Music terms deciphered just in time for Spoleto

Left scratching your head at a concert program? Read through this primer before Spoleto Festival USA (May 25-June 10) to get your facts in order.

Fugue? Sonata? Rondeau? Arpeggio? You see them in symphony programs, hear them from the lips of conductors, musicians, singers and critics. But what do all these vaguely familiar, or utterly unfamiliar, music terms actually mean?

Here’s a primer for the perplexed on understanding orchestral and operatic music-speak. Now you can sound as savvy as the experts (or at least understand the playbill at a Spoleto concert).

Adagio: A tempo having slow movement.

Allegro: A musical tempo meaning “cheerful” or “brisk.”

Allemande: A brisk dance in 3/4 time.

Arietta: A short aria (a self-contained piece for one voice with orchestral accompaniment).

Arpeggio: The notes of a chord played in succession.

Ars antique: The music of the 12th and 13th centuries.

Ars nova: The music of the 14th century.

Bagatelle: A light or whimsical piece, usually short and written for piano.

Baroque Period: The musical era dating 1600-1750.

Battaglia: A martial composition that imitates the sounds of battle.

Cadenza: A solo passage written by the composer or improvised by a performer.

Cantata: Music written for chorus and orchestra, usually religious in nature.

Cavatina: A short, simple melody performed by a soloist that is part of a larger piece.

Classical Era: The musical period from the late 18th century to the early 19th century.

Coloratura: Ornamentation or “coloring” of the melodic line, usually by a vocalist. Also a voice type (as in coloratura soprano).

Concertante: A piece for two or more instruments with orchestral accompaniment.

Concerto: A piece for soloist(s) and orchestra.

Counterpoint: Two or more melodic lines played simultaneously.

Crescendo: A gradual increase in volume.

Divertimento: An entertaining instrumental piece of short movements.

Double concerto: A concerto for two solo instruments and ensemble.

Etude: A demanding study or exercise piece written to improve technique.

Fantasia: A piece in free style and form.

Fugue: A piece in which two or more parts are “layered” onto a recurring subject.

Grace note: An ornamental note, generally played quickly before the beat.

Harmonic progression: The movement from one chord to another.

Impromptu: A short, seemingly improvisational piece.

Lamento: A mournful piece. Leitmotif: Recurring theme written for a specific character or event in opera.

Libretto: The lyrics and any spoken parts of an opera, oratorio or musical.

Madrigal: A Renaissance choral piece, usually unaccompanied.

Motif: A short melodic pattern or idea that runs through and unifies a piece.

Movement: A self-contained section of a composition.

Nocturne: A night-piece or serenade.

Operetta: A light opera. Opus: Used with a number to show the order in which pieces were written or published.

Oratorio: An opera without staging, scenery or costumes.

Overture: The introductory music for an opera, ballet or oratorio.

Prelude: An introductory movement or work.

Renaissance: The era from the mid-15th century to the end of the 16th century whose music was marked by freer forms.

Romantic: The musical period from 1820-1900 marked by the introduction of larger orchestras and increased solo music.

Rondeau: A Medieval and early Renaissance musical form based on a poetic form.

Sonata: An instrumental piece, often in several movements.

Symphony: A piece for large orchestra, usually in four movements.

Theme: A phrase that serves as the subject, or melody for a given work.

Zigeunermusik: Gypsy music. Sources:, the Austin (Texas) Symphony, (Music Dictionary).