There are many books and websites that will provide you with detailed information about the terminology used in classical music. It is not our intent to replicate those here. But there are some terms that you are likely to come across when you attend an Arapahoe Philharmonic concert, and we would like to provide a quick reference for you of these more common words and expressions. The various instruments are not discussed here as they are featured on their own page, Instruments of the Orchestra.

Cadenza: A point near the end of a movement in a work such as a concerto where the orchestra will stop playing and the soloist will perform an elaborate passage showing his or her virtuosity on the instrument. Often, at least prior to the 19th century, the composer has not written out this part of the work and it is left to the soloist to improvise, though some cadenzas were written down, became famous in their own right, and are performed by other artists than those who initially wrote them.

Cantata: A choral piece, generally, with several movements and instrumental accompaniment. Early on, a cantata was for a small number of performers, but later developed into much larger works similar to a small oratorio. There were both secular and sacred cantatas. There are often cantatas for special occasions such as Christmas cantatas. Bach alone wrote around 200 cantatas!

Classical: Often used to describe “serious” music as opposed to “popular” music, but also relating specifically to the Early Classical and Classical periods in music from 1720–1820.

Chamber Music: Music written for performance in small rooms or at home (often homes of the wealthy initially). Quartets are perhaps the most popular form of chamber music, though there is a considerable body of work for trios, quintets, sextets, and other sizes of small groups.

Concertmaster: The concertmaster is the principal or lead player in the violin section, and often performs solo passages for violin within the compositions being performed. The concertmaster comes on stage to tune the orchestra just prior to the orchestra beginning a performance.

Concerto: Composition for one or several solo instruments, accompanied by an orchestra, usually with three movements.

Conductor: The leader of the orchestra, who provides the beat by moving his/her arms, usually with a baton in one hand, to keep all members of the orchestra together and ensure that players come in at the correct time. The conductor is also responsible for dynamics, tempo, interpreting the way the music should be played, and listening intently to shape the sound of the orchestra.

Dynamics: Markings to indicate the intended loudness or softness of the music. There can be many different dynamic markings during a classical piece. See separate section at the end of the Glossary for some of the common dynamic terms.

Incidental Music: Music written for stage plays such as songs, dances, background music for conversation, and music played before and between acts.

Major: Music written in “major” keys is more bright and positive sounding than music written in “minor” keys. The sound produced is based on the interval between the first and third notes of a chord, with a major third being one note wider than a minor interval.

Minor: Music written in “minor” keys is more sad or melancholy sounding than music written in “major” keys. The sound produced is based on the interval between the first and third notes of a chord, with a major third being one note wider than a minor interval.

Movement: A section of a larger composition made up of several significant sections, such as a concerto or symphony. In most cases, the orchestra will pause briefly between movements, but applause should generally be reserved until the end of the entire work. (See What to Expect – Concert Etiquette for more information.)

Orchestra: A sizeable ensemble of musical instruments that includes a large proportion of stringed instruments. There are chamber orchestras (up to about 50 players) and symphony orchestras (often 80 – 100 players or more). Chamber orchestras may be mostly or all strings, and play music written for smaller halls, parlors, and palace chambers. Symphony orchestras have strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion sections, and play in larger concert halls. Symphonies can require 18 – 25 different instruments, as well as some more unusual “instruments” such as the taxi horn called for in George Gershwin’s An American in Paris.

Opera: Musical drama, with the parts sung instead of spoken, accompanied by an orchestra. At an orchestra concert, you may hear an overture from an opera, which features only the orchestra with no singing parts.

Opus: A number that designates the (generally) chronological number of the work amongst those composed by a particular composer. For more information, see How to Read Your Program.

Oratorio: Vocalists and orchestra join to tell a story in a large musical composition, but without the staging and costumes of an opera. Oratorios tend to be about sacred subjects, whereas opera generally deals with more secular subjects such as love, deception, revenge, and murder.

Overture: Overtures are the introductory number in larger musical compositions such as operas, suites, or oratorios. They are instrumental rather than inclusive of the vocalists that are part of the rest of the work that follows. There are a number of cases where the overture is the only part of a composition that is still played today!

Philharmonic: Philharmonic is a name for a symphony orchestra. It isn’t a type of orchestra like a symphony orchestra, just a proper name, so all Philharmonics are also symphony orchestras. It is convenient in cities where there are two orchestras, such as the Boulder Symphony and the Boulder Philharmonic.

Pitch: The position of a sound on the musical scale.

Pops: An orchestra may choose to play Broadway show tunes, movie music, or other shorter and lighter musical fare, which is then called “pops” (popular) programming. For its 60th anniversary season, the Arapahoe Philharmonic played country music with the Trailriders.

Premiere: The first time that a composition is performed for an audience.

Principal: The leader or first chair of a section of the orchestra, responsible for leading the section and performing any solos that are written for their instrument within the program being performed. The principal of the violins, however, is the Concertmaster.

Repertoire: The body of compositions that a performer or group is prepared to perform.

Rhapsody: A one-movement work that is irregular in structure, intended to express emotion and including a range of highly contrasted moods, color and tonality with a sense of improvisation. A famous example is Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin.

Rhythm: Regular, repeated pattern of sounds that underlies the music.

Rondo: Music that is fast and vivacious.

Rondo Form: a principal theme alternates with one or more contrasting themes. The number of themes can vary from piece to piece, and the recurring element is sometimes embellished and/or shortened in order to provide for variation.

