17 Musical Terms You Should Know
In today’s tutorial, I will run you through 17 musical terms you should know. These are all popular terms that you’ll hear passed around in different musical settings such as rehearsals, and in my opinion, they are all terms that you should learn the meaning of and how they fit into the music.
I’ve chosen just 17 of these terms or words. I’m sure there are a lot more out there, but since the terms we are covering today are used quite frequently, it’s essential to know the differences in the terminologies and how to speak correctly using musical language.
The first term is ‘interval’. If you hear this word being used in a music setting, an interval is referring to the spacing or the distance between two notes. For example, the notes C and G make up an interval. Likewise, the notes C to A is another interval. Intervals are simply the measurement we use in music to measure the distance between pitches or from one pitch to another.
There are different types of intervals, which I’ve written out for you:
C3 to D3 – 2nds
C3 to E3 – 3rds
C3 to F3 – 4ths
C3 to G3 – 5ths
C3 to A3 – 6ths
C3 to B3 – 7ths
C3 to C4 – 8th / octave
C3 to D4 – 9ths
C3 to E4 – 10ths
C3 to F4 – 11ths
C3 to G4 – 12ths
C3 to A4 – 13ths
When counting intervals, we generally stop at the 13th. The next interval onwards from 13, C3 to B4, will not be counted as a 14th. Instead of calling it a 14th, we call it a compound 7th. This concept follows onwards as shown:
C3 to B4 – compound 7th
C3 to C5 – compound 8th / octave
C3 to D5 – compound 9th, etc…
You could even go a little bit further and talk about augmented 4ths (C to Gb), augmented 5th or minor 6th (C to Ab), minor 7ths (C to Bb), and so on. But in principle, this is what an interval describes: simply the distance between two points.
Going down the line, our second term is ‘inversion.’ So, what is an inversion? And what does it mean to invert something in music?
Inversions are when you rearrange the order in which the notes are stacked within an interval or chord. For example, if I take this major third interval – C3 to E3 – and I invert it by taking the root (C3) and putting it at the top (E3 to C4) – I’ve now inverted that major third, making this new interval, E3 to C4, a 6th. Specifically, it becomes a minor 6th. Every time you invert a major 3rd, it becomes a minor 6th. Instead of putting the C3 on top of the E3, I could also take the E3 of the major 3rd and place it below the C3, which would also invert the interval, making: E2 to C3.
Here’s a quick little trick I want to talk to you about regarding inversions: Whenever you take an interval, and you invert it, that interval plus its inversion, added together, should give you 9. For example, if I take a 3rd and I invert it and get a 6th, add them together, and I get 9. If I take a 4th (C to F) and I invert it (F to C), I get a 5th. 4 +5 also makes 9. Whenever you take an interval that is smaller than the 9th, invert it, and then add both intervals together, you should end up with the number 9.
We can also use this concept to make chord inversions. If I have a triad, e.g. C major (C – E – G), I can also invert this. Just take the root note (C), put it at the top of the chord (E – G – C ), and the chord is now in 1st inversion. From this, we can take the new root note (E) and place it at the top (G – C – E), forming the 2nd inversion of C major. If I repeat this, the chord returns to the root position (C – E – G). This is a definition of how chord inversions work.
Our third term is ‘chords.’ What is a chord? A chord has to contain a minimum of three notes. Playing only two notes, such as C and E, doesn’t form a chord; it’s simply considered harmony. However, playing three notes and above, such as C, E, and G, can be called a chord.
Let’s talk about quality. When we use the word ‘quality’ in music, for example, in relation to an interval, a chord quality, etc., we’re talking about whether the chord is a major, a minor, diminished, or an augmented.
We already know that if I play two notes, such as C and G, this forms a 5th interval. But what if I ask what the quality of that interval is? The answer would be a perfect 5th. If I pick another interval, for example, A to A, and ask what the quality of that interval is, the answer would be an octave.
If I take a chord like C – E – G and ask for the quality of that chord, you’d say it’s a major chord. Similarly, the quality of C – Eb – G is minor, C – E – Ab is augmented, and C – Eb – Gb is diminished. So, when someone asks for the quality of an interval or chord, this is what they’re asking about, whether it’s major, minor, diminished, or augmented.
Let’s take a look at our fourth term, the word ‘scale’. When we talk about a scale, we’re talking about a sequence of notes played one after the other, such as the C major scale (C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C – B – A – G – F – E – D – C). The scale which I believe has the least amount of notes is the pentatonic scale, which is simply a five-note scale comprised of the notes C – D – E – G – A. So, a scale is just a succession of notes played one after the other.
What is unison? Unison simply means multiple vocalists singing the same pitch or numerous instrumentalists voicing the same note. This could be occurring in different registers, too, such as multiple musicians playing the note C across various octaves – this is all unison, just at different pitches. It’s important to note that unison is different from harmony.
Harmony consists of two or more notes, such as C and E, played together. Playing C, E, and G together in harmony is also a chord, which is a specific type of harmony.
While unison describes one pitch played at different registers, harmony describes having two or more distinct pitches.
When we talk about the word ‘chromatic’ in Western music, we talk about half steps (C – Db – D – Eb – E – F – Gb – G – Ab – A – Bb – B – C). In Western music, this is the smallest distance we can move on the piano. This gives us the chromatic scale, as shown above, where we can play all the half-step notes, covering all the 12 pitches the piano can play.
If someone asks you to move chromatically or ascend chromatically, it means playing to your right in half-steps, moving upwards in pitch. Descending chromatically means going to your left and using half-steps to travel downwards in pitch to your landing chord.
