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Music Terms, Signs, And Abbreviations You Need To Know


Music Terms

Musical terms, signs, and abbreviations are always used in music for effective performance and good music interpretation. Composers normally use these terms to give directions on how their music will be performed.

These musical terms are very important in music performance because they guide musicians to bring music to life as intended by the composers.

And in truth, every musician should know how to interpret any musical terms they come across for better performance. Knowledge of these terms will make a musician’s performance more precise with more technique.

There are several musical terms used in music today to specify the dynamics, tempo, and style of performance. As a matter of fact, most of these musical terms are in Latin as the Italian language.

This is because the Italian composers were the first to write these directions, indicating how their music should be performed.

However, these terms categorically make it easier for musicians to connect musically regardless of their indigenous language.

In this article, we will have classified musical terms signs, and abbreviations into four categories for our discussion. In particular, the four categories are musical terms that indicate dynamics, tempo, change of tempo, and style of performance.

Musical Terms Indicating Dynamic (Intensity)

In music notation, dynamic signs or terms are fundamentally used to inform the performer about the degree of the volume of a musical note or phrase. Also, it gives directives to musicians on how the high or low the musical passage should be performed. 

The musical terms indicating dynamics signify how the volume of a musical piece changes over time as well. They let performers know if the volume of the music phrase or passage should gradually become louder or softer. 

In fact, they add more value to musical expression as desired by the composer. The list below contains some of the musical terms to signify dynamic or intensity in music notation. 

Crescendo: Gradually getting louder. This term is from the Italian word “crescere” and it means “to grow”.  Crescendo is the opposite of decrescendo and is often abbreviated as “cresc“.

It is used in musical content to inform a performer to smoothly increase the volume of a specified phrase or passage. Typically, the crescendo symbol looks like the “less than” (<) symbol but covers the entire length of the musical passage in which the crescendo is used.

Usually, the dynamic mark is always preceding and succeeding the crescendo to indicate the desired volume before and after the crescendo.

Decrescendo: Gradually getting softer. This term is from the Italian word “decrescere” and it means “to decrease or diminish”.  A decrescendo is the opposite of a crescendo and is often abbreviated as “decresc“.

This term is used in musical content to notify a performer that a specified phrase or passage should be smoothly decreasing in volume. Sometimes a crescendo symbol that looks like a “greater than” (>) symbol but covers the whole length of the musical passage with a decrescendo is used.

Usually, there is a dynamic mark before and after the decrescendo to specify the required volume before and after the decrescendo.

ALSO READ: Facts You Need To Know About Musical Notation

Diminuendo: Gradually getting softer. This term has the same functionally as decrescendo and is abbreviated as “dim.” or “dimin“. Similarly, to decrescendo, a performer should decrease the volume of the specific passage of a composition smoothly. Also, diminuendo used the same symbol in the same manner as decrescendo.

Forte: Loud. This term is used in music for a passage that is marked to be performed loudly. Forte is commonly notated in music as “f“.

Fortissimo: Very loud. The superlative form of forte is fortissimo which means very loud. This is definitely louder than forte and typically abbreviated as “ff“.

Mezzo forte: Moderately loud. This is a directive to perform the specified passage of a piece moderately loudly. Mezzo forte is not to a certain extent so loud as forte. It is normally abbreviated as “mf“.

Mezzo Piano: Moderately soft. This term is abbreviated as “mp”. It is a dynamic mark used as a direction in music that a passage of a composition should be played moderately soft. But not to a certain extent as soft as piano.

Pianissimo: Performed very softly. This pianissimo is abbreviated as pp. It is a musical term that indicated that a passage of a piece should be played very softly. This is even softer than piano (p) and mezzo piano (mp).

Piano: Soft. This term is commonly abbreviated as “p”. It is typically a dynamic mark used in music to tell a musician that a particular passage or line of a piece or composition should be played or performed softly.

Other Music Terms Used For Dynamics

Other terms in this category are as follows:

Forte pianoLoud and immediately soft
FortississimoVery very loud. Abbreviated as “fff“.
Meno forteLess loudly
Meno pianoLess soft
Molto fortissimoExtremely loud
Molto pianissimoExtremely softly
PianississimoVery very quiet. Abbreviated as “ppp“.
Piu forteMore loudly
Piu pianoMore soft

Musical Terms indicating Tempo (Speed) of A Music

Musical Terms, Signs, And Abbreviations You Need To Know
Snippet from Ludwig van Beethoven Piano Sonata no. 17 in D minor ‘The Tempest’, Op. 31 no. 2

This section focus on musical terms for tempo (music tempo terms). In reality, the tempo in music is all about the speed at which a musical piece is performed. The speed of music usually depends on the mood a composer intended to create.

And in musical notation, the tempo can be notated in three different ways which are modern language, Beat Per Minute (BPM), and Italian music terms.

The musical term indicating tempo is used by composers to inform musicians how fast or slow a passage of a piece should be played to create the composer’s desired mood.

