NOTE: These are brief non-technical explanations designed for quick reference only. Consult a dictionary of music or other resource for more thorough definitions.

Antiphon (an–TIFF–on): A brief chant sung before or after a more substantial movement of a mass or office celebration. The name stems from the call–and–response structure of the Psalms, from which many antiphons are drawn. Compare antiphony.

Antiphony (an–TIFF–oh–nee): The back–and–forth alternation between individuals or groups during a performance. A celebrant’s chant followed by a congregational response is described as ‘antiphonal.’ Compare antiphon.

Augmentation: A contrapuntal technique that varies a theme or melody by stretching its note values. The melody seems to slow down, even though the underlying rhythm may stay the same. Not to be confused with an augmented interval. Compare diminution.

Augmentation, example

Cadence (KAY–dense): Often characterized as musical punctuation, a cadence is a formula that imparts a sense of completion, pause or rest, as at the end of a musical phrase or section. There are in general two kinds, harmonic and melodic; the latter applies to chanted (i.e. unaccompanied) music. Harmonic cadences are of several kinds, depending on their function:

Cantus Firmus (can–tuss–FEAR–muss): Literally “fixed song,” a theme or melody sung or played in long, sustained notes while other parts play more quickly. A fundamental technique of counterpoint. Sometimes called in Italian canto firmo or canto fermo.

Choir: In popular parlance, a choir usually means a group of singers, but among musicians it is often used to refer to a distinct group of performers, e.g. a trombone choir, an upper choir (for, say, higher voices or instruments), left and right choirs, and so on. In polychoral music, performers are divided into two or more ‘choirs’ each of which forms a distinct group and may perform in alternation with the other choirs. A choir is not necessarily a homogeneous group, and often includes a mixture of instruments and/or singers.

Chromatic (kro–MAT–ick)(“colour”): A reference to notes considered outside of the ‘normal,’ i.e. diatonic, scale, indicated especially by accidentals (i.e. sharps or flats). Compare enharmonic.

Cornetto (kor–NET–toe)(pl. cornetti; English ‘cornett’, kor–NET): a Cornetts
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crescent–shaped instrument made of wood or ivory with finger holes like a recorder, but with a cup–shaped mouthpiece, used especially during the early years of the Baroque period. It is purported to be very difficult to play, but is extremely agile and blends well with other instruments and with voices. It fell out of favour with the growing popularity of the violin. Not to be confused with the B♭ cornet (KOR–net), a valved brass instrument similar to a trumpet but with a mellower, more melodic sound, invented in the nineteeth century and used primarily in brass bands.

Coda (KOE–duh) (“tail”): A concluding phrase or longer section that extends a work beyond its expected end.

Diminution: A contrapuntal technique that varies a theme or melody by compressing its note values. Used to increase tension, the melody may seem to accelerate, even when the tempo does not change. Not to be confused with a diminished interval. Compare augmentation.

Diminution, example

Enharmonic: A reference to notes that have the same pitch in theoretical or ‘tempered’ terms, but are written differently, applying especially to keyboards (harpsichord, organ, etc.) or fretted instruments (lutes, guitars, viols, etc.). The notes a–flat and g–sharp are called enharmonic — they are both played using the middle black key within a group of three black keys on a piano. This is a compromise, however: g–sharp in the key of, say A, is decidedly not the same pitch as a–flat in the key of E–flat. Historically, there were dozens of tuning schemes to allow keyboard instruments to play in different keys. The modern equal–temperament standard is not always well–suited to Baroque music but unfortunately remains ubiquitous. Compare chromatic.

Hemiola (hem–ee–OH–la): A rhythmic shift between triple and duple (more properly ‘compound duple’) metres by varying where the stress is placed.

Hemiola, example

It was especially popular during the Renaissance and early Baroque periods, before the idea of regular measures (‘bars’) became common.

Hemiola, example

Homophony (hom–OFF–oh–nee) (“same sound”): A musical texture in which the harmony is predominant; there may be a melody — often though not always the highest voice — but all the voices typically change notes together in blocks or ‘chords’. The hymn tunes sung in churches are mostly homophonic. Compare polyphony, monophony .

Interval: The fundamental measurement of the ‘distance’ between two notes, based on their letter names. Adjacent note names (e.g. F and G) are said to be a second apart, two notes with one name intervening (e.g. E and G) are a third apart, and so on. The distance between two notes with the same name but with six names intervening is called an octave; if no names intervene, i.e. two voices sing the same note, the distances is called a unison. Intervals may be further classified by quality (major, minor, augmented, diminished, perfect), and they may be inverted by moving the upper note under the lower, or vice versa. A compound interval is one that is larger than an octave. Two notes played simultaneously are called a harmonic interval; when played in succession they are called a melodic interval.

Inversion: A technique that turns a theme or melody upside down, i.e. whenever the original ascends, the inversion descends by the same distance. Not to be confused with inverting an interval.

Madrigal (MAD–ri–gull): In the sixteenth century, the predominant form of secular vocal music consisting of several (usually five) voices. In form the madrigal was through-composed, i.e. there was no repetition of material, and the words were emphasized in various ways. Baroque composers continued to apply the term even though the form of the madrigal underwent radical changes. Compare motet, strophic.

