Musical glossary H to M

Here's an alphabetical explanation of all those foreign musical words and terms that get scattered around a music score with the sole purpose of confusing! Hope it sheds some light...


Half step - The interval from one pitch to the immediately adjacent pitch, ascending or descending, e.g. c-c; e-e; b-c. The smallest interval on the keyboard.

Harmony - The sounding of two or more tones simultaneously; the vertical aspect of music.

Hemiola - The term applied to time values in the ration of 3:2, e.g. three half notes in place of two dotted half notes.

Homophony, Homophonic - Musical texture which is characterized by chordal support of a melodic line.


Impressionism - A musical movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Inspired by the French impressionist painters, the movement had its impetus in the music of Debussy and Ravel.

Instrument - Any device that produces a musical sound.

Instrumentation - The art of composing, orchestrating, or arranging for an instrumental ensemble.

Interval - The difference in pitch between two tones.

Inversion - As applied to music the term may be used in both melody and harmony. Melodic inversion: an exchange of ascending and descending movement, e.g. c up to f in descending becomes c down to g. Harmonic inversion: the position of the chord is changed from root position (root on the lowest pitch) to first inversion, with the third, or second inversion, with the fifth in the lowest voice. An example: root position c-e-g; first inversion e-g-c; second inversion g-c-e.

Ironico - Ironical.


Key signature - The sharps or flats placed at the beginning of the staff to denote the scale upon which the music is based. 


La - In solmization, the sixth degree of the major scale. Also, the first degree of the relative minor scale, e.g. a is the sixth degree, or la, in the C major scale and the first degree of the a-minor scale.

Lacrimoso - Tearful, mournful.

Lamento - Mournful, sad.

Langsam - Slow. German.

Largamente - Broadly.

Larghetto - Slower than largo.

Largo - Very slow.

Leading tone - The seventh degree of the major scale, so called because of its strong tendency to resolve upward to the tonic.

Ledger lines - Short lines placed above and below the staff for pitches beyond the range of the staff.

Legato - Smooth, connected.

Leggiero - Light; graceful.

Lento - Slow; slightly faster than largo, slower than adagio.

Liberamento - Freely.

Linear - Melodic; horizontal lines.


Ma - But. Used with other words, e.g. lento ma non troppo, slow but not too slowly.

Maestoso - Majestically.

Major - The designation for certain intervals and scales. A key based on a major scale is called a major key. The pattern for the major scale is:
start, whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half

Major chord - A triad composed of a root, major third, and perfect fifth.

Mancando - Fading away

Marcato - Emphasized, heavily accented.
Measure - A group of beats containing a primary accent and one or more secondary accents, indicated by the placement of bar lines on the staff. The space between two bar lines.

Medesimo - The same.

Mediant - The third degree of the major or minor scale. The triad built on this degree is labeled iii in the major scale, III in the natural minor scale, and III+ in the harmonic minor scale.

Medieval - The period prior to the Renaissance, c. 500-1450, marking the music of the early Christian church.

Melody - In general, a succession of musical tones. It represents the linear or horizontal aspect of music.

Meno - Less.

Meno mosso - Less motion.

Meter - The structure of notes in a regular pattern of accented and unaccented beats within a measure, indicated at the beginning of a composition by a meter signature.

Meter signature - The numbers placed at the beginning of a composition to indicate the meter of the music, e.g. . The upper number indicates the beats in a measure; the lower number tells what kind of a note will receive one beat.

Metronome - Invented by Maelzel in 1816, the instrument is used to indicate the exact tempo of a composition. An indication such as M.M. 60 indicates that the pendulum, with a weight at the bottom, makes 60 beats per minute. A slider is moved up and down the pendulum to decrease and increase the tempo. M.M. = 80 means that the time value of a quarter note is the equivalent of one pendulum beat when the slider is set at 80.

Mezzo - Half, Medium

Mezzo forte - Medium loud. Signified by mf.

Mezzo piano - Medium soft. Signified by mp.

Mi - In solmization, the third degree of the major scale.

Middle Ages - European historical period between roughly A.D. 500 and 1450.

Middle C - The note C in the middle of the Grand staff, and near the middle of the piano.
Minor - The designation for certain intervals and scales. A key based on a minor scale is called a minor key. The three types of minor scales include natural, hormonic, and melodic, which is used infrequently in choral music. The patterns for natural and harmonic scales are:

start, whole, half, whole, whole, half, whole, whole

start, whole, half, whole, whole, half, m3, half

melodic: (ascending):
start, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, whole, half
melodic (descending):
start, whole, whole, half, whole, whole, half, whole

Misterioso - Mysteriously.

Mit - With.

Mode - Any scalewise arrangement of pitches; more generally, the term refers to the patterns upon which medieval music was structured, the patterns which preceded the development of major and minor scales and tonality.

Moderato - Moderate speed.

Modern - Music written in the 20th century or contempory music.

Modulation - The process of changing from one key to another within a composition.

Molto - Very. Used with other terms, e.g. molto allegro.

Mordent - "Biting." An ornament consisting of an alteration (once or twice) of the written note by playing the one immediately below it (lower mordent), or above it (upper, or inverted, mordent) and then playing the note again.

Morendo - Gradually decreasing in volume; dying away.

Mosso - Rapid. Meno mosso, less rapid. Piu mosso, more rapid.

Motive - A short melodic or rhythmic pattern.

Moto - Motion. Con moto, with motion.

Movable Do - The system of solmization in which do changes to accommodate the key, e.g. in the key of C major, do is c; in E major do is e. In the key of a minor do is c (relative major); in the key of c minor do is e (relative major).
Music - The organization of sounds with some degree of rhythm, melody, and harmony.

Music theory - The study of how music is put together.

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