Major and Minor Keys

In music theory, the key of a piece is the group of pitches, or scale, that forms the basis of a music composition in classical, Western art, and Western pop music.

The key may be in the major or minor mode, though musicians assume major in a statement like, "This piece is in C." Popular songs are usually in a key, and so is classical music during the common practice period, around 1650–1900. Longer pieces in the classical repertoire may have sections in contrasting keys.

minor key - The minor scale can be described in two different ways. One way is to consider it as the sixth mode of a major scale, while the other is to call it a variation of the major scale, with the third scale degrees always lowered (or altered) and the sixth and seventh degrees often lowered. Minor keys are sometimes said to have a more interesting, possibly darker sound than plain major scales.

MC (emcee, rapper) (AAM) - the percussive lyricist of hip hop. "Rapper's Delight" gave the MCs a new name, rapper, a label that continues to trouble old-schoolers. 

message hip-hop (conscious hip hop) (AAM) - In the latter half of the 1980s, message hip-hop became a viable form for addressing the problems faced by the black community and suggesting possible ways to solve those problems.

The following two songs by Lauryn Hill refer directly to historical, economic, and social issues — the second sampling Nina Simone’s 1968 song “Ain’t Got No / I Got Life”:

measure (Eng.) - also "bar" the period of a musical piece that encompasses a complete cycle of the time signature (e.g. in 4 / 4 time, a measure has four quarter note beats)

medley - piece composed from parts of existing pieces, usually three, played one after another, sometimes overlapping

melancolico - melancholic

messa di voce - in singing, a controlled swell

meter or metre - the pattern of a music piece's rhythm of strong and weak beats

mezza voce - half voice (i.e. with subdued or moderated volume)

mezzo-soprano - a female singer with a range usually extending from the A below middle C to the F an eleventh above middle C. Mezzo-sopranos generally have a darker vocal tone than sopranos, and their vocal range is between that of a soprano and that of a contralto.

modulation - the act or process of changing from one key (tonic, or tonal center) to another

mordent - rapid alternation of a note with the note immediately below or above it in the scale

movement - a section of a musical composition


new jazz swing (also Jazz-rap) (AAM) - fuses jazz and hip hop. The rhythms of New Jazz Swing come almost entirely from hip hop, the samples and sonic textures were drawn mainly from cool jazz, soul-jazz, and hard bop. New Jazz Swing styled itself as a more positive alternative to the hardcore/gangsta movement taking over rap's mainstream at the dawn of the '90s.  

new school (AAM) - marking the period of rap music's transition from the inner city into mainstream popular culture, becoming more diverse, musically and culturally. New School rappers, such as Run-D.M.C. and Boogie Down Productions, kept the beats minimal, expanded lyric themes and varied traditional rhyming patterns. They occasionally added hard-rock guitars or harder-sounding samples, and replacing live instruments with a battery of synthesized instruments and later samples.

nocturne (Fr.) - a piece written for the night

old school (AAM) - Old School rap is the style of the very first rap artists who emerged from New York City in the late '70s and early '80s. Old school is easily identified by its emphasis on simply having a good time (party rap). Aside from the socially conscious material of Grandmaster Flash and Kurtis Blow, which greatly expanded rap's horizons, most old school rap had the fun, playful flavor of the block parties and dances at which it was born.

octave - interval between one musical pitch and another with half or double its frequency. 

ostinato - obstinate, persistent (i.e. a short musical pattern that is repeated throughout an entire composition or portion of a composition)

pastorale - in a pastoral style, peaceful and simple

pipa (See Chinese lute)

pizzicato - translated as pinched, and sometimes roughly as plucked, is a playing technique that involves plucking the strings of a string instrument.When a string is struck or plucked, as with pizzicato, sound waves are generated that do not belong to a harmonic series as when a string is bowed. This ‘inharmonicity’ of a string depends on its physical characteristics, such as tension, composition, diameter and length. The inharmonicity disappears when strings are bowed because the bow's stick-slip action is periodic, so it drives all of the resonances of the string at exactly harmonic ratios, even if it has to drive them slightly off their natural frequency. [Paganini (pictured below) used this technique, which can be heard around 3:00 in his 1802-17 Caprice #24 (also below).]

