of the most commonly used musical scales, especially in Western music. A type of diatonic scale. The pattern of intervals between the notes of a major scale is: tone, tone, semitone, tone, tone, tone, semitone. The simplest major scale is C major (the ‘white notes’ on a piano), having no sharps and no flats in its key signature. Major scales are often thought of as having a ‘brighter’, happier quality than minor scales.
Malinconico – Melancholic
Marcato – ‘Marked’, ‘Stressed’. Emphasising each note, to be played louder and more forcefully. Often used to indicate a passage that should be given more prominence.
Marcia – ‘March’; alla marcia, in the style of a march; marcia funebre, funeral march.
Martelé – A heavy, detached bow stroke performed ‘on the string’, each note with a biting attack.
Mediant – The third degree of the major or minor scale, so called because it lies midway between the tonic and dominant.
Melody – Another word for ‘tune’. A linear succession of varying pitches (usually including rhythmic variation), organised in such a way as to have a beginning and an end, and with ‘musical shape’ in between. Melody is the horizontal aspect of music (pitches heard consecutively), whereas harmony is the vertical (pitches heard simultaneously).
Mensural music, mensural notation – Terms meaning ‘measured music’ and ‘measured notation’. Music in which each note-type has a clearly defined time value; rhythmic durations can be precisely measured by the numerical proportions between these values (e.g. two crotchets in a minim and two minims in a semibreve, no matter what the time signature).
Metronome – A device (mechanical or electronic) that produces an audible beat, sounding at regular intervals and set in beats per minute (BPM). Many pieces will have a ‘metronome mark’ printed in the score, indicating the tempo of the piece to the performer. For example, a tempo of 60 beats per minute means there will be one beat per second, while a tempo of 120 beats per minute is twice as fast, one beat every 0.5 seconds. The metronome is an incredibly useful practice tool, improving our timing and helping us to stick to a set tempo. It’s amazing what you find out when you practise with a metronome! ☺
Mezzo-piano – Abbreviated to mp. ‘Half quiet’, ‘Half soft’; i.e. moderately soft; louder than piano, quieter than mezzo-forte.
Mezzo-forte – Abbreviated to mf. ‘Half loud’; i.e. moderately loud; louder than mezzo-piano, quieter than forte.
Microtone – Any interval that’s smaller than a semitone.
Minim – ‘Half note’ in American. Half the value of the semibreve (whole note) and double the value of the crotchet (quarter note).
Minor scale – One of the most commonly used musical scales, especially in Western music. A type of diatonic scale that has its third degree lowered. Minor scales are often thought of as having a ‘darker’, sadder quality than major scales. There are three types of minor scale:
1) Natural minor – assuming you start on an ‘A’, it follows the pattern of the ‘white notes’ on a piano: tone, semitone, tone, tone, semitone, tone, tone.
2) Melodic minor – this scale is different on the way up than it is on the way down (tricksy!). The sixth and seventh degrees are raised on the way up, the sixth and seventh degrees are lowered on the way down: UP – tone, semitone, tone, tone, tone, tone, semitone / DOWN – tone, tone, semitone, tone, tone, semitone, tone.
3) Harmonic minor – this scale has an augmented 2nd (three semitones or tone+semitone) between the sixth and seventh degree, giving it its unique and special flavour: tone, semitone, tone, tone, semitone, tone+semitone, tone.
Misterioso – Mysteriously. Oo-er!
Moderato – ‘Moderate’. At a moderate tempo. Often used as a qualifier; for example, allegro moderato is fast but not too fast!
Mordent – A type of ornament; the single rapid alternation of a note with the note immediately below it (lower auxiliary note, the lower mordent) or above it (upper auxiliary note, the upper mordent) in the scale.
Morendo – ‘Dying’. Fading away.
Moto – ‘Motion’; e.g. con moto, ‘with motion’; andante con moto, faster than andante.
Movement – The substantial self-contained sections of a larger work are called movements, usually separated by a pause. Used in connection with musical forms such as sonata, concerto, symphony, string quartet, etc.
Multiple Stopping – Playing more than two, and up to four, notes at the same time. Two notes is called double stopping. Three notes is triple stopping. Four notes is quadruple stopping.
Music – That which contains elements of pitch and/or rhythm and/or timbre, perceivable in some way, and in some way organised, or ‘framed’.
