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Glossary of Musical Terms

One of life’s joys is listening to music. To appreciate music it’s helpful to know some musical terms. I’ve found that being aware of these terms help me notice and appreciate the music I listen to.

A melody is conjunct if it tends to progress along adjacent notes in the scale. I.e., there are only small, smooth jumps. A melody is disjunct if it tends to progress with big jumps. The terms are usually relative.

Plainchant, often referred to as Gregorian chant, is unadorned and monophonic chanting.

Polyphony is a musical texture in which two or more principal melodies are heard simultaneously.

Organum was the earliest composed and notated polyphony. Organum presents a plainchant in one voice, while another voice decorates and embellishes the plainchant.

Melisma is a group of notes sung to one syllable of text.

A madrigal is a part-song for several voices, especially one of the Renaissance period, typically arranged in elaborate counterpoint and without instrumental accompaniment.

A note is a notated pitch with duration.

A melody is a succession of notes.

A motif is a brief succession of notes that is sequenced, repeated, and transformed to produce a melody.

A tune is a generally singable melody with a clear sense of beginning, middle, and end.

The theme is the principle “musical idea” in a given section of music.

Texture refers to the number of melodies present and the relationship between or among those melodies in a given section of music.

Monophony consists of a single unaccompanied melody line.

Polyphony, or counterpoint, consists of two or more simultaneous melody lines of equal importance. Imitative polyphony is characterized by overlapping more or less the same melody line in multiple parts. The imitation can be strict (e.g., a canon or round) or, as is mostly the case, non-strict. Non-imitative polyphony is characterized by two or more different melodies of equal importance heard simultaneously.

Homophony texture has one predominant melody line, and all other melodic material is heard as secondary or accompanimental to the main melody.