Paganini - anonymous drawing c. 1820, from the Palazzo Doria-Tursi, Genoa (photo RYC)

Paganini - anonymous drawing c. 1820, from the Palazzo Doria-Tursi, Genoa (photo RYC)

prelude - a musical introduction to subsequent movements 

prima donna - leading female singer in an opera company

R&B - rhythm and blues - a musical phenomenon that grew out of Black American blues, boogie-woogie, Gospel, roadhouse piano/guitar duos and other influences mostly from the Southern United States. The term has undergone a number of shifts in meaning. In the early 1950s, it was frequently applied to blues records. Starting in the mid-1950s, after this style of music contributed to the development of rock and roll, the term "R&B" became used to refer to music styles that developed from and incorporated electric blues, as well as gospel and soul music. In the 1960s, several British rock bands such as the Rolling Stones, the Who and the Animals were referred to and promoted as being R&B bands. Their mix of rock and roll and R&B is now known as "British rhythm and blues". By the 1970s, the term "rhythm and blues" changed again and was used as a blanket term for soul and funk. In the 1980s, a newer style of R&B developed, becoming known as "contemporary R&B". It combines elements of rhythm and blues, pop, soul, funk, hip hop, and electronic music. Popular R&B vocalists at the end of the 20th century included Prince, R. Kelly, Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan, Whitney Houston, and Mariah Carey.

R & B hip-hop (AAM) - In the 1990s, rap artists began to team up with R&B and funk artists and producers and/or employ the R&B verse-chorus and funk song structure. Evolved in the late '80s, when urban contemporary soul artists began incorporating hip-hop rhythms, samples, and production techniques into their sound. Some songs simply had hip-hop beats, others had rapped sections and sung choruses.

raga or raaga (literally "coloring, tingeing, dyeing") - a melodic framework for improvisation akin to a melodic mode in Indian classical music. While the raga is a remarkable and central feature of the classical music tradition, it has no direct translation to concepts in the classical European music tradition. Each raga is an array of melodic structures with musical motifs, considered in the Indian tradition to have the ability to "color the mind" and affect the emotions of the audience. A raga consists of at least five notes, and each raga provides the musician with a musical framework within which to improvise.

In the Hindu traditions,  raga  musical notes have personalities, and they are reverentially linked to gods and goddesses. Left is Bhairava-Bharavi pair (Shiva), right is Vasanta raga-ragini (Krishna). (From Wikimedia Commons)

In the Hindu traditions, raga musical notes have personalities, and they are reverentially linked to gods and goddesses. Left is Bhairava-Bharavi pair (Shiva), right is Vasanta raga-ragini (Krishna). (From Wikimedia Commons)

rai or Raï - a form of Algerian folk music that dates back to the 1920s. Singers of Raï are called cheb as opposed to sheikh, the name given to Chaabi singers. The tradition arose in the city of Oran, primarily among the poor. Traditionally sung by men, by the end of the 20th century, female singers had become common. The lyrics of Raï have concerned social issues such as disease and the policing of European colonies that affected native populations. Cheb Khaled was the first musician with international success, including his 1988 album Kutché … 

rappin' (AAM) - a term originally used to describe the art of verbal engagement designed to persuade listeners. Rhyming schemes were not necessarily employed. 

rap music (AAM) - the product of inner-city African-American and Puerto Rican communities, which were plagued by poverty, community decay, and the proliferation of drugs and gang violence during the 1960s and early 1970s. Early rap records, commonly called "old school," were made by DJs scratching records and playing drum loops, with MCs rapping over the resulting rhythms; improvised, street poetry accompanied by a montage of well-known recordings. 