- Whole Step / Tone
A whole step is two half-steps, e.g., from C to D (C to Db, Db to D). You might hear the words ‘step,’ ‘whole step,’ and ‘tone’ used interchangeably, as they all describe moving two half-steps either up or down.
Earlier, someone asked me about the meaning of the word progression and if there’s a particular order to chord progressions. The answer is no. ‘Progression’ is just a fancy word to describe a series of chord changes, so if someone asks what the progression of a particular song or piece of music is, they’re simply asking which chords are being played. A progression doesn’t have to have a particular order; as long as two or more chords change or move throughout the piece, we call it a progression.
- Chord Extensions
When you hear about extensions on chords, we’re referring to chords that exceed the 7. Here’s what I mean by this:
Take a C7 chord (C – E – G – Bb). Once I get above C7, and play something like C9 (C – E – G – Bb – D), C7#11 (C – E – G – Bb – D – Gb), C7#9#5 (C – E – Bb – Eb – Ab) or even A13add9 (A – E – G – B – Db – Gb), these are what we called extension chords – simply extensions upon the original triad + 7th chord. If someone asks you to extend a chord, they’re asking you to add some extra notes and make it more complex, allowing it to sound more like a jazz chord than a standard pop chord.
- Turn Around
Turnarounds are most commonly found in jazz and blues. One standard blues example of this is using a 5-chord and a 4-chord to take us back to the 1-chord of your progression.
Here’s another example of a turnaround, but this time used in a gospel ballad. I’ve written the chords out note for note so you can follow along and marked the turnaround section in bold.
Dadd9 (D – A – D – E – Gb – A)
A/C (Db – A – Db – E – A)
Bm7 (B – Gb – A – D – Gb)
C/E (E – G – C – E – G)
Am7 (A – E – G – C – E – G)
G (G – D – B – D – G)
Aadd9 (A – E – B – Db – E)
F#m7 (Gb – A – Db – E – A)
Bm7 (B – Gb – A – D – Gb)
Em7 (E – B – E – G – B – D)
A7/9 (A – G – B – Db – E)
4/4 | Dadd9 A/C | Bm7 | C/E Am7 | G | Aadd9 | F#m7 Bm7 Em7 A7/9 |
What I did at the end there for the turnaround was go to the 3 (F#m7), to the 6 (Bm7), to the 2 (Em7), and to the 5 (A7/9). This progression, 3-6-2-5-1, is a turnaround. Sometimes the turnaround might skip the 3 and go straight into the 2-5-1. Again, this is common to Latin and jazz music and is used to make progressions sound more interesting rather than going straight to your expected chord. You can even add some extensions to your turnarounds, as we covered above!
- Modulation and Transposition
Next up are modulation and transposition, two separate terms with which people often get confused.
Modulation is when you’re playing in one key and decide to go up or down and play in another key. This is pretty much the same as a critical change within a song.
Transposition is when you’re taking an entire song and put it in a new key. For example, if you’re playing a piece and your singer asks if you can put that song in the key of E, that will mean transposing the music to E. Similarly, if you were writing out your chords for horn players or other bandmates, you would naturally transpose and use your four sharps when transposing the entirety of the song into a new key.
Also, transposition doesn’t always mean changing the key by only a half-step or a whole-step; you can transpose it a 4th up or a 5th down. As long as the entirety of the song is being lifted from one key to another, we call it transposition.
This is another term that frequently gets misused. Transcription means transcribing, writing out what you hear on a score, a chord chart, or another scribed format. Transcription is used not only in music but also in literature. A lot of secretaries will sometimes have to transcribe notes for their bosses. It’s the same thing – you’re listening out for something and writing it down.
What is syncopation? Generally, different beats in the bar will be accented or emphasized differently. For example, in a typical 4/4 bar, the first beat will be strong, beat two will be lighter, beat three will be a little heavier, and beat 4 is lighter again.
Syncopation is when you start to mess with that familiar rhythm and shift around what we call the ‘emphasis’ and ‘downbeats,’ placing them on a different part of the measure. But you’re shifting the beats from where you’d expect them to fall and emphasizing less desired rhythm segments. This technique is used a lot in funk and modern gospel.
15 – 17. Cadences (Perfect Cadence, Plagal Cadence, and Deceptive Cadence)
The last term I’ll be covering today is ‘cadences,’ which can be split into three types: perfect, plagal, and deceptive.
Cadences use chords to give a sense of closure and of coming to an end. In Western music, especially in the classical circle, there are three cadences that are mainly used. The first is a ‘perfect cadence,’ which uses the 5 chords to go to the 1 chord. This gives a rounded sense of closure when used in a chord progression.
The ‘plagal cadence,’ or the church cadence, goes from the 4 chords to 1, giving a choral ‘A-men’ effect to the progression’s end, hence its nickname.
Then we have the ‘deceptive cadence.’ You can use this cadence to go to all sorts of places. They call it deceptive because the audience generally can’t predict where it’s going or where it will end up. Going anywhere except the 4 or 5 chords is called a deceptive cadence. This term also covers going to 4 or 5 before going somewhere else unexpectedly.
In its most basic form, the deceptive cadence usually goes to 6. If you’re getting more creative with the idea, you could even go to the #5 and then the 7th chord before landing back on your root chord. All of those are called deceptive cadences.
These terms, I believe, are all terms you should know when studying the piano. You’ll come across them all at some point, and you’ll realize how important it is to understand the differences in what they mean and how to utilize each of them on the piano. There are a lot more out there, but if you’re not familiar with these, start reading up on them, trying them out, and practicing because they will doubtlessly help you enhance your practical and compositional skills.
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