Score: Musical notation of all of the musical parts of a piece in a single document, aligned vertically on the page so that the conductor can see every player’s part simultaneously. (Have you noticed that Devin Patrick Hughes generally conducts concert performances without a score? This is an unusual talent!)

Sonata: Sonatas are larger-sized compositions written primarily for keyboard or for another solo instrument with keyboard accompaniment. Early sonatas had three movements, but eventually sonatas evolved to the same four-movement form adopted for symphonies. There is not an orchestral accompaniment for a sonata like there is for a concerto.

Sonata Form: The first movement of a symphony or concerto is often said to be in “sonata form,” which includes an introduction, an exposition (statement of theme), development of the theme, and restatement of the theme.

Style: The manner in which a piece of music is performed, using the rules and ideas about music from the period in which it was written.

Suite: A set of instrumental or orchestral pieces. They may be extracts from a ballet (Nutcracker Suite), incidental music to a play (L’Arlésienne Suites) or film (Lieutenant Kije Suite), or they may be stand-alone original work (Holberg Suite, The Planets).

Symphonic Poem: A symphonic poem is a piece of orchestral music, usually in a single continuous section or movement, that illustrates the content of a poem, short story, novel, painting, landscape, or other non-musical item. While many symphonic poems may compare in size to a movement in a symphony or even reach the length of an entire symphony, their music is intended to inspire listeners to imagine or consider scenes, images, ideas, or moods, and not to focus on following traditional patterns of musical form that is found in a symphony or other larger musical work.

Symphony: The word symphony comes from the Greek word Symphonia, which means “agreement or concord of sound.” Often a symphony orchestra is called “symphony” for short, but the primary meaning is based on a large-scale composition for orchestra called a symphony. The symphony is an extremely important classical music genre and most of the famous composers of the last several centuries have written symphonies as part of their life’s work. Older symphonies often had only three movements, fast, slow, and fast again. More modern symphonies by famous composers such as Beethoven, Brahms, and Mozart are generally in four movements that follow a set pattern:

  1. Fast, but sometimes with a slow introduction, often in sonata form
  2. Slow, such as Adagio, Andante, or Largo
  3. Moderately fast and dance-like, using a Minuet or Scherzo
  4. Fast, often Allegro or Allegretto, Rondo, or Sonata

Of course, like for every other musical form there are notable exceptions. But the symphony will always be a major orchestral work requiring a full-sized orchestra for its performance.

Syncopation: A rhythmic pattern in which the emphasis is off the normal beat.

Tempo: The speed of the music. There can be many different speeds in one piece of music. See separate section at the end of the Glossary for some of the common tempos found in classical music.

Theme and variations: A composition in which a musical theme or melody is introduced, then repeated in a series of different modifications of the original.

Tone Poem: The terms “symphonic poem” and “tone poem” have often been used interchangeably, but some composers preferred the term tone poem for pieces that were less symphonic in design and in which there is no special emphasis on thematic or tonal contrast.

Twelve-tone Music: 20th century system of composition devised by Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951). The technique is a way of ensuring that all 12 notes of the chromatic scale are sounded the same number of times in a piece of music, and the music avoids being in a particular key.

Variation: Musical piece in which the original theme or melody is repeated in changed or modified form.

Virtuoso: A person with great skill in playing music, both technically and esthetically.



Tradition has established that markings for dynamics (volume) and tempos (speed) in written music should be indicated in the Italian language. Below are some common words that you may need to know to understand a little bit more about the compositions that are going to be played at the concert, since they are often included in the title of the composition or section of the piece. There are usually many tempo and dynamic markings throughout a composition, so that the sound rises and falls or gets faster or slower, according to the wishes of the composer as interpreted by the conductor.


The word tempo itself is from Italian, meaning “time.” The tempos below are in order from slowest to fastest, with the suggested speed indicated in Beats Per Minute (BPM) – the number of beats the conductor would give with his baton in a minute. The number of BPM is not set in concrete, though – different sources will suggest different BPM – but these are frequent recommendations. There are a number of tempos between the ones listed, but these are the most common ones.

Larghissimo: very, very slow (below 20 BPM)

Grave: very slow and solemn (20 – 40 BPM)

Lento: slow (40 – 60 BPM)

Largo: broadly, slow and dignified (42 – 66 BPM)

Adagio: slow and stately (“at ease”) (66 – 76 BPM)

Andante: at a walking pace, moderately slow and flowing (76 – 108 BPM)

Moderato: moderately (108 – 120 BPM)

Allegro: fast, quick, joyful and bright (120 – 168 BPM)

Vivace: lively and fast (about 140 BPM)

Presto: extremely fast (168 – 200 BPM)

Prestissimo: even faster than Presto (200 BPM and over)

Ritardando: Slow down gradually

Accelerando: Speed up gradually


While you probably won’t see these next words in your program, you may wonder how the orchestra knows whether the music should be loud or soft or somewhere in between. The words below, along with some less common ones, are written into the music so that the musicians know what to expect with regard to the dynamics or volume of sound. The conductor is responsible for making sure that these dynamics are implemented correctly. Sometimes, especially in older compositions, there are no dynamic markings, so it is up to the conductor to research the music and the composer and determine the appropriate dynamics to be used.

Crescendo: Get louder.

Decrescendo: Get softer.

Diminuendo: Get softer.

Forte: Play loudly.

Fortissimo: Play very loudly.

Piano: Play softly (not to be confused with the keyboard instrument, the piano, which is actually an abbreviation for pianoforte, meaning soft-loud).

Pianissimo: Play very softly.

Sforzando: With emphasis or forceful accent.