Typically, Italian music terms are common in music notation to give musicians a directive on how the music should be performed.

Of course, Italian has been used for centuries as the language of music. Therefore, we will base our musical terms used to indicate the tempo of music on a common Italian term. 

The following are some of the musical terms used in musical notation to indicate the speed of the music.

Adagietto: Rather slow or fairly slow. This term is a direction in music that indicates playing at a fairly slow tempo. Adagietto is a slightly faster speed than adagio and also slower than andante. This tempo is around 65–69 BPM.

Adagio: Slowly with great expression. This is typically abbreviated as “adag.”, “adgo“, “ado“.  “adgº“, or “adº“.  Adagio is a tempo marking for slow speed in the middle of largo and andante.  Adagio is around 66–76 BPM.

Allegretto: Moderately fast. This term is a directive to perform the indicated section of music moderately fast and rather lively. Allegretto is not as fast as allegro but faster than andante with a pulse around 112–120 BPM.

ALSO READ: What You Need To Know About Slur And Its Function In Music Notation

Allegro: Fast or quick at a brisk lively tempo. This is a directive that a piece or passage of a piece should be performed fast, quick, and bright. Allegro speed is in the middle of allegretto and vivace and it is around 120–156 BPM.

Andantino: Slower than andante. This is a very special tempo relatively to andante. Normally, it is a directive to perform music at a speed that is slightly faster than andante. And sometimes it is used to specify a speed that is slightly slower than andante. The tempo for Andantino is around 80–108 BPM.

Andate: At walking pace or speed. This term is used as a musical direction that a passage of a piece or the entire piece should be performed moderately at a walking pace. This tempo marking is between largo and moderato and around 76–108 BPM.

Largo: Slow and broad. This is the musical term used as a direction for a very slow and solemn tempo in music. It is around 40–60 BPM.

Lento: Slowly. A directive that a musical piece or a section of the piece should be played or performed slowly. The lento as a tempo of the music is around 45–60 BPM.

Prestissimo: As fast as possible. This term is used on the passage of music to be performed at a speed that is very fast as possible. Prestissimo is the fastest speed in musical notation. Faster than presto at a tempo between 200 BPM and above.

Presto: Quick. This term is a directive to perform a section of music or composition very quickly. Presto is the second musical tempo that is very fast and it is around 168–200 BPM. It is faster than allegro that is commonly used in music notation.

Other Terms Used For Tempo

There are several other music tempo terms apart from those we discussed above. In particular, some other music tempo terms used in music to indicate tempo are listed below:

AdagissimoExtremely slow.
GraveReally slow and solemn between 20–45 BPM.
LarghettoRather broadly between 60–66 BPM.
LarghissimoVery slow as possible between 24 BPM and below.
LentoSlowly between 45–60 BPM.
ModeratoAt a moderate speed or pace.

Musical Terms For Change Of Tempo

In brief, these are musical terms that give the performer a composers’ idea of how slow or fast the music should feel or be performed. In the middle of a performance, composers may likely choose to change the tempo of a piece of music.

Therefore, he/she will need the means to convey that intention to the performer of the piece. And in order to achieve this end, there are some musical terms available to be used.

All we need to do is write the term in a very appropriate section of the music where we want the effect to take place. The musical terms below are normally used to signal changes of tempo in music notation. 

A tempo: In time. This is an instruction to go back to the original tempo after an intentional deviation. A tempo is usually used after a term like ritardando to help the performer know the right time to go back to the original speed.

Accelerando: Gradually getting faster. This musical term is a directive to gradually increase the tempo of music or an indication that music should be getting faster until there is an indication to stop. Also, dotted lines are usually used with the accelerando to specify the length of musical passage it covers. And the accelerando is often abbreviated as “accel” or “accelº“.

ALSO READ: What You Need To Know About Musical Tone and Sound

Rallentando: Gradually getting slower. This is a musical term that gives a directive to perform a section of music by slowing the tempo gradually. The abbreviation often used for rallentando is “rall“.

Ritardando: Becoming gradually slower. A directive to perform the indicated passage of a composition with a gradual slowing of the tempo, or to gradually delay the tempo. The term is almost similar to rallentando. The abbreviation usually used for ritardando is “rit” or “ritard“.

Ritenuto: Held back; suddenly becoming slower. This term is a directive to perform the passage of music with an immediate reduction of speed. This is performed more suddenly and extremely than a ritardando. Specifically, the ritenuto is commonly abbreviated as “riten“.

Rubato: This term is all about rhythmic freedom in music that transmits flexibility and emotion to the performance. It allows the performer to gracefully stretch, slowing down, and also speeding up the tempo of a passage as desired.

Music Terms indicating Style Of performance

Snippet from Wolfgang A. Mozart Piano Sonata No.11, K.331 Menuetto

The music can be performed in so many ways with different expressions and styles.  And in reality, the expressive interpretation of music notes and rhythm is the soul of any music.