"This graffiti art is a tribute to West Coast rapper  Tupac Shakur , who was killed in a drive-by shooting (photo  r2hox  from Madrid, Spain) (Wikimedia Commons)

"This graffiti art is a tribute to West Coast rapper Tupac Shakur, who was killed in a drive-by shooting (photo r2hox from Madrid, Spain) (Wikimedia Commons)

"Kanye West working in the studio, from Jacksonville (photo by  Angel Laws ) (Wikimedia Commons)

"Kanye West working in the studio, from Jacksonville (photo by Angel Laws) (Wikimedia Commons)

rap-metal (AAM) - fuses the most aggressive elements of hardcore rap and heavy metal, and has become an extremely popular variation of alternative metal during the late '90s and typically the domain of white musicians and white audience. Much of rap-metal focuses on the cathartic intensity that is performed by shout-rapping the lyrics instead of the applying the linguistic and rhythmic complexity of traditional rap. Rap-metal always features a rapper as frontman. Limp Bizkit became rap-metal's most popular band during the late '90s; Rage Against the Machine, its most political. 

register - part of the range of an instrument or voice ("The lower register of the singer's voice was rich and dark")

reggae - a Jamaican style of popular music that features a strong, syncopated bassline, accompaniment with an undistorted electric guitar or Fender Rhodes on the offbeats, and chanted vocals

reprise - repeat a phrase or verse; return to the original theme

reverb - the echoing sound that occurs naturally to a voice or instrument in hall or room with reflective walls and, by extension, to analog or digital effect units which recreate this effect (reverb units)

riff - in various popular music styles, riff refers to a brief, relaxed phrase repeated over changing melodies. It may serve as a refrain or melodic figure, often played by the rhythm section instruments or solo instruments that form the basis or accompaniment of a musical composition. Though they are most often found in rock music, heavy metal music, Latin, funk and jazz, classical music is also sometimes based on a simple riff, such as Ravel's Boléro. Riffs can be as simple as a tenor saxophone honking a simple, catchy rhythmic figure, or as complex as the riff-based variations in the head arrangements played by the Count Basie Orchestra. David Brackett (1999) defines riffs as, "short melodic phrases", while Richard Middleton (1999) defines them as "short rhythmic, melodic, or harmonic figures repeated to form a structural framework". Rikky Rooksby states, "A riff is a short, repeated, memorable musical phrase, often pitched low on the guitar, which focuses much of the energy and excitement of a rock song."

ritenuto, riten., rit. - suddenly slower, held back

ritmico - rhythmical

rondo - a musical form in which a certain section returns repeatedly, interspersed with other sections

Here is Mozart’s rondo "Alla turca" (the third part of his Piano Sonata No. 11, c. 1783), with lively excerpts from the 1984 biopic Amadeus:

run - a rapid series of ascending or descending musical notes which are closely spaced in pitch forming a scale, arpeggio, or other such pattern


salsa - a popular dance music genre that initially arose in New York City during the 1960s. Salsa is the product of various musical genres including the Cuban son montuno, guaracha, cha cha chá, mambo, and to a certain extent bolero, and the Puerto Rican bomba and plena. Latin jazz, which was also developed in New York City, has had a significant influence on salsa arrangers, piano guajeos, and instrumental soloists. Salsa is primarily Cuban son, itself a fusion of Spanish canción and guitar and Afro-Cuban percussion, merged with North American music styles such as jazz. Salsa also occasionally incorporates elements of rock, R&B, and funk. All of these non-Cuban elements are grafted onto the basic Cuban son montuno template when performed within the context of salsa sample or sampling - to record a short portion from a live performance or from a recording of an instrument or group, so that this short "snippet" can be re-played or re-used in another performance or recording. In the 2000s, sampling is usually done by making a digital recording of the desired sample. Sampling is widely used in 2000s-era pop, hip-hop, and electronica.