Mute – A device (usually made of rubber or metal) that is attached to the bridge of the violin, dampening the vibrations and softening (‘muting’) the sound. There are two types of mute: standard mute and practice mute. Standard mutes are used to change the timbre of the sound for musical reasons, reducing the volume and making it ‘darker’, more mellow. Practice mutes (‘heavy mutes’, ‘hotel mutes’) are used for more practical reasons, greatly reducing the volume of the sound so you can practise all night without disturbing the neighbours!
Muzak – Background music played in public spaces to create a soothing atmosphere. Horrible stuff! ☺
Natural – The unaltered pitch of a note, neither raised (sharpened) or lowered (flattened). The natural sign (♮) cancels out a sharp (♯) or a flat (♭) and restores the note to its natural pitch.
Niente – ‘Nothing’. Often used to indicate a diminuendo that fades away completely (a niente, ‘to nothing’) or a note that fades in from silence (dal niente, ‘from nothing’).
Nobile, nobilmente – ‘Nobly’. In a noble fashion.
Notation – The methods of writing down music to indicate how sounds and silences should be produced. What to play and how to play it!
Octave – The eighth degree of the diatonic scale. The interval of an octave is the most consonant interval there is, having the effect of duplicating the same note at a higher or lower pitch. Truly a magic property of the universe! An octave above a note is one that has exactly twice the frequency of the original, and an octave below is exactly half (e.g. A = 220Hz, A=440Hz, A=880Hz).
Open string – The fundamental note of the unstopped, full string. In other words, the string when you aren’t pressing down any fingers on it! The open strings of the violin are typically tuned to the pitches G, D, A, and E.
Opus – ‘Work’. Shortened to Op. The opus number, or ‘work number’, is given to a composition or a set of compositions to show the order in which they were created. A composer’s first piece will be opus 1, or Op. 1; their second piece, opus 2; etc. It’s really useful and interesting to be able to place a particular piece within the composer’s output as a whole, helping to trace and track their compositional development over time.
Ordinario – ‘Ordinary’. Usually abbreviated to ord. Instruction to return to the normal way of playing after having employed a special technique. Stop doing what you’ve been doing and resume business as usual! Often used to cancel out extended techniques such as sul ponticello, sul tasto, or col legno. Writing ‘naturale’ or nat. serves the same function.
Ornaments, ornamentation – The decoration of a melodic line (or, less commonly, harmony line) by adding musical flourishes … frilly bits! Ornamentation doesn’t disturb the fundamental structure of the musical line, it only ‘embellishes’ it, adding interest and variety. Examples include trills, turns, mordents, passing notes, grace notes, appoggiaturas, acciaccaturas, glissandos.
Ossia – A passage of music provided as an alternative to the original passage. An ossia part may be easier (or harder!) to play, and, depending on how brave you feel, you get to choose!
Ostinato – ‘Persistent’. A melodic, rhythmic, or chordal phrase that repeats continuously throughout a piece or section.
Pause – A pause (or fermata) sign (?) indicates that a note (or a rest!) should be prolonged/stretched at the performer’s discretion (within reason!).
Pegs, tuning pegs – Used to hold the strings in the pegbox of the violin, and turned in order to tune the instrument. Turning the peg tightens or loosens the string, changing the pitch produced when the string is played.
Pesante – Forceful, heavy, weighty (bordering on ponderous!). With emphasis.
Phrasing – Musical phrases are the clauses, sentences and paragraphs of music. The way we interpret these phrases, how we express them, shape them, sculpt them, is called phrasing. In order to communicate the structure, direction, emotion, drama of a phrase, we use changes in tone, tempo, dynamics, articulation, gesture, vibrato, etc.
Piano – Quiet, soft. Abbreviated to p. (pianissimo, pp = very quiet; pianississimo, ppp = very very quiet; pianissississimo, pppp = very very very quiet; pianississississimo, ppppp, very very very very quiet; pianissississississimo, pppppp, very very very very very quiet!).
Pitch – The quality of a sound that makes it possible to hear it as ‘higher’ or ‘lower’. This is based on the perception of the frequency of vibrations. The measurement of frequency is in cycles per second, or Hertz (Hz).
Più – ‘More’; e.g. più forte, louder; più allegro, faster.
