Learning to read music is like understanding how to read a foreign language. First of all the beginner needs to understand what pitch to play and how long to play it. The next step is to learn the new music terminology to decipher how to play each note. Examples of this are how loud to play the note, at what speed to play the music, and what the style to play in. Many of these terms originate from Italian, French and German languages. Here are some of the most common words that beginning musicians need to speak and understand the music terminology for dynamics, tempo, and expression.
Dynamics: How Loud and Soft
Dynamics is how we classify how loud and soft we play each note or phrase. These terms are all in the Italian language. Here they are from loud to soft.
Mezzo Piano: Medium soft
Mezzo Forte: Medium loud
On the page, these are indicated by the first letter of each word. For example, the dynamic piano is indicated by p. As a result mezzo piano is marked mp.
The next two dynamic markings show a steady increase or decrease in volume over a set period.
Crescendo: Gradually growing louder
Decrescendo: Gradually growing softer
The symbols used for crescendo and decrescendo are commonly referred to as hairpins since they resemble the look of old-fashioned hairpins.
The tempo markings tells the musician the speed of the music. These are the most common tempos that a beginning musician will need to understand.
Andante: Walking Speed
Moderato: At a moderate speed
Allegro: Fast, quick, and bright
Presto: Very, very fast
Expression markings are significant in music terminology since they tell us what style the music should be played in. This music terminology tells us how to play each note to give us the feeling behind the music.
Espressivo: Expressive and with feeling
Legato: Smooth and connected
Staccato: Short and separated
The three main clefs that musicians play are treble, bass, and alto. This gives the player reference to where each note is on the lines of the musical staff. Some of the instruments that play in each clef include:
Treble Clef: Violin, Flute, Clarinet, Saxophone, and Trumpet
Alto Clef: This is the special viola clef!
Bass Clef: Cello, String Bass, Trombone, Euphonium, Tuba
Remembering and putting these terms into practice is just the beginning. Music teachers use these words frequently to help the student retain them and reinforce their practice. There are many great resources available to keep building a musical vocabulary such as this example from Classical FM.
In conclusion, it is important to understand and put music terminology into practice in terms of dynamics, tempo, and expression. This is because when these aspects are paired together with pitch and rhythm we are able to properly interpret the music composers intention and replicate it. Music making is putting together many skills to create a sonic masterpiece.
Katie Senn is the Content and Community Engagement Manager for West Music. Her background is in music education, with an emphasis in orchestral directing and cello. She performs regularly around the midwest with her all-female folk band Awful Purdies. She serves her local community as a board member for the following organizations: Iowa City Music Auxilary, Kennedy Center’s Any Given Child, and her children’s before and afterschool program.