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Composer A-Z

Compositional terminology, an overview!

Here at Composer Create, we know that sometimes musical terminology is difficult to understand! In our Composer A-Z, you’ll find definitions for words composers commonly use and other musical terms. Please click on the words below to read their full definitions.

+ A cappella

Vocal music without instrumental accompaniment.

+ Accidentals

Various signs that can indicate the change of a note by one or two semitones or the cancellation of a previous sign. A 'sharp' will take a note up a semitone, a 'flat' down one and a 'natural' cancels out previous accidentals.

+ Accompanied

Music that is made up a one main group or individual, and an instrument that accompanies the primary line. ie. SATB choir and organ, or Soprano and piano.

+ Aleatoric

Aleatoric music is where some element of the piece is left to chance, or allows the performers an element of free choice in what they do.

+ Alto

A low female (usually) singing voice, whose range is between soprano and tenor.

+ Anthem

A musical composition of celebration and, more specifically in choral music, a short sacred choral piece (particularly used in the Anglican church).

+ Antiphon

A short liturgical text chanted or sung responsively preceding or following a psalm, psalm verse, or canticle.

+ Antiphonal

Responding in turns, or alternating. In music this often means one small choir responding to another small choir in a kind of conversation.

+ Atonal

Music composed without being based around any specific key signature or tonality, and without following traditional harmonies.


+ Bass

The voice-type with the lowest range.

+ Bar

A short segment of written music delineated by bar lines at its beginning and end, and containing the number of beats as shown by the time signature preceeding it.

+ Baritone

A male singer or voice with a range higher than a bass and lower than a tenor. In choral music baritones normally sing the bass part.

+ Baroque

A period of classical music and style of composition that flourished in Europe from about 1600 to 1750, marked by expressive dissonance and elaborate ornamentation.

+ Blend

Creating a homogenous, unified sound with a mixture of voices.


+ Cadence

A progression of chords that come to some sort of an 'end', whether complete or incomplete. Often occurring at the end of a line or verse, and in particular at the end of a piece.

+ Cantoris

Choirs in church were traditionally split into two sections: Decani, on the south side of the building, and Cantoris, on the north.

+ Cantus firmus

A pre-existing melody, such as a line of chant, which a composer harmonises around to create a new piece.

+ Carol

A religious song or hymn, particularly associated with Christmas.

+ Chant

Chant is a traditional form of singing Christian text on one vocal line with no harmony. It can also be called called plainchant or plainsong.

+ Choir

A collection of singers performing together, often in a church or liturgical setting.

+ Choristers

Young singers in church that sing the top soprano line(s), also referred to as trebles.

+ Chorus

  1. Similar to a choir, though often larger. Often seen performing large-scale works with orchestra, or opera.

  2. A part of a musical work that is repeated between different verses

+ Classical

Commonly used as a general term meaning any music composed in the Western musical tradition in the last 500 years but, more specifically, the period in Western music roughly from 1750 to 1850.

+ Clefs

A symbol at the beginning of a stave of music, indicating what notes and pitches that stave represents. the most commom clefs are the treble clef and the bass clef. The clefs specifically indicate the pitch represented by one line of a stave, in relation to which the other pitches of the stave can be determined.

+ Collaratura

Vocal music characterised by florid ornamental passages. Particularly includes ‘runs’, where a large number of notes are sung very quickly one after the other.

+ Counter-tenor

A male adult alto.

+ Contralto

The lowest female voice part, between soprano and tenor.

The legal right granted to an author, composer, playwright, publisher, or distributor to exclusive publication,production, sale, or distribution of a literary, musical, dramatic, or artistic work.

+ Consort

A small choir, or part of a choir, normally no larger than 16 singers.

+ Contemporary

Music written by living composers but also loosely used to mean music written since the 1960's.

+ Counterpoint

The handling of two or more melodic lines so that they are independent and yet interact harmonically with each other.


+ Decani

Choirs in church were traditionally split into two sections: Decani, on the south side of the building, and Cantoris, on the north.

+ Diction

The pronunciation of words, often shorthand for ‘clear diction’ where the words can be clearly heard.

+ Dynamics

Symbols showing how loud or soft to sing, from pp (pianissimo) for very quiet to ff (fortissimo) for very loud.


+ Ensemble

  1. A group of singers/musicians that perform together

  2. The sound that a group makes together

+ Evensong

An Anglican Church service for the evening


+ Falsetto

A light, high way of singing particularly used by counter-tenors (male altos)

+ Fugue

A form of composition where a short melody is introduced by one voice, and then taken up by other voice parts thatintervweave with each other.


+ Gymmel

The practice in Renaissance music of splitting one voice part into two for a small part of a work.

+ Gospel

African-American tradition of choral singing.

+ Gumby part

A slang phrase meaning the Cantus Firmus


+ Harmony

The combination of musical notes sung at the same time.