Pizzicato – ‘Plucked’. Abbreviated to pizz. Plucking the strings with the fingers, rather than using the bow. We usually use the right hand to pluck the string. Left-hand pizzicato is indicated by a little cross (+) written above or below the note.
Poco – ‘A little’, ‘rather’; as in, poco rit., slowing down a little; poco lento, rather slow; poco vib., a small amount of vibrato. Poco a poco means ‘little by little’; e.g. poco a poco cresc., a long, slow, gradual crescendo.
Point – The tip of the bow, opposite end to the heel.
Portamento – ‘Carriage’, ‘Carrying’. Like glissando, the process of gliding, upwards or downwards through intermediary pitches, from one note to another. Often abbreviated to port. It’s an expressive device that emulates the inflections of the human voice.
Portato – ‘Carried’. A smooth, pulsing effect. Successive notes are gently rearticulated within a continuous bow stroke. Pulsation, not separation! Usually notated using dots or tenuto lines on each note within a slur.
Positions – This refers to the placement, or ‘position’, of your hand (in most cases, the left hand!) along the fingerboard. As the whole hand moves up a note, it moves up by one position. Moving the hand between positions is called shifting. A note played outside of the normal compass of a position, without any shift, is referred to as an extension
Presto – ‘Quick’. A quick tempo, even faster than allegro. Prestissimo means extremely quickly, as fast as possible.
Pulse – the underlying ‘heartbeat’ of music, a regular and reoccurring emphasis, or beat. ‘Sensing’ the pulse, or ‘feeling’ the beat, makes us react kinaesthetically: we tap our feet, we clap our hands, we nod our heads, we dance!
Quasi – ‘As if’, ‘Almost’, ‘Resembling’.
Quarter tone – Interval of a quarter of a tone, i.e. half a semitone.
Quartet – An ensemble of four singers or instrumentalists. The string quartet consists of two violins, a viola, and a cello.
Quadruplet – Four in the time of three. A note-grouping of four, played in the length of three of its note-type. Indicated by a little figure ‘4’ placed above or below.
Quaver – ‘Eighth note’ in American. An eighth of the value of the semibreve (whole note). Half the value of the crotchet (quarter note)
Quintuplet – Five in the time of four or three. A note-grouping of five which – in simple time – fits into the length of four of its note-type; and, in compound time, fits into three. Indicated by a little figure ‘5’ placed above or below.
Rallentando – ‘Becoming slower’, ‘Slackening’. Gradually decreasing in speed. Abbreviated to rall.
Relative keys – Major and minor scales that have the same key signatures. Every key has a major and a minor version – the relative major and the relative minor. The relative minor of a particular major key is always three semitones lower, e.g. C major/A minor. The relative major of a particular minor key is always three semitones higher, e.g. B minor/D major.
Rest – A symbol that indicates the absence of a note, the momentary absence of sound. Every note value has a corresponding rest symbol that tells us how long the silence should last.
Restez – Remain in the same position (as in, left-hand position, 1st pos., 2nd pos., 3rd pos., etc.) for the duration of the passage marked restez.
Rhythm – The perceptible organisation of musical events in time. The long and short of it!
Ricochet – ‘Rebound’. The drop, or ‘throw’, of the bow onto the string, causing it to bounce several times and producing a series of rapid staccato notes.
Risoluto – ‘Resolute’, energetic.
Ritardando – Gradually becoming slower, the same as rallentando. Abbreviated to rit.
Ritenuto – ‘Held back’. An immediate reduction of speed. Different from ritardando and rallentando in that it is not gradual.
Ritmico – ‘Rhythmical’. Whatever you do, don’t mess about with the rhythm!
Rosin – Made from pine sap and having magical friction-increasing properties, we rub blocks, or ‘cakes’, of rosin onto the bow hair so that it ‘grips’ the strings and makes them vibrate clearly, thus allowing the sound to ‘speak’.
Rubato – ‘Robbed time’. The expressive shaping of music through rhythmic freedom. Elongating and shortening notes within a constant pulse, or, speeding up and slowing down the pulse. If you steal time, then you need to give it back. If you give time away, then you need to steal it back again!
Sautillé – A bowing technique for playing fast notes with separate bows, making use of the natural ‘bounce’ of the bow, the natural flexibility and springiness of the stick. The bow hair retains some contact with the string, but the stick of the bow bounces, helping to clearly articulate each individual note. Sautillé is achieved when the bow bounces ‘by itself’, without you having to actively lift and drop it.
