Music Theory 101 Terminology

Musicians tend to have an expanded vocabulary that incorporates many music-specific terms.  Below is a list of some of the musical terms you would likely learn in a Music Theory 101 class.

Pitch Class – All pitches on a keyboard that have the same name

Scale – A group of pitches arranged from low to high or high to low

Tonic – The note upon which a scale or key is based; the first note of the scale that is the tonal center of a musical piece

Tonality – The organization of pitches based on their hierarchical relationship to the tonic (central tone)

Atonal – Lacking tonality; not based on a central scale or key

Key – The group of pitches associated with a specific tonic; a musical piece may be in the key of a major or minor scale  (e.g., C Major or E minor)

Accidental – A musical symbol indicating that the pitch of a note should be altered (sharps, flats and naturals)

Sharp – A symbol indicating that the pitch should be a half step higher than the written note

Flat – A symbol indicating that the pitch should be a half step lower than the written note

Natural – A symbol indicating that a note should be played as written (not raised or lowered); typically only used to counteract a flat or sharp that has appeared in the piece previously, or in the key signature

Key Signature – The sharps and flats placed at the beginning of a staff, used to indicate which pitches should be played a half-step higher (sharp) or lower (flat); key signatures are typically associated with a particular key

Time Signature (also called meter signature) – A symbol placed at the beginning of a staff used to indicate the meter of a composition.  The symbol typically consists of two numbers: the number at the top indicates how many beats are in each measure and the number at the bottom indicates the note value (e.g., a quarter note) that constitutes one metric beat.

Tempo – The speed at which the music is played; may be expressed in beats per minute, or with descriptive terms such as “largo” (Italian for slow) and “allegro” (Italian for fast).

Interval – The distance between two pitches; the interval describes the relationship that occurs when both pitches are played in unison (e.g., Minor 2nd or Major 6th)

Triad – A cord consisting of three pitches arranged in 3rds (a triad can be major, minor, augmented or diminished)

MUSIC TRIVIA QUESTION:  What is the difference between a heptatonic scale and a pentatonic scale?

Comment on this post with the correct answer to the question above and we’ll give you a shout out on our Twitter and Facebook accounts!

Some good sources for music theory vocabulary and terms:

The Method Behind the Music

Virginia Tech Multimedia Music Dictionary  (see the letter index at the bottom of the page)

Solomon’s Glossary of Technical Musical Terms

And always remember to contact Flatts & Sharpe for all your Chicago music lesson needs!


~ by flattsandsharpe on March 30, 2012.

2 Responses to “Music Theory 101 Terminology”

  1. The heptatonic scale is a scale with 7 different notes. They tend to be the one people are more familiar with and the ones closely related to specific keys (major, minor, etc.). The pentatonic is only 5 notes. It’s supposed to cut out some of the more “unpleasant” intervals (specifically the minor 2nds) in the heptatonic scale.

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