+ Hemiola

Typically where two groups of 3 beats are followed by three groups of two beats, or vice versa, which gives a feeling of the main beats changing.

+ Hymn

A religious song, often consisting of a short musical section that is repeated with different words.


+ Improvised

Where a performer is allowed to sing without reference to any written-down music.

+ Intonation

Another word for ‘tuning’, particularly used in choirs to refer what pitch singers sing their notes in relation to each other.



+ Key

This is the group of notes, or the scale, that a section of music is predominantly based upon, shown by the key signature. Pitches outside of the key signature are signified by accidentals.

+ Key Signature

A collection of accidentals (sharps and flats and occasionally naturals) that appear at the beginning of a section of music to signify what key the piec is in. Normally find at the beginning of a musical work after the clef.


+ Line

  1. The music for a particular voice-part
  2. The ability to sing in a smooth, unbroken (legato) way


+ Madrigal

Traditionally a secular song for several voices without instrumental accompaniment.

+ Markings

The notes put in a musical score, either by the composer or the performer. Examples of markings are dynamics (eg pp, p, mp, mf, f, ff), tempo (generally in Italian), musical accents etc.

+ Mass

In music, this is a setting of the Christian Mass, to be sung at the Eucharist, generally divided into six parts: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus nad Agnus Dei

+ Measure

Another name for a bar of music

+ Medieval

The period of western music roughly from 500 AD to 1400 AD.

+ Melisma

Where more than one note is sung on one syllable of text.

+ Modal

Music that centres on one of traditionally eight modes, or diatonic scales.




+ Perfect pitch

The ability of a singer to sing a specific pitch without needing an instrument or tuning fork to play it first.

+ Phrasing

The particular way in which a group of singers or a single singer sing a piece of music. For example, which words they particularly emphasise, small variations in volume, colour of the voice etc.

+ Pitch

How high or low a musical note is.

+ Plainsong

See ‘Chant’.

+ Polyphony

The combination of two or more vocal lines, with different melodies, that join together to form a single musical work.

+ Psalm

Musical settings of texts form the biblical book, Psalms.


+ Quartet

A group of four singers, normally soprano, alto, tenor and bass.


+ Range

How low and high a particular singer, voice type or vocal line goes.

+ Register

A particular part of the range, normally divided into low, middle and high registers.

+ Renaissance

In Western music, this is a period roughly between 1400 and 1600, coming between the Medieval and the Baroque. Examples of Renaissance choral composers are Josquin des Prez (Belgium) Antoine Brumel (France), Giovanni Pierluigi de Palestrina (Italy), Tomas Luis da Victoria (Spain), Jacob Pretorius (Germany) and William Byrd (England),

+ Repertoire

A collection of musical works that is being performed, or is known by a group of singers.

+ Runs

Long series of notes that are sung very quickly one after the other.


+ Sacred

Refers to music for religious purposes

+ Secular

Refers to music for non-religious purposes

+ Score

A piece of music in its written form

+ Semi-chorus

A small sub-set of a choir, maybe only four voices, that stands separate from the choir during a piece.

+ Semitone

The smallest interval between two notes regularly used in Western music.

+ Sight-reading

The same as reading a book out loud, but instead reading a musical score and singing.

+ Solo

A part of a musical work where a person sings a line by themselves. There can be a solo with a choir singing beneath it or not.

+ Soprano

The highest of the four main choral voice-types (soprano, alto, tenor and bass) with a range from roughly middle C to high C.

+ Stave

A set of five horizontal lines where all the lines and intervening spaces represent a different pitch.

+ Straight-tone

A way of singing without any vibrato (or wobble) in the voice.


+ Tempo

The speed or pace at which a piece is sung.

+ Tenor

The second lowest of the four main choral voice-types (soprano, alto, tenor and bass) with a range from C one octave below middle C to A one octave above middle C.

+ Tessitura

The musical range of a particular voice-type or an individual singer.

+ Time Signature

A marking, normally at the beginning of a piece, that shows how many beats are in a bar, and what length those beats are in relation to each other.

+ Tonal

Music that, in the Western tradition, follows a particular set of harmonic rules and is generally perceived to be pleasant to listen to.

+ Tone

1) An interval of two semitones between notes
2) The sound quality of a singer

+ Transpose/transposition

To move a whole segment of music up or down in pitch.

+ Treble

A child singer normally singing soprano vocal lines.

+ Trill

A musical ‘decoration’, where a singer moves back and forth between two notes a semitone or a tone apart.

+ Tuning

See ‘intonation’

+ Tutti

Refers to all singers in a group


+ Unaccompanied

Vocal music that is not joined (accompanied) by an instrument or instruments.


+ Verse

A repeated part of music which has different words for each repeat. Often interspersed with a chorus.

+ Vibrato

A natural wavering, or moving up and down, in the sound of a voice. Sometimes muscial directors will ask choral singers to lessen their vibrato or ask for 'straight-tone' (essentially no vibrato).