Scale – A sequence of musical notes, ascending or descending stepwise in pitch. Very important things to practise!
Scordatura – ‘Mistuning’. Altering the normal, standard tuning of the instrument. Tuning one or more of the strings to a different note (hopefully without snapping the string!)
Scroll – The decoratively carved ‘head’ of the violin, the fancy twirly bit at the top! Typically in the shape of a volute (a rolled-up spiral). Sometimes human or animal heads!
Semibreve – ‘Whole note’ in American. Half the value of the breve (double whole note) and double the value of the minim (half note).
Semitone – Half a tone. A ‘half step’. The smallest interval in common use in Western music.
Semiquaver – ‘Sixteenth note’ in American. 1/16 of the value of the semibreve (whole note). Half the value of the quaver (eighth note).
Semplice – ‘Simply’. Play in a simple, uncomplicated, unaffected, even ‘plain’, manner.
Sempre – ‘Always’; e.g. sempre legato, the whole thing should be smooth; sempre p, the whole thing should be quiet.
Senza sordino – ‘Without mute’. If you have the mute on, take it off! Usually abbreviated to senza sord.
Sextuplet – Six in the time of four. A note-grouping of six, played in the length of four of its note-type. Indicated by a little figure ‘6’ placed above or below.
Sforzando – ‘Forced’. Indicates a forceful accent. Usually abbreviated to sfz.
Sharp – In music, it means higher in pitch. In music notation it means, specifically, higher in pitch by one semitone. Represented by the hashtag symbol! # Also used to describe inexact intonation that is on the high side.
Shift – In string playing, the movement of the left hand from one ‘position’ to another. The position is the place where the left hand is anchored along the string: 1st position, 2nd position, 3rd position, 4th position, etc. Moving between these positions is called shifting.
Shoulder rest – An accessory that is attached to the back of the violin, helping you to comfortably hold the instrument in place. Some violinists don’t use a shoulder rest; these days, most do!
Sight-Reading – The term used to describe the reading and performing of music without any previous preparation; to sight-read is to play, or sing, or 'hear in our heads' (audiation), the notated music we see ... at first sight! It’s an incredibly important skill: the better you can sight-read, the quicker you can learn new pieces, the more music you can play! It also means that you can focus more on technique, interpretation and performance practice instead of merely note-learning and rhythm-deciphering! The aim is to sight-read with such accuracy, musicality and conviction that the listener, real or imaginary, has no idea that you are sight-reading. It should sound as if you've been practising it for months! And, it's not only the pitches and the rhythms that need to be right. Every aspect of the notation needs to be realised – dynamics, articulations, tempo markings, performance directions, bowings, etc. And, many (many, many, many) aspects of music making are not notated but rather 'felt' – character, style, emotion, atmosphere, phrasing, etc. – these aspects should also be realised as fully and convincingly as possible.
Simile – ‘Similarly’. Continue with the same performance direction, applying it to the following music. Usually abbreviated to sim. Writing sim. saves ink! e.g. for a long passage of staccato notes, rather than putting a dot on every single note, you only need dots on the first few notes and then the word sim. that tells you to keep calm and carry on dotting!
Simple time – A time signature that has a binary subdivision, each beat can be divided into 2. For example, 2/4 and 3/4 and 4/4, in which the crotchet beat can be divided into halves (quavers), quarters (semiquavers), etc.
Slur – Two or more notes played within a single bow stroke, as opposed to separate bows, are said to be ‘slurred’. The symbol is a curved line placed over or under a group of notes.
Sostenuto – ‘Sustained’, ‘Sustaining’.
Sotto voce – ‘Under the voice’. Very very quietly; hushed tone quality, almost a whisper.
Spiccato – A bowing technique in which the bow ‘bounces’ lightly upon the string. It’s used so that each note is distinct and clearly articulated. The bow drops and lifts, on and off the string, with an individual impulse for each note.
Spirito, spiritoso – ‘Spirit’, ‘Spirited’; con spirito, ‘with spirit’, inject some extra life and energy into the music.
Staccato – ‘Detached’, the opposite of legato (smooth). Notated by a little dot written above or below the note. A staccato note is shortened in duration, separating it from the following note by some degree of silence.
