Musical glossary N to Q

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...


Nach - After (as "in the manner of"); behind. German.

Nachtmusik - "Night music." A serenade. German.

Natural - A musical symbol which cancels a previous sharp or flat.

Neumatic - One style of chant in which two to four pitches occur on one syllable; in contrast to melismatic and syllabic.

Non - No; not.

Nonharmonic tones - A designation for tones outside the harmonic structure of the chord. Two frequently used examples are the passing tone and the appoggiatura.

Non troppo - Not too much. Used with other terms, e.g. non troppo allegro, not too fast.

Notation - A term for a system of expressing musical sounds through the use of written characters, called notes.

Note - The symbol which, when placed on a staff with a particular clef sign, indicates pitch. Also an anagram of 'tone'!

Nuance - Subtle variations in tempo, phrasing, dynamics, etc., to enhance a musical performance.


Octave - The eighth tone above a given pitch, with twice as many vibrations per second, or below a given pitch, with half as many vibrations. There are 12 semitones between each octave pitch.

Octet - A piece for eight instruments or voices.

Open fifth - A triad without a third.

Open strings - Strings are not stopped, fingured, or fretted.

Opus, Op - The term, meaning work, is used by composers to show the chronological order of their works, e.g. Op. 1, Op. 2.

Orchestra - A large group of musicians made up of string, brass, woodwind, and percussion instruments.

Orchestration - The art of writing, arranging, or scoring for the orchestra.
Ornamentation - Note or notes added to the original melodic line for embellishment and added interest.

Ornaments - Melodic embellishments, either written or improvised.

Ossia - "Or." Indicating an alternative passage or version.

Ostinato - A repeated melodic or rhythmic pattern, frequently appearing in the bass line.

Ottava - Octave.

Ottava alta - (8va) An octave higher.

Ottave bassa - (8va or 8vb) An octave lower.

Overtones - The almost inaudible higher tones which occur with the fundamental tone. They are the result of the vibration of small sections of a string (instrument) or a column of air. Other general terms for overtones are partials and harmonics.

Overture - The introductory music for an opera, oratorio or ballet. A concert overture is an independent work.


Pacato - Calm, quiet.

Passing tones - Unaccented notes which move conjunctly between two chords to which they do not belong harmonically.

Pausa - A rest.

Pensieroso - Contemplative, thoughtful.

Percussion family - Instruments made of sonorous material that produce sounds of definite or indefinite pitch when shaken or struck, including drums, rattles, bells, gongs, and xylophones.

Perfect - A term used to label fourth, fifth, and octave intervals. It corresponds to the major, as given to seconds, thirds, sixths, and sevenths.

Perfect cadence - The chordal progression of dominant to tonic, in a major key V-I, in minor V-i.

Perfect interval - Interval of an octave, fifth, or fourth without alteration.

Perfect pitch - The ability to hear and identify a note without any other musical support.

Pesante - Heavy.

Petite - Little. French.

Peu a peu - Little by little.

Phrase - A relatively short portion of a melodic line which expresses a musical idea, comparable to a line or sentence in poetry.

Pianissimo - Very soft. Signified by pp.

Pianississimo - Very, very soft; the softest common dynamic marking. Signified by ppp.

Piano - Pianoforte. Soft - Signified by p.

Pianoforte - "Soft-loud." A keyboard instrument, the full name for the piano, on which sound is produced by hammers striking strings when keys are pressed. It has 88 keys.

Picardy third - The term for the raising of the third, making a major triad, in the final chord of a composition which is in a minor key. The practice originated in c. 1500 and extended through the Baroque period.

Pitch - The highness or lowness of a tone, as determined by the number of vibrations in the sound.

Piu - More. Used with other terms, e.g. piu mosso, more motion.

Pizzicato - "Pinched." On string instruments, plucking the string.

Plagal cadence - Sometimes called the "amen" cadence. The chordal progression of subdominant to tonic, in a major key IV-I, in minor iv-i.

Poco - Little. Used with other terms, e.g. poco accel., also, poco a poco, little by little.

Poco ced., Cedere - A little slower.

Poco piu mosso - A little more motion.

Poi - Then or afterwards, e.g. poi No. 3, then No. 3.

Postlude - "Play after." The final piece in a multi-movement work. Organ piece played at the end of a church service.

Prelude - "Play before." An introductory movement or piece.

Premiere - First performance.

Prestissimo - Very, very fast. The fastest tempo.
Presto - Very quick.

Primo - First.

Principal - Instrumental section leader.

Prologue - An introductory piece that presents the background for an opera.


Quarter note/rest - A note/rest one half the length of a half note and one quarter the length of a whole note.

Quartet - A piece for four instruments or voices. Four performers.

Quasi - Almost. Used with other terms, e.g. quasi madrigal, almost or as if a madrigal.

Quintet - A piece for five instruments or voices. Five performers.

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