Classical Music-A History of Classical Music: Basic Terms

A History of Classical Music: Basic Terms

A History of Classical Music: Basic Terms to Know

In our series tracing the history and development of classical music, we will be using the following terms, explained here for your reference.

Atonal: The lack of tonality (see Tonal). Atonal music contains pitches or harmonies in which there is no hierarchy or order in relation to a “home” or tonic pitch of a key. Atonal music, because it lacks a sense of structure, tends to sound disconcerting to some listeners.

Counterpoint: An advanced type of polyphony in which two or more different melodic voices move independently of each other but are related harmonically. It differs from mere overall polyphony because of this harmonic element. Two or more melodic lines played together but with no regard for the harmonies that are created is polyphonic, but it is not counterpoint.

Embellishment or Ornamentation: Any variety of “extra decoration” added to or manipulation of a note or series of notes. The simplest and probably most common type of ornamentation is the trill, in which two adjacent notes are repeated rapidly instead of just one of the notes being sounded by itself.

Harmony: The resulting sound when more than one note or pitch is played together.

Homophonic: A musical texture in which there is only one main melodic line (can be played or sung by one or more people) but with harmonic, chordal accompaniment.

Interval: The distance between two pitches. For example, C to G is the interval of a fifth (C, D, E, F, G = 1, 2, 3, 4, 5). The interval of an eighth, or the the same note only higher or lower (C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C = 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8) is also called an octave.

Ligature: In Medieval chant notation, a ligature is a cluster of neumes that are connected together.

Melisma: A string of many notes or pitches sung on one syllable of text.

Meter: The rhythmic division and organization of a measure; specified by the time signature.

Mode/Modal: A mode is a pattern of ascending half and whole steps. Each mode is essentially a type of scale. However, it does not contain the same pitch and hierarchical relationships that a scale does in tonal music. Therefore, modal music is based off a musical mode, but is not the same thing as tonal.

Monophonic: A musical texture in which there is only one melodic line. This melody may be performed by one or one million people, but as long as there is only the one melodic line and no harmony or second melody, it is considered monophonic. A single melodic line accompanied by drums or a drone pitch is also considered monophonic.

Neume: The name for the square notes used in Medieval chant notation.

Pitch: A musical note or tone.

Polyphonic: A musical texture in which there are two or more melodic lines. This is the primary texture found in most classical music.

Tonal: Music in which all the pitches and harmonies within a given key are organized in a hierarchical relationship to the main tonic or “home” pitch. Tonal music sounds more universally pleasing to a listener’s ear because it has an inherent conflict-resolution quality. This results when pitches and harmonies, throughout the course of a piece of music, inevitably return or resolve to the “home” or tonic pitch. In contrast, atonal music does not contain these relationships and, therefore, there is no pleasing resolution to a tonic pitch.

Virtuosic: Music with a high degree of technical difficulty that requires a musician of exceptional caliber to perform.

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