Stave – The horizontal lines (usually 5 of them) on, and in between, which notes are placed. Also called a ‘staff’. A clef is placed at the beginning of the stave to tell us the pitch (the letter name) of each note. Notes that are outside the pitch range of the stave are written on ledger lines.
Stringendo – ‘Squeezing’, ‘Tightening’, ‘Narrowing’. Gradually getting faster, a pressing forward of the tempo.
Subdominant – The fourth degree of the major or minor scale. The subdominant is a 5th below the tonic (hence, ‘sub’), whereas the dominant is a 5th above the tonic.
Subito – ‘Suddenly’, ‘Immediately’. Often abbreviated to sub. For example, sub. f means you should become instantly loud, without there being a crescendo.
Subdivide – To divide a beat, or rhythmic unit, into smaller, equal rhythmic units. The smaller unit is called the 'subdivision'.
Submediant – The sixth degree of the scale. The submediant is a 3rd below the tonic (hence, ‘sub’), whereas the mediant is a 3rd above the tonic.
Sul – ‘On’. Often used to tell the violinist which string to play a note or a passage of notes on; e.g. sul A, sul E, sul D, sul G.
Sul tasto – ‘On the touch’. A direction to play ‘over the fingerboard’, i.e. further away from the bridge and beyond the fingerboard’s edge. This produces a softer, gentler tone; a more airy, whispery timbre.
Sul ponticello – ‘On the bridge’. A direction to play very near the bridge. Often abbreviated to sul pont. This produces a distorted, ‘glassy’ sound.
Supertonic – The second degree of the major or minor scale, i.e. one step above the tonic.
Syncopation – The displacement of the normal musical accent from a strong beat to a weak beat. This places the rhythmic ‘stresses’ where they wouldn’t normally occur.
Tacet – ‘Is Silent’. A direction to indicate that you should remain silent. DO NOT PLAY!
Tailpiece – The component of the violin that anchors the strings in place, opposite the pegs around which they are wound.
Tempo – The speed of the underlying beat, the pace at which a section of music is played. It is the ‘speedometer’ of music. Tempo is indicated in two ways: by a metronome mark (e.g. ♩ = 80, which means there are 80 crotchet beats per minute); and, less precisely, by a tempo marking (often in Italian) such as adagio, andante, allegretto, allegro, presto. You can gradually slow down the tempo, or speed it up, indicated by terms like ritardando (rit.) and accelerando (accel.).
Teneramente – ‘Tenderly’.
Tenuto – The tenuto marking is the little line that appears above or below a note. It literally means 'held' (from the Italian tenere, 'to hold'). The problem is that this little line can be interpreted in quite a few different ways (we count at least five!). Its function and its meaning are contextual (aaargh!) The most common definition of tenuto is: notes marked tenuto should be held for their full time-value. This is true ... tenuto notes (almost always!) should be held for their full duration! (Often, before rests and when surrounded by shorter notes, composers, fearing the worst, will mark notes with tenutos in order to warn performers not to cut them short!). The tenuto line can also be interpreted as: notes marked tenuto should be held ever-so-slightly longer than their full time-value! :-/ This is a subtle form of rubato – a slight stretching of the note to give it extra significance, extra expressivity. As well as the duration element of the tenuto, there is also the volume element, in that it can also be used to indicate mild dynamic emphasis. This is often described as ‘leaning’ on the note, a way for composers to say, “This note is extra special, make it sing out, give it some love!” This stretching and slight dynamic accentuation (and perhaps the use of a more sumptuous vibrato), can be used together to give tenuto notes a greater degree of expressive power ... like adding honey to porridge ... marshmallows to a hot cup of cocoa! The tenuto is also used to avoid confusion where notes of the same pitch occur within a slur. The little line makes it absolutely clear that the notes are not tied together, and should therefore be rearticulated. Tenutos within slurs are also used to indicate portato, a smooth and gentle pulsing effect. And, lastly, tenutos are very often used together with staccato markings – a line and a dot – to indicate that the note should be played short, but not too short – 'long-short' instead of 'short-short'!
Tessitura – The term used to describe the position of notes within the overall compass, or ‘pitch range’, of the instrument. Usually expressed as either ‘high, ‘low’, or ‘medium’.
Tie – A curved line used to join two successive notes of the same pitch, indicating that they should be played as a single note that lasts for the duration of their combined values.
Timbre – The character or quality of a sound. The ‘colour’ of the sound. It is the timbre, distinct from pitch and intensity, that allows us to distinguish between different types of sound production, e.g. violin vs. viola; nightingale vs. duck-billed platypus.
Time Signature – The numbers (usually two numbers, one above the other) that tell us how many beats are in each bar (the top number), and the note value that is equivalent to one beat (the bottom number). The time signature is written at the beginning of a piece (after the clef and key signature), or, if it changes, at the beginning of a bar during the piece. For instance, 3/4 means three crotchet beats per bar; 6/8 means six quaver beats per bar.
Tone – The interval of two semitones (i.e. a major 2nd, also known as a ‘whole tone’). The word ‘tone’ is also used to describe the quality (or lack thereof!) of a musical sound; for example, “Rubin produces a powerful, full-blooded tone from his tiny violin!”
Tonic – The first degree of the scale. Combines with gin to form a light, refreshing drink.
Tranquillo – ‘Tranquil’. Calmly, peacefully. Chilled out!
Transpose – to raise or lower the pitch of a sequence of notes, all by the same interval. In tonal music, this means playing or notating music in a different key to that of the original.
Treble clef – The clef is the symbol used to indicate the pitches of notes written on the stave. The treble clef is the one that we violinists use, the delightfully twirly thing that looks like this – ?
Tremolo – ‘Trembling’. A special technique where you move the bow up and down really really quickly to create a kind of 'trembling' effect, a rapid reiteration of the note.
Trill – The rapid alternation between two notes, usually a tone or a semitone apart.
Triplet – Three in the time of two. A note-grouping of three, played in the length of two of its note-type. Indicated by a little figure ‘3’ placed above or below.
Tritone – An interval of three whole tones (i.e. the augmented 4th or diminished 5th). Exactly half an octave. It is a somewhat dissonant, jarring interval, and acquired the nickname diabolus in musica (‘the Devil in music’) in the early 18th century. Many composers have made a feature of this interval in order to depict the dark forces of evil in their music! For example, Franz Liszt uses it to suggest Hell in his Dante Sonata. And, Camille Saint-Saëns uses it in his Danse Macabre, where the solo violinist’s E string is tuned down a semitone (scordatura tuning) to create the tritone.
Tutti – ‘All’. Everybody. Refers to an ensemble as a whole, as opposed to the soloist or soloists, or the individual members of the ensemble.
Unison – The simultaneous sounding of the same music at the same pitch. This can be at the same octave or at octaves apart. Rhythmic unison is the term used when the rhythms are exactly the same but the pitches can be different.
Upbeat – The ‘weak’ beat or beats of the bar, anticipating the first, ‘strong’ beat of the following bar (the downbeat).
Up-bow – Any bow stroke that travels to the left (assuming you are holding the bow in the right hand and the violin in the left hand!!)
Vibrato – ‘Shaken’, ‘Vibrating’. An oscillating fluctuation of pitch. It warms, enriches, intensifies the tone, and helps to give the sound a ‘singing’ quality, closely emulating the expressivity of human voice. Vibrato can originate in the fingers, hand, and arm, or a combination of all three.
Vigoroso – ‘Vigorous’, strong.
Virtuoso – A performer of exceptional ability; bedazzling technique and bewitching artistry!
Vivace – ‘Brisk’, ‘Lively’. A quick, upbeat tempo. Vivacissimo, very lively.
Viola – A big violin.
Violin – The best musical instrument in the world!
V.S. – short for volti subito, ‘turn over quickly’. Often used as a warning when there’s very little time to turn over the page!
Wolf note – A particular note on a particular string (usually high up on the G string) that is unstable, precarious, lacks focus, sounds ‘woolly’. Pesky little things!
Xylophone – Token entry for the letter ‘X’.
Yodel – A type of singing (if you can call it singing!) characterised by the frequent and rapid alternation between low and high registers of the voice (between normal voice and falsetto). Most associated with the Alpine areas of Austria and Switzerland.
Zigeunerweisen – ‘Gypsy Airs’. An absolutely amazing, highly virtuosic piece for violin and orchestra written in 1878 by the Spanish violinist and composer Pablo de Sarasate.
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