samba - a Brazilian music genre and dance style, with its roots in Africa via the West African slave trade and African religious traditions, particularly of Angola and the Congo, through the samba de roda genre of the northeastern Brazilian state of Bahia, from which it derived. Although there were various forms of samba in Brazil with popular rhythms originated from drumming, samba as a music genre has its origins in Rio de Janeiro, the former capital of Brazil. Samba-enredo or samba de enredo is a subgenre of Samba in which songs are performed by a samba school (or escola de samba) for the festivities of Brazilian Carnival.

scorrendo, scorrevole - gliding from note to note

secco (Fr. sec) - dry (sparse accompaniment, staccato, without resonance)

segue - carry on to the next section of music without a pause

semitone - the smallest pitch difference between notes (in most Western music) (Note: some contemporary music, non-Western music, and blues and jazz uses microtonal divisions smaller than a semitone)

senza replica - without repetition

sharp - a symbol (♯) that raises the pitch of the note by a semitone. The term may also be used as an adjective to describe a situation where a singer or musician is performing a note in which the intonation is somewhat too high in pitch

shred - an adjective that is mainly used in connection to the electric guitar (or less commonly, to other stringed instruments such as banjo or electric bass); it describes intense, virtuostic, rapid playing of the instrument (e.g. "shred guitar). It can also be used as a verb (e.g. "to shred").

sitar - a plucked stringed instrument, originating from the Indian subcontinent, used in Hindustani classical music. The instrument flourished under the Mughals, and it is named after a Persian instrument called the setar (meaning three strings). The sitar flourished in the 16th and 17th centuries and arrived at its present form in 18th-century India. It derives its distinctive timbre and resonance from sympathetic strings, bridge design, a long hollow neck and a gourd-shaped resonance chamber. In appearance, the sitar is similar to the tanpura, except that it has frets. Used widely throughout the Indian subcontinent, the sitar became popularly known in the wider world through the works of Ravi Shankar, beginning in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In the 1960s, a short-lived trend arose for the use of the sitar in Western popular music, with the instrument appearing on tracks by bands such as The Beatles, The Doors, The Rolling Stones and others.

slancio - momentumcon slancio: with momentum; with enthusiasm

slapping or slap bass - in reference to the electric bass, this term refers to a percussive, funky style of playing in which the low strings are slapped and the high strings are popped, used in funk, Latin, and pop. In reference to the upright bass, "slap bass" refers to a percussive style of playing in which the player strikes the strings against the fingerboard to create a percussive, rhythmic effect (used in traditional blues, rockabilly, and bluegrass).

smorzando (smorz.) - extinguishing or dampening; usually interpreted as a drop in dynamics, and very often in tempo as well

soave - smoothly, gently

sognando - dreamily

solo break - a jazz term that instructs a lead player or rhythm section member to play an improvised solo cadenza for one or two measures (sometimes abbreviated as "break"), without any accompaniment. The solo part is often played in a rhythmically free manner, until the player performs a pickup or lead-in line, at which time the band recommences playing in the original tempo.

soprano - the highest of the standard four voice ranges (bass, tenor, alto, soprano)

sotto voce - in an undertone (i.e. quietly)

soul (AAM) - Soul is a concept, aesthetic and sensibility that embodies the ideology of Black Power. It echoes the voices of college-aged students who rejected the integrationist philosophy of the 1950s Civil Rights leaders for the nationalist ideology of Black Nationalism. Soul came to describe a number of R&B-based music styles in the 1960s and is rooted in the musical aesthetic of the gospel tradition: gospel vocal and instrumental stylings, emotional intensity, and rhythmic complexity. Different regions of America produced different kinds of soul. In urban centers like New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago, the music concentrated on vocal interplay and smooth productions. In Detroit, Motown concentrated on creating a pop-oriented sound that was informed equally by gospel, and 1960s R&B. In the South, the music became harder and tougher, relying on syncopated rhythms, raw vocals, and blaring horns. All of these styles formed soul, which ruled the black music charts throughout the '60s and also frequently crossed over into the pop charts. At the end of the '60s, soul began to splinter apart, as artists like James Brown and Sly Stone developed funk.

