SCHOLARS 3310 - Creative Arts I

University of Arkansas at Little Rock

Link to UALR Donaghey Scholars Program


Music Vocabulary for Reports

The information below is adapted from the web site for the 3rd brief edition of Music: an Appreciation by Roger Kamien.

Vocabulary, Usages, and Conventions

In writing about music, it's important to use certain terms correctly, with regard to what they mean and the form in which they are written.

Here are a few terms you'll need to use in discussing musical performances; some of these are misused surprisingly often.

Composition, piece, and work. These may all be used, more or less interchangeably, for a single, complete piece of music ("The first composition on the program was very short"; "The second piece was the one I enjoyed most"; "This is a contemporary work").

Song. This is a relatively brief work for a solo singer, which is not part of a larger work like an opera or an oratorio (though it may be part of a song cycle, and the term is also correct for a solo passage in a musical comedy or operetta). Note that song should not be used for an instrumental work.

Aria. This is a passage for a solo singer in an opera or oratorio. If it is being performed out of context, as part of a concert or recital, it is still referred to as an aria. Some arias are independent compositions; these are called concert arias.

Vocal, vocalist. Vocal means of the voice; it is redundant and therefore incorrect to speak of a "vocal song." Vocalist is simply a synonym for singer.

Choral, chorus. Choral means of a choir (thus a choral work is a work for choir), and a chorus is a relatively large choir, or group of singers.

Ensemble. This can refer to any group of performers, but it is most commonly used for smaller groups. (A large group would be referred to as, say, an orchestra, chorus, or band.)

Chamber music. This refers to any music written for a chamber ensemble—a string quartet, a piano trio, a chamber orchestra, and so on. (Music for a soloist, or for a soloist with accompanist, may or may not be chamber music.)

Symphony. This is a composition for orchestra, usually in four movements. The term should not be used as a short form of "symphony orchestra" (the term to use in that case is orchestra.)

Program. A word with several meanings: (1) An entire concert or recital ("I enjoyed tonight's program"). (2) The printed booklet given to audience members at a concert, opera, recital, etc. ("I found that reading the program notes helped me understand the music"). (3) A literary text, a place, an event, or the like, on which a musical composition is based ("Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique has an autobiographical program").

Performance. This term typically refers to the actual act of making music ("a virtuoso performance"), though it is sometimes used to mean a musical presentation ("The performance consisted of six works").

Concert, recital. A recital is a program by a soloist or by two performers (soloist and accompanist, or a duo). A concert is a program by a chamber ensemble, orchestra, band, or chorus; there are also rock, jazz, and pop concerts.

Production. This is a performance of a work that involves staging—costumes, scenery, etc.—as well as music. The term may also refer to the costumes, scenery, and so on, as distinct from the music ("The opera was well sung, but the production seemed overelaborate").

Show. This term is properly used only for popular music and musical comedy.

Act, scene. In opera, operetta, and musical theater, an act is a major section of the work ("The third act of Rigoletto includes the famous vocal quartet"); usually, an intermission takes place between acts. Acts may be subdivided into scenes. Note: In popular forms like revues and variety shows, act refers to the presentation of one of the performers or performing groups ("A tough act to follow"); but the term is not correctly used in this way for recitals, orchestra or chamber concerts, etc. (Don't say, "For his second act he sang Die Forelle." Rather, say, "The second piece he sang was Schubert's Die Forelle"; or, "The second work was Die Forelle"; or the like.)

Movement. This is a specifically designated part within a long work such as a symphony, a concerto, a string quartet, etc. ("The first movement of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 begins quite loudly, with full orchestra. The second movement is contrastingly gentle."). The term is not used for sections within an opera. A movement is not the same thing as an act.

Section, passage. These terms are useful for referring to parts of a composition shorter than a movement or (in musical drama) shorter than an act, scene, aria, duet, ensemble, etc.

Tempo. This term refers to the speed of the music. In Classical music, sometimes the title of a movement is also the tempo. (The first movement of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 is Allegro con brio.) Please resist the temptation to refer to every fast piece you hear as "upbeat."

World Music