Basic Music 101: Definitions A-L
You don’t need to be a professor of music to download albums or to buy cheap concert tickets. Nonetheless, your enjoyment of pop, rock, country, hip hop, alternative, heavy metal and other genres will be enhanced if you know some of the basics of musicology.
Below are definitions and examples of a dozen frequently used music terms. Reading the following information won’t make you an expert but it is a solid introduction to the fascinating subject of music theory. And remember, knowing a little bit about the mechanics of your favorite song will help you better appreciate its artistic qualities.
Definition: A piece of music that contains only singing and no instrumental accompaniment. This type of music is usually performed by choirs, barbershop quartets and doo-wop groups. In Italian, “a cappella” means “in the manner of the church.”
In A Sentence: “Since the band isn’t going to show tonight let’s sing “Stairway To Heaven” a cappella.”
Examples: “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” by Bobby McFerrin, Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out, and all the contestants on NBC’s The Sing Off.
Definition: The beat is the basic unit of rhythm for a piece of music. In rock and pop songs, the beat is easy to hear because it’s almost always played by the drummer. However, all music, even works without percussion, has a beat. Attend a live symphony concert and watch the conductor waving her baton. She’s actually keeping the “beat” for her orchestra.
In A Sentence: “Hey drummer, give me a beat and make it funky!”
Examples: “Beat Surrender” by Paul Weller, “You Can’t Stop The Beat” from the Broadway musical Hairspray, “We Got The Beat” by The Go-Go’s, and “Beat It” by Michael Jackson.
Definition: A cadence is a series of chords that concludes, or resolves, a musical phrase. In popular music, a cadence usually ends a song and does so quite convincingly. When a listener hears a strong cadence they know the song is over. It’s the musical equivalent of an exclamation point.
In A Sentence: “Instead of ending the song with everyone just stop playing, let’s write a cadence.”
Examples: “Revolution” by The Beatles, “Rock Around The Clock” by Bill Haley and His Comets, and “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” by The Who.
Definition: A chord is two or more notes played at the same time although they are generally comprised of three notes. The four most common types of chords are major, minor, diminished and augmented. The use of chords is prevalent in Western music, especially in rock ‘n roll.
In A Sentence: “Country music is nothing more than three chords and the truth.”
Examples: “Satisfaction” by The Rolling Stones, “Louie Louie” by The Kingsmen, and just about every AC/DC song.
Definition: Chorus means both a group of singers and the refrain of song. In popular music, the chorus is typically catchy, repetitious, and often includes the title of song. Some music theorists believe a chorus is actually a new musical phrase distinct from the verse while a refrain actually resolves the verse’s melody.
In A Sentence: “Let’s write a song with a verse followed by a chorus, followed by another verse, which is then followed by a chorus.”
Examples: “Yellow Submarine” by The Beatles, “Tubthumping” by Chumbawamba, and “Rock and Roll All Nite” by KISS.
Definition: Coda is the ending of a piece of music and the final studio album by Led Zeppelin. A coda convincingly finishes a piece of music and is at least a few measures long. It also must be different from the other parts of the song—guitar solos or repeating the chorus several times don’t count. Most pop songs end with something called an “outro” or “tag.” In Italian, the word coda means “tail.”
In A Sentence: “Since I want to end the song on a high note, I think we should practice the coda again.”
Examples: The piano part from “Layla” by Derek and the Dominos, the end of “Hello, Goodbye” by The Beatles, and the very end of “The Concept” by Teenage Fanclub (as the song fades out).
Definition: Simply stated, counterpoint is two or more melodies played at the same time. Chord progressions technically fit this description but they are generally not considered counterpoint—the melodies need to be independent of one another. You’ll hear counterpoint in classical music and sometimes when you have Broadway tickets. Musicology 101 decided to include it in our list of terms because it’s often misused.
In A Sentence: “If you sing your melody and I sing mine, we’ll have a nice counterpoint going on.”
Example: Johann Sebastian Bach is universally regarded as the master of counterpoint.
Definition: Dynamics refers to the loudness and softness of a song or piece of music. In musical notation, “forte” means to play loud while “piano” means to play softly. Classical music and Broadway show tunes are generally quite dynamic while most rock and pop songs are not; they are usually either loud or soft.
In A Sentence: “Let’s play the middle of this song soft and rest very loud so we can have at least one dynamic song on our set list.”
Examples: “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen, “At Least It Was Here” by The 88, and “Live and Let Die” by Paul McCartney and Wings.
Definition: Falsetto is basically when a man sings in a high pitch voice like a woman. The word “falsetto” means “false” in Italian. Technically, falsetto is singing or talking in a register that is one octave higher than one’s normal voice. One of the most famous falsetto singers in popular music is Frankie Valli of The Four Seasons.
In A Sentence: “Since we don’t have a female vocalist tonight, let’s have Bob sing her part in his best falsetto.”
Examples: “Sherry” by The Four Seasons, “Cry Me A River” by Justin Timberlake, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” by The Tokens, and “Emotional Rescue” by The Rolling Stones.
Definition: Harmony is when two or more notes are played to together while accompanying a melody. Harmony usually connotes a pleasing sound which is why the concept is governed by several rules. It’s often said that harmony deals with the “verticality” of music while counterpoint deals with its horizontal aspect. Harmonies can be played on one or more instruments but in popular music the word typically connotes two of more voices.
In A Sentence: “Let’s each sing a different part of this chord so we can have a nice harmony in the chorus.”
Examples: A lot of early Beatles tracks, quite a few Beach Boys songs, and several Simon & Garfunkel tunes.
Definition: Leitmotif is taken from the German word “Leitmotiv” and was made famous by the operas of Richard Wagner. A leitmotif is a musical phrase that’s associated with a character, an idea, a prop, a place, or an event. Every time (or nearly every time) that character, idea, prop, place, or event is seen (or mentioned) in a production, the same musical phrase is heard.
In A Sentence: “Let’s have the orchestra play this riff every time the bad guy walks on stage.”
Examples: The music in Star Wars, Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen,” and the score to the 1938 film, Robin Hood.
Definition: The libretto is basically the lyrics of an opera or a musical. The word “libretto” usually connotes an operatic work while “lyrics” are normally associated with musicals. Librettos and lyrics are frequently written in verse and often independently of the music. “Libretto” is a form of the Italian word for “book” but it should not be confused with a musical’s book. A musical’s book contains spoken dialogue and stage direction.
In A Sentence: “If you write a libretto I’ll set it to music and in no time we’ll have an opera!”
Examples: Metastasio, W.S. Gilbert, and Bertolt Brecht.