Monophony (mon–OFF–oh–nee) (“single sound”): A single unaccompanied and un–harmonized melody, for example plainsong or chant, so–called to distinguish it from homophony and polyphony, as well as from the musical form called monody invented at the beginning of the baroque period.

Motet (moe–TETT): Typically a work for several unaccompanied voices with words, often to Latin text taken from the Bible. It has taken many forms since its invention in the middle ages, but has been strongly associated with performance in a sacred setting. During the Baroque period, the word was often applied to works that included instrumental accompaniment. Compare madrigal.

Polychoral (pol–ee–KOR–al): A method of performance in which forces are divided into two or more groups (literally “many choirs”) who play or sing either separately or together. If groups alternate performance as in “call–and–response”, the music is sometimes said to be antiphonal.

Polyphony (pol–IFF–oh–nee) (“many sounds”): A musical texture in which the voices sing individual melodies and are the principal focus of interest; the harmony (chords) are a by-product. The simplest type of polyphony is a canon or round, in which each voice sings the same melody but at different times. The Frog Round and Sumer is icumen in are examples of rounds. Compare homophony, monophony.

Alto Recorder
Alto Recorder
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Recorder: The whistle–like flute, often the first instrument played by children in elementary school, combining a whistle mechanism through a mouthpiece (called the ‘beak,’ hence the French flûte–à–bec) and wood block (German Blockflöte), with finger holes in the bottom tube to alter the pitch. Eventually superceded by the transverse flute.

Retrograde: A method of varying a melody or theme by playing it backwards, i.e. starting at the last note and moving toward the first. Sometimes called ‘crab’ motion.

Ricercar (ree–share–CAR, ree–chair–CAR): A work associated with instruments, especially keyboards, with a decidedly imitative nature. One or more themes were expounded and developed in a strongly contrapuntal (i.e. polyphonic) texture. Considered one of the main ancestors of the later baroque fugue.

Ritornello (ree–tor–NELL–low): A recurring passage of music — a refrain — usually played by instruments alone. It was commonly used between the stanzas (verses) of a strophic song.

Sequence: Repetition of a melody or melodic figure at a different pitch. Sometimes the repetition can be inverted, i.e. turned upside down.

Musical Sequence, example

Sinfonia (sin–FONE–ya): A piece for instrumental ensemble that most often served as the introduction to a work such as an opera, or to a well–defined section within a larger work, such as an act within an opera.

Strophic (STROE–fick): A form of song that comprises several stanzas or verses (‘strophes’), each of which is sung to the same music or melody. Church hymns are typically strophic.

Sackbutt (SACK–butt): Forerunner of the Sackbutts
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modern trombone used extensively in the Renaissance and early Baroque periods. Less ‘brassy’ and brilliant than a trombone with a smaller bell, it was able, like the cornett to blend well with mixed instruments and voices.

Suspension: A specific formula for handling dissonance. While voices move to different notes, one holds or repeats (‘suspends’) its note from the preparation then moves to its new note in resolution; in other words, its voice movement is delayed, created a dissonance. Classically, the suspension takes place on a strong beat and always resolves by moving downward by step, although this meant something different before the advent of measured time and bars (the suspension itself created the impression of a strong beat).

Syncopation (sink–oh–PAY–shun): An unexpected shift in rhythm or accent, deliberately emphasizing notes that would otherwise be felt as weak. Typically this is done by holding an otherwise weak note, resting where a strong pulse should be felt, or deliberately emphasizing (‘accentuating’) a note. In the early baroque the idea is somewhat ill-defined because the idea of strong and weak beats organized into regular measures had not yet crystallized.

Tempo (TEM–poe) (“time”): A reference to the pace at which music is played or sung. While Renaissance composers had a relatively strict conception of musical time, Baroque writers began to experiment with it, using various words (andante, “walking”; allegro, “lively”; presto, “quickly,” “hurry”) to describe how quickly to sing, or discarded it altogether, as in monody and recitative, where the rhythm of the words was to prevail.

Toccata (toe–KOTT–uh) (“touched”): A dazzling, flashy piece of music, often improvised, for instruments alone. It is most often associated with keyboards, but is sometimes intended for the lute or other instruments. Designed to show off a player’s skill.

Tutti (TOOT–tee): The Italian word meaning “all.” As an instruction to players and singers, the meaning depended on context. A passage may be marked uno solo (“one only”), followed by a section marked tutti, meaning everybody plays or sings. Alternatively, only one section of group may sing or play for a while, after which everyone joins in, again marked tutti.

Vocal Ranges: Names for various singing ranges include

Various other terms, such as mezzo-soprano (Italian ‘half-soprano, medium-soprano’) for the range between soprano and alto, and baritone between tenor and bass, were not commonly used until the later Baroque and after. Instead, additional voices were often referred to ordinally as quinto (‘fifth,’ Latin quintus), sesto (‘sixth,’ Latin sixtus), settimo (‘seventh,’ Latin septimus), and so on, and had no particular association with a specific vocal range.