You Gotta Know These Music Theory Terms

Knowing the basics of music theory isn’t just important for music theory questions; it can also be helpful for questions on specific works in which the lead-in and early clues refer to score indications or memorable musical moments. All quiz bowl players should have at least a rudimentary grasp of the following 10 categories of musical terminology.

  1. Tempo: Traditionally, the tempo, or speed, of a piece is indicated through the use of Italian-language terms. Some of the most common tempo markings are largo (very slow), adagio (slow), andante (“walking speed”), allegro (fast), and presto (very fast). A work’s tempo may also be indicated by a metronome marking, which indicates the number of a certain type of note per minute (e.g., quarter note = 120). Tempos are often modified with Italian adjectives, such as allegro con fuoco (fast, with fire), which can make them more unique. Movements from larger works are often referred to by their tempo (e.g. “the Allegretto from Beethoven’s 7th symphony”); entire works may also be named for their tempo (e.g., Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings).

  2. Scales: The two most common types of scales are the major and minor scales, both of which are referred to as diatonic, meaning that they have seven notes between octaves and follow a repeating pattern of whole steps and half steps. While there is only one major scale, there are three common variants of the minor scale: natural, harmonic, and melodic. The individual notes within a scale are given numeric indications known as scale degrees, starting with “1” and moving up the scale note by note; the most prominent of these are the first degree, or tonic (the “home” pitch), and the fifth degree, or dominant. There is also the chromatic scale, which includes every note between two endpoints, including sharps and flats.

  3. Intervals: At the most basic level, intervals—the distance between two pitches—are described with ordinal numbers (second, third, etc.), with the exceptions of unisons (two of the exact same note) and octaves (eight notes apart). The easiest way to find the basic interval between two pitches is to start on the bottom pitch, label that line or space “1,” and then count lines and spaces upwards until the next pitch is reached; for example, the interval between C and F is a fourth: C is counted as “1,” the lines/spaces for D and E are counted as “2” and “3,” and the line/space for F is reached on “4.” Unisons, fourths, fifths, and octaves may be classified as perfect, augmented, or diminished; seconds, thirds, sixths, and sevenths may be classified as major, minor, augmented, or diminished.

  4. Chords: The most common types of chords are built of successive notes that are each a third above the previous. A triad consists of three notes referred to as the root, third, and fifth—the third and fifth being that respective interval above the root. Triads are classified as either major, minor, augmented, or diminished, based on whether the successive pitches are separated by major or minor thirds. Adding a successive pitch above the fifth results in a seventh chord (since that new pitch is a seventh above the root). Although many types of seventh chords are possible, the most common are the major, major-minor (or dominant), minor, half-diminished, and fully-diminished. Larger chords, such as ninth and thirteenth chords, appear commonly in jazz.

  5. Key: A piece of music’s key is the “home” scale of the work. The key is most often indicated by the work’s key signature, a collection of sharps or flats that appears at the beginning of the work and on each subsequent line of music (a list of key signatures may be found here). A pair of keys may be parallel (beginning on the same pitch, e.g., C major and C minor), or relative (having the same key signature, e.g., C major and A minor). Most works of music between the Baroque and Romantic periods end in the same key as they begin, with the exception that works in minor may end in the parallel major. A work’s key is often used as a descriptor in its title (e.g. Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor).

  6. Transposition: Instruments that are in concert pitch, or “in C,” have their music written at the same pitch in which they sound. Concert pitch instruments include the piano, all string instruments, the flute, and nearly every woodwind and brass instrument that plays in bass clef. Other instruments are transposing instruments, meaning that their music is written at a different pitch than they sound. With few exceptions, music for transposing instruments is written above the sounding pitch, which can be determined by moving down the interval that the instrument’s key is below C. For example, the French horn is in F, a perfect fifth below C; thus, a French horn playing a written G natural would sound a C natural, the pitch a perfect fifth below G natural. Similarly, a B-flat trumpet playing a written D would sound a C, a major second below.

  7. Dynamics: Dynamic markings indicate the volume at which music is to be played. The two most basic dynamic markings are forte, meaning “loud,” and abbreviated f; and piano, meaning “soft,” and abbreviated p. These indications are often modified by the word mezzo (abbreviated m); thus, mf indicates “mezzo forte,” meaning “medium loud.” They may also be modified by the suffix -issimo, meaning “very,” and symbolized by two of the same letter; thus, pp would indicate pianissimo, meaning “very soft.” Gradual changes in volume are indicated by a crescendo, meaning gradually getting louder, or a diminuendo (also called decrescendo), meaning gradually getting softer.

  8. Articulation: Articulation refers to the various techniques which may be used to modify the attack or performance of a single note or a series of notes. Some of the most common articulations include staccato, meaning light or short; tenuto, meaning a note is to be held its entire value; and legato, meaning a series of notes is to be connected to one another very smoothly. Single notes may be given extra force by an accent mark.

  9. Form: A work’s form, or overall structure, is often depicted via a series of capital letters, with each different letter representing a large section of contrasting material. Basic forms include binary form (“AB” or “AABB”), ternary form (“ABA”), and strophic form (“A” endlessly repeated, commonly found in folk songs or religious hymns with multiple verses). Other forms include rondo form, in which several statements of a single theme are each separated by contrasting material (e.g. “ABACA”). Forms not usually represented by capital letters include the various types of theme and variations, as well as sonata-allegro form (which at its most basic level includes an exposition, a development, and a recapitulation).

  10. Twelve-tone technique: Twelve-tone technique was developed by Arnold Schoenberg in the early 1920s, and is one method of writing atonal music—music that has no key or tonic pitch. Twelve-tone works are based on a tone row constructed from each of the twelve pitches of the chromatic scale, each used only once. This row may be inverted and/or presented in retrograde (backwards), a combination of possibilities often represented in a twelve-tone matrix (for an example, see here; curious readers may experiment with creating their own row/matrix here). Twelve-tone technique is one form of serialism, the rigid structuring of various musical elements within a work. A work of total serialism applies the same process to dynamics, articulations, and other basic elements of music as well as pitch.

This article was contributed by NAQT editor Jason Thompson.

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