spiccato - distinct, separated (i.e. a way of playing the violin and other bowed instruments by bouncing the bow on the string, giving a characteristic staccato effect)

staccato - making each note brief and detached; the opposite of legato. In musical notation, a small dot under or over the head of the note indicates that it is to be articulated as staccato

sweetening - a recording production term for additional instruments or voices—orchestral strings, vocal harmonies from a group of professional backup singers, Latin percussionists, etc.– to a basic "bed track" or "basic track" of bass, drums, and rhythm guitar or piano. Widely used in the 1970s in soft rock and disco.

syncopation - a disturbance or interruption of the regular flow of rhythm often consisting of playing off of the main beat (i.e. playing on the "and" of every beat in a measure instead of on the beat).


tango - a popular partner dance and social dance that originated in the 1880s along the River Plate (Río de Plata), the natural border between Argentina and Uruguay. It was born in the impoverished port areas of these countries, where natives mixed with slave and European immigrant populations. The tango is the result of a combination of the German Waltz, Czech Polka, Polish Mazurka, and Bohemian Schottische with the Spanish-Cuban Habanera, African Candombe, and Argentinian Milonga. The tango was frequently practiced in the brothels and bars of ports, where business owners employed bands to entertain their patrons with music. The tango then spread to the rest of the world. Many variations of this dance currently exist around the world.

The tango is closely associated with Buenos Aires — its milongas and the music of Carlos Gardel. My wife took these photos in La Boca, an old part of town with tourist and tango locales.

Chile Argentina B_2006 256.jpg
Chile Argentina B_2006 269.jpg

tempo - time (i.e. the overall speed of a piece of music)

tenor - the second lowest of the standard four voice ranges (bass, tenor, alto, soprano)

Luciano Pavarotti (1935 – 2007) was an Italian operatic tenor who also crossed over into popular music, eventually becoming one of the most commercially successful tenors of all time. He made numerous recordings of complete operas and individual arias, gaining worldwide fame for the quality of his tone, and eventually established himself as one of the finest tenors of the 20th century, achieving the honorific title The King Of High C's.

timbre - the quality of a musical tone that distinguishes voices and instruments

toasts (African American) (AAM)an African American verbal art genre; praises about an anti-authority, heroic figure; toasts can be an enactment, a recasting or exaggeration of an actual event 

toasts (Jamaican) (AAM) - a Jamaican verbal art and musical genre; a DJ's rap over an instrumental tracks. Rappers (called toasters) would chant lyrics that praised dancers and addressed topical concerns 

tremolo - shakingA rapid, measured or unmeasured repetition of the same note 

trill - a rapid, usually unmeasured alternation between two harmonically adjacent notes (e.g. an interval of a semitone or a whole tone). A similar alternation using a wider interval is called a tremolo.


unisono (unis) (Fr.) - in unison (i.e. several players in a group are to play exactly the same notes within their written part, as opposed to splitting simultaneous notes among themselves) 

uptempo - a fast, lively, or increased tempo or played or done in such a tempo. It is also used as an umbrella term for a quick-paced electronic music style.

vibrato - vibrating (i.e. a more or less rapidly repeated slight variation in the pitch of a note, used as a means of expression). Often confused with tremolo, which refers either to a similar variation in the volume of a note, or to rapid repetition of a single note.

The Concert   (A Musical Party) , Theodoor Rombouts (1597 - 1637), from http://pictify.saatchigallery.com/79336/theodoor-rombouts-the-concert-a-musical-party

The Concert (A Musical Party), Theodoor Rombouts (1597 - 1637), from http://pictify.saatchigallery.com/79336/theodoor-rombouts-the-concert-a-musical-party

virtuoso - (noun or adjective) performing with exceptional ability, technique, or artistry

vivace - very lively, up-tempo

voce - voice

wall of sound - in a recording context, refers to a production technique which creates a fuller, richer sound by having each part played by a number of instruments and routing the sound through an echo chamber


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