Op. 13, No. 3? Theme and Variations? G major? 1st violin? What?!
I admit, musician’s talk can be pretty confusing to a non-musician. So, in this blogpost, I’m going to compile some common terms and give a brief description of each. I know some of it is a little hard to grasp, but you’ll be the better for it if you bear with me. I’ll try to keep it as simple as possible. So, let’s get started!
Opus and Number
Opus (Op.) and Number (No.) are basically catalog numbers that a composer may or may not give a work. Opus can be given to a set of similar works or an individual composition. The No. comes into play when an opus number is assigned to a group of works. For example, Beethoven’s Op. 59 is comprised of 3 string quartets. The string quartets were the 7th, 8th, and 9th that Beethoven wrote, thus: Op. 59, No. 7 (or No. 8 or No. 9). However, there are exceptions where the No. doesn’t match with the order of composition dates. For example, Beethoven’s 14th piano sonata was actually called Op. 27, No. 2—because it was the second sonata within Op. 27—even though it was the 14th written sonata. You can read more about opus numbers and discover some fun facts about them by clicking here.
Concerto vs. Sonata vs. Prelude vs. Symphony… you get the idea
This definition could get very complex if I let it. So, I’m going to be so brief that it’s impossible to get complex. In essence, concerto, sonata, prelude, etude, etc. are forms of pieces. Each has its own variables, of course, but each follows basic guidelines. For example, a Concerto usually consists of three movements and is generally written for a solo instrument to be accompanied by an orchestra, piano, etc. Guidelines similar to these apply for the above-mentioned terms. As a casual listener, it really isn’t necessary to understand every detail of these terms. My! – I’m still trying to understand the endless possibilities of a Sonata! (Read Maggie’s post on the Sonata here.)
Maggie and I often use terms like D major or C minor. These terms are key signatures. To understand this, let’s first look at the basic musical scale.
There are only 7 different white notes in music: A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. However, there are semi-tones between each note and its neighbor. So, the note between F and G is called F sharp and it’s also G flat. For a visual image, take a look at this diagram from a piano. Do you see the black piano key between F and G? That is the note F-sharp and G-flat.
Now, sometimes, a composer will want all his F’s to be played as F sharps. But, instead of writing a symbol next to each F — so the player knows to sharp the note — the composer puts just one special symbol at the beginning of the piece. The symbol looks like this: #; sort of like a hashtag, right? Take a look at this diagram.
Do you see the little “hashtag” sign? That is the sharp symbol, which tells the player that he must play his F’s as F-sharps. When a piece has all its F’s sharped, the piece is usually in G major. That’s where Maggie and I get the terminology G major; the same sort of thing applies to F major and so on. In F major, the B should be flatted – so the composer puts one flat sign (b) at the beginning of the piece – like this.
There’s a lot more to key signatures than this and I’ll tell you right now, I don’t even understand everything about them! I know it’s a little hard to understand why a piece is in G major if all the F’s are sharped but just take my word for it. 🙂 At least you now have some idea of what we’re talking about. I’ll put in some links at the bottom of the post for more info on key signatures and all their variables.
Imagine a fast paced Irish jig. Imagine clapping along in time with the music. What you are clapping is the beat of the song. Every song has a beat that goes with it. Sometimes you may read a phrase like “In measure 27…” within a blog post. To understand what a measure is, take a look at the diagram below.
It’s pretty obvious where the measures are – in between the bar lines. Do you see the fraction 4/4? That is called the time signature and it shows how many beats can fit inside a measure. In this case, 4 beats can fit inside the measure. As you can see, there are 4 black notes within a measure – each one of these notes gets 1 beat, so if you add up their beats, there are 4 in the measure. If you look at the next measure (which would be measure 2), you will see 2 black notes and 1 white note. A white note gets 2 beats – so if you add up the 2 beats from the black notes and the 2 beats from the white note, you’ll get 4 beats, just like the time signature tells us. Another thing – the black notes are actually called quarter notes and the white notes are called half notes. Here’s a chart that shows the basic kinds of notes and how many beats they get.
I find it helpful to think of a piece of music as a book. Almost every book has at least a few chapters – as does a piece of music. A movement is musical sort of chapter – it can be exciting or sad, fast moving or dragging. So when Maggie or I use a term like “Movement 3″ we’re talking about the 3rd chapter of the piece of music. And, just like a chapter in a book has a title, so does a movement of music. Of course, a movement usually includes instructions to the performer and may have a title like “Adagio molto espressivo” which literally translates to “Slow and with much expression.” Not very complicated, right?
Now, allow me to give you a quick tip on an important rule of musical etiquette. Do not applaud a performer between movements. Don’t ask me who “invented” the rule, but believe me, it is most annoying to the performer(s) and any musical audience members if you clap between movements. So, if your program reads something like this (see below picture), you shouldn’t clap until after Movement 4 (Rondo, Allegro ma non troppo).
1st Violin and 2nd Violin
This one is very easy to understand. 1st violins are way more important than 2nd violins. One of the many musical sterotypes is that the leader of the 1st violins is a snob and very prissy. The 2nd violins are like an army of mice next to an army of lions. Haha, just kidding! In truth, it is a well-known fact amongst violinists that the 2nd violins are very underestimated. But we’re about definitions, so here you go: 1st violins usually carry the melody and 2nd violins play harmony and rhythms against the 1st violins. The leader of the 1st violins is called the Concertmaster and is the most important figure in the orchestra next to the conductor. Simple, right? For more info on the string section in the orchestra, click here.
Allegro, Largo, Andante…etc.
These words are called tempo terms. They tell the performer how fast or slow to play a piece. A few common ones are Allegro (fast, quickly, bright), Moderato (moderately) and Adagio (walking speed). No worries of you don’t understand any of these words – they’re almost all in Italian, but you’ll become familiar with them in time. For a complete compendium of tempo terms, read Maggie’s post here.
Accidentals are any notes that are sharped, flatted or made natural that are not specified in the key signature. So, if I’m in the key of G major, which has F sharp, and the composer wants to play one F without the sharp, he would add an accidental to instruct me so. Or, if a composer wants to throw in a G sharp instead of just plain G, he would include a different accidental. There are also double sharps and flats which raise the note by 2 semi-tones. If a G is double sharped, it would go up to A-natural.
Double Stops and Chords
Double stops are when any string player plays 2 notes at once, on 2 or more strings at a time. Listen to this example of double stops to get the idea.
Vocabulary.com defines “chord” as follows. “In music, a chord is three or more notes that combine harmoniously. You can play chords on a piano or guitar, but not on an instrument that plays one note at a time, like a trumpet. Chord comes from the French word for agreement, accord, so in music it means sounds that go together, or agree with each other.”
So, hopefully, this post was helpful to you. I know I didn’t explain nearly everything I could have, but I hope you now understand a little of our lingo. If you have any questions about any musical term, please leave a comment and I’ll get back to you! Here are a couple of links that may be helpful too. Especially be sure to check out the PDF of common musical terms. Thanks for reading!
For a PDF of musical terms, click here.
For a more advanced chart of key signatures, click here.
Note: the online free college courses website, Coursera, offers a beginner course in music theory. The course is completely free and as a plus, the teachers have some great Scottish accents! Click here to learn more.