And when it is well done, it ignites the emotion of the listeners as well as performers. Even a brief change in the tempo of music at the right passage has the power to create a tinge of emotion.

Emotion is the life of music and without it, music will only get boring. The style used in musical performances to generate emotion are many and varied. Some of them are listed and described below.

A Capella: Unaccompanied music. This is originally a musical performance by unaccompanied voices.  It tells musicians to perform music without any instrumental accompaniment.

Ad libitum: At the performer’s pleasure or convenience. This musical term is commonly abbreviated as “ad lib” or “Ad l”. It is a directive give to the performer to use his/her discretion. In addition, it tells the performer to carry out the marked passage “at his/her pleasure” or “as he/she desires”.

Al fine: To the End. This term is normally used with Da Capo to indicate to the End or sometimes to where you find the word FINE (which indicates end). So you will see Da Capo al Fine which means go back to the beginning and stop at FINE or END.

Alla caccia: In a hunting style. This is a directive to musicians to perform a passage of music in a style of hunting music.

ALSO READ: What You Need To Know About Articulation In Music And Its Function

Alla Marcia: In a marching style. This is a directive that establishes a passage of music to be performed in the style of a march. And it is commonly in 2/4 or 4/4 signature with a downbeat that carry an accent.

Allargando: Getting louder, slower, and broader. This is a term in music that is normally abbreviated as “allarg“. It is a directive to a performer that the indicated section should be performed growing broader, slower, and louder, and more stately.

Appassionato: To perform the music passionately or deeply emotionally. This is a musical term that gives a directive to a performer to perform the indicated passage passionately, also with a great amount of emotion.

Calando: Gradually getting softer and slower. This musical term is used as a direction in music to inform the performer that the music should die away in volume as well as tempo.

Cantabile: In a singing style. This means that a piece should be performed in a singing style. Likewise, performing in a flowingly, melodiously, and graceful style that is full of expression.

Da capo: Repeating from the beginning. This musical term is commonly abbreviated as “D.C.” and it is an Italian term that means “go back and start again from the beginning”.

Dal segno: Repeat from the sign §. This is a musical term that is usually abbreviated as “D.S.“. It serves as a navigation mark in music notation and gives instruction to musicians to repeat the music from the sign known as segno.

ALSO READ: What is Legato in Music, Its Technique And Interpretation

Dolce: Sweetly. This term is used to tell musicians to perform the passage pointed out from a piece softly and sweetly, alternative with tender emotion.

Dolcissimo: More Sweetly. This is a superlative expression of a dolce. It is a directive given to musicians to perform the passage marked out with a greater degree compared to dolce. That means sweeter and softer and with higher tender emotion than “dolce.”

Fine: The end. This is a musical term that indicates the end of a movement or composition when a section is repeated.

Legato: Smoothly connected. This serves as a directive that a section in a musical piece should be performed smoothly, gracefully, and in a connected style without intervening silence from note to note. For this purpose, the slur is sometimes used to indicate legato in a musical piece.

Maestoso: To be performed majestically or in a majestic manner. This musical term serves as a guide to musicians that the marked section should be performed in a stately, dignified, and in a majestic manner. The interpretation of maestoso is dynamic and varied with the musician’s style of music.

Marcia: This means in march style or like a march and you can see how it was used in “Alla Marcia“.

ALSO READ: What You Need To Know About Cadence In Music

Morendo: Dying away or fading away. This is a guide in a musical piece for the performer to perform a selected section or passage in such a way that the passage will die away or diminishes in tempo and tone. Specifically, morendo will build a musical effect of a slow ritardando and a diminuendo with an intense fade.

Poco a poco: Little by little. This musical term is usually used as a direction to alter tempo marking in music. For instance, when used with accelerando to have “rallentando poco a poco“. This typically means let the music get slower little by little.

Staccatissimo: This is a superlative of staccato. It is a directive in music that notes should be played in an extremely detached, separated, and distinct way.  In particular, staccatissimo is indicated by a solid wedge directly above or below the note head.

Staccato: Short and detached sound. This musical term is used as a direction in music that notes should be played in a detached, separated, distinct manner. Specifically, this is done with short intervening silence from note to note. For this purpose, a dot directly above or below the note head is sometimes used to denote staccato in a music notation.

End Note

Of course, there are many other musical terms, signs, and abbreviations used in music notation. With this in mind, those terms we discussed in this article are just selected ones.

In case you are playing a piece with other musical terms not discussed or mentioned here, you can check the term online. Also, you can ask the meaning of the term from your teacher if you have one.  Just make sure you understand these terms and how to play or perform them.

At Phamox Music, we go all out for exactness and honesty. For this purpose, if by any means you found any possible glitch, be it factual, editorial or something that we need to update, kindly contact us.

If you find the information provided in this post “Music Terms” interesting and helpful, kindly share it with someone you know that might need it.


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