Going to a classical music concert can be somewhat bewildering, what with all the odd terms that seem to be used. For this we must blame the Italians; they like to qualify things. Sometimes they do this with suffixes (that -issimo, for instance, means “very,” -ino and -etto both mean “a little”). Sometimes they use whole words, as with:
poco- a little
non troppo- not too much
But that’s just the basic, strike-up-the-band stuff. Other, less blatant quantitative terms, are:
A CAPPELLA (literally, “as in church”): Used of vocal music without instrumental accompaniment, even though instrumental accompaniment has been common in churches since the Middle Ages.
ARPEGGIO (literally, “as played on a harp”): A broken chord in which the notes are played in succession so as to recall—on a piano, violin, whatever—a harpist “sweeping” the strings.
CADENZA (literally, “cadence”): A passage in a concerto (and a display of virtuosity, florid, brilliant, or both) in which the solo instrument plays without the orchestra. It was up to the performer to decide to execute a cadenza until the time of Mozart; now always indicated by the composer.
CANTABiLE (literally, “singable”): In a flowing style.
CODA (literally, “tail”): A concluding, rounding-off section to a piece of music, or a portion of it.
DA CAPO (literally, “from the head”): An indication that a previously played section of music is to be repeated.
GLISSANDO (from an Italian version of the French glisser, to slide): Sliding from note to note, as by running one’s fingers over the keys of the piano, strings of the harp, etc.
LEGATO (literally, “bound together”): Describes a smooth performance without accentuated notes (cf. “staccato,” on the next page).
OBBLIGATO (literally, “obligatory”): Denotes some indispensable part: an elaborate embellishment of a main melodic line, an instrument that’s critical (but subordinate) to a vocal performance. Careful: Some people use the term to signal precisely that element which can be dispensed with; the point is, according to them, if it’s a key support, it can’t also be the heart of the matter.
PIZZICATO (literally, “pinched”): Directs that, with stringed instruments, the strings are to be plucked with the fingers, not bowed.
RUBATO (literally, “robbed”): Indicates that a player should “play around” with a given tempo, marginally accelerating or relaxing it, for effect; sometimes on a piano keyboard one hand might play “normally,” the other go with the rubato. Also known as swaying the rhythm.
SCHERZO (literally, “joke”): A sped-up form of the minuet, much beloved of Haydn and Beethoven. Common today as a component of sonatas, symphonies, etc.
SFORZANDO (literally, “forced”): Designates a note to be played with special emphasis.
STACCATO (literally, “detached”): Opposite of “legato” (on previous page), with notes to be played in a sharp, highly differentiated manner.
TESSITURA (literally, “texture”): Refers to the basic range of a part, vocal or musical, excluding any very high or low notes.
TOCCATA (literally, “touched”): A piece that shows off the “touch”; originally often used of a trumpet fanfare, now more often of a free-form keyboard piece.
TREMOLO (literally, “tremulous”): A “trembling” effect, either from the rapid repetition of a single note (by, say, fast backward-and-forward bowing) or from the rapid alternation of two notes more than a whole tone apart.
VIBRATO (literally, “shake”): A rapid, slight wavering of pitch
Congratulations, you can now annoy your friends with your new found knowledge of classical music !