7 Musical Terms You May Not Know

Learning to play music involves not only mastering the physical techniques necessary to create a beautiful sound with your instrument, but also becoming familiar with the language of music itself. Like in any field, there are hundreds of terms to describe the many techniques, methods, and roles found in the musical world. Some terms, such as rhythm, symphony, or conductor, have become part of everyday speech, but others may be a bit confusing for those new to the music world. Check out these seven terms that, once mastered, will have you speaking like a pro!


The concertmaster is the violinist sitting in the first chair of the first violin section. They are regarded as one of the leaders of the orchestra and act as liaisons between the conductor and the string sections. The concertmaster translates musical request made by the conductor into technical instructions for the musicians. While the concertmaster is the leader of the first violin section, other instrumental sections—second violin, viola, cello, bass, wind, brass, and percussion—have section leaders who are called principal players. The concertmaster, together with the other principal players, help ensure that rehearsals and performances are efficient and polished. Composers will often write solos for the concertmaster or principal player that give special texture to a composition.

The concertmaster solo from Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben performed by Henry Auxenfans.


A cadenza is a moment in a piece, typically a concerto, where the soloist or group of soloists take the opportunity to display their virtuosity. Historically, cadenzas have been improvised on the spot, incorporating themes heard earlier in the piece. Today, most soloists perform pre-written cadenzas, either by the composer or by another virtuoso, but some performers still improvise, adding to the brilliance of the performance.

The cadenza from Koussevitzky’s Concerto for Double Bass performed by Nicholas Boetccher.


While a symphony or concerto are very formal in their design, a rhapsody is a musical composition for orchestra that is more free-flowing. Rhapsodies don’t have the formal structures that other pieces often do. In fact, the musical ideas the composer writes in a rhapsody do not necessarily have to relate to one another. While the most famous example of a rhapsody might be Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, other examples include Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody On a Theme of Paganini, and Queen’s inimitable Bohemian Rhapsody (1975).

Leonard Bernstein performing Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with the New York Philharmonic.


Typically appearing as a movement within a larger work, a scherzo is a light-hearted composition typically set in a 3/4 meter. The word scherzo literally means “jest” in Italian, and scherzos are often humorous in nature. Some famous examples of Scherzos include Mendelssohn’s scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Beethoven’s scherzo from his Symphony No. 3, and of course the scherzo from Mahler’s Symphony No. 6.

The Scherzo from Mahler’s Symphony No. 6.

Sinfonia Concertante

While you may be familiar with the terms symphony (an elaborate composition for full orchestra that typically has four movements) and concerto (a composition for a solo instrument accompanied by an orchestra), you might not have heard of a sinfonia concertante. Popular in the 17th and 18th centuries, a sinfonia concertante is a piece written for a group of soloists and an ensemble. Unlike a concerto, the soloists in a sinfonia concertante are on more “equal footing” with the ensemble, rather than being set apart musically.

Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola performed by Julian Rachlin (violin) and Sarah McElravy (viola) with the Kristiansand Symphony Orchestra.

Tone Poem

Similar to a rhapsody, a tone poem is typically a piece in one movement that does not rely on form, but instead tells a story and conjures a specific programmatic theme. Often tone poems are influenced by actual works of literature. Composers will write music that depicts certain scenes from a story, such as an epic battle scene (like in Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben seen above) or romantic love scenes (such as in Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun) or even heroic adventures (like in Strauss’ Don Juan). Some famous examples of tone poems include Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, Sibelius’ Finlandia, and Strauss’ Don Juan.

Liszt famous tone poem Les Preludes performed by CYSO’s Debut Orchestra


You can probably guess that the word vibrato has a similar root as the word vibrate, and for good reason! Vibrato is moving slightly between two pitches that are close together, “vibrating” the sound. Singers use vibrato to add warmth and expression and on most instruments, a player can manipulate their sound to produce vibrato for similar reasons and to mimic the sound of the human voice. In the example below, notice how soloist Kaylee Kim moves their left hand as they play, creating a lovely singing tone.

Wieniawski’s Violin Concerto No. 2 performed by Kaylee Kim.

Equipped with new familiarity with these terms, you’ll be sure to enjoy your next orchestral concert. While reading over program notