School in a Book: Music

You’ve heard the term “music appreciation.” While appreciation classes vary widely, they usually cover a historical overview of the subject, a sampling of the subject in question, plus a smattering of basic terms and technical knowledge–exactly the sort of overview this book seeks to offer. (Samplings can be found in the Resources section of this book.)


Orchestra: A large group of musicians playing together on a variety of instruments, usually representing all four instrument families

The four families of instruments in an orchestra: Woodwind, strings, brass and percussion

Woodwind instruments: Instruments made of wood whose sounds come from the player’s vibrating breath as it moves through it. Woodwind vibrations are caused by a reed in the instrument.

Stringed instruments: Instruments whose sounds come from the movement of strings

Brass instruments: Instrument made of brass whose sounds come from the player’s vibrating breath as it moves through it. Brass instrument vibrations are caused by the player’s lips.

Percussion instruments: Instruments whose sounds come from a player hitting, scraping or shaking it Note that a piano is both a wind and a percussion instrument.

The four main vocal ranges, highest to lowest: Soprano, alto, tenor and bass

Octave: The collection of notes between two successive notes of a kind (e.g. the notes between middle C and the C following it). Each octave is double the frequency of the one below it in the scale.

Scale: The collection of notes that make up one or more octaves in the same key

Key: The use of scale in actual music, named for its first note. Most musical pieces are produced in a single key, with all of their notes coming from that key’s notes.

Tone: A sound produced due to a single frequency

Pitch: A note’s perceived sound frequency, which might be slightly higher or lower than its tone

Note: A notation representing the pitch and duration of a musical sound

The four main types of music notes: Whole, half, quarter, eighth

Flat: A lowering of a note’s pitch by a semitone

Sharp: A raising of a note’s pitch by a semitone

Rhythm: Music’s pattern in time

Beat: A individual unit of time that, with others, forms a rhythm; the basic unit of measurement of a rhythm

Tempo: The overall speed of a piece of music

Harmony: The sound of two or more notes heard simultaneously

Resonance: The amplification or expansion of a sound

Timbre: A subjective description of a sound’s quality or uniqueness; the various qualities of a sound that make it recognizable. For example, Whitney Houston’s voice is different from Bette Midler’s voice due to many variations in smoothness, roughness, lightness, intensity and more.

Accent: A momentary emphasis or stress on a particular note or rhythmic detail

Crescendo: A growing sound

Forte: A louder, stronger sound

Encore: The return to the stage of a performer for an additional, unlisted piece

Mezzo: Halfway, as in mezzo forte (half loud) and mezzo soprano

Staccato: A briefer, more detached sound

Legato: A drawn out sound

Reprise: A repeated section

Movement: A segment of a piece of music that is set apart in some way from the rest of the piece. A movement is often performed separately, and named separately, from the larger work.

Aria: A segment of a piece of music that is written for one voice, usually with orchestral accompaniment and set apart in some way from the rest of the piece

Overture: The orchestral introduction to a musical composition. An overture also serves as a piece in its own right.

Coda: A piece’s tail or closing section

Acoustic music: Music that is produced by instruments rather than by electronics

Virtuoso: A performer of exceptional ability or artistry

Music synthesizer: A computer-run machine that generates electronic sounds and modifies sound input in a variety of ways

Amplifier/amp: An electronic device that works with a mechanical loudspeaker, turning low voltage signals into higher ones that can be heard over the speakers

Bass speaker/woofer: A loudspeaker designed to produce high voltage low frequency sounds

Prehistoric music: The music of early hominids, who sang, hummed and whistled; made flutes and pipes out of bone; and made percussion instruments out of wood and rocks

Music of ancient times: The music of ancient peoples, who used it for entertainment, celebration and spiritual reasons.The oldest known song, as well as the first known musical notation, was written in cuneiform, indicating the importance of music to early civilizations. Greek music included double pipes, the double-reed aulos, a plucked string instrument, the lyre, mixed-gender choruses and more. Roman music included harps, lyres and trumpets and featured simple melodies without harmony.

Monastery music: The music created by Roman Catholics in monasteries and abbeys during the Middle Ages, which thought of as an exclusive art form and was usually performed for religious purposes. Though the human voice was still central to most works, a wider range of wind, brass and percussion instruments came into use during this time.

Plainchant: A type of religious music in which sacred texts are sung in a monophonic manner with minimal instrumental accompaniment

Gregorian Chant: A more elaborate type of medieval religious chant, possibly developed by Pope Gregory, which is known for the haunting sound of the open, perfect fifth and its move toward polyphony

Polyphony: The use of complex vocal melodies and harmonies

Monophony: The use of simple, single-line melodies without harmony

Renaissance music: A musical style that dominated from approximately 1400 to 1600 and was characterized by polyphony rather than monophony and the use of more instruments than ever before. During this time, opera was created, the four families of instruments were established, and music moved from its place as an exclusive, religion-centered art to its new place as an art of the people, appreciated and created everywhere.

Opera: A form of theatrical art in which singers and orchestras perform a dramatic work. It originated in Italy around 1600 and was at its peak in the mid-1800s.

Baroque music: An ornate musical style that featured multiple simultaneous melodies that came about around 1600 and was at its peak around the mid-1700s. Important Baroque composers include Bach, Handel and Vivaldi.

Classical period music: A sleeker, less ornate, less contrasting musical style characterized by balanced and symmetrical phrases, clear melodies and emotional restraint that began in the mid-1700s until being surpassed by the romantic style in the mid-1800s. Many Classical pieces feature the early piano instead of the harpsichord, which significantly altered their effect. Important Classical composers were Mozart and Beethoven. Mozart was extremely versatile, creating masterful music in every popular genre of his time. Beethoven redefined and refined classical music and bridged the gap between the Classical period and the Romantic period.

Music of the Romantic period: The emotional, dramatic music that arose in the mid-1800s and that was characterized by increased experimentation; contrasting elements; and the use of a larger orchestra. Notable Romantic composers were Tchaikovsky, Schumann, Chopin, Brahms, Verdi and Wagner.

Modern and contemporary music: The music from the year 1900 and beyond, which evolved from two disparate forms, folk and classical, and which often includes choruses and verses, easily singable melodies and a single vocalist. However, it also often incorporates a variety of instruments, complex harmonies and other creative elements, such as electronic sound. Important modern and contemporary musical genres include: country, folk, electronic music, funk, hip hop, jazz, Latin, pop, punk, reggae, rock, metal, soul, R&B, polka, modern classical/instrumental, world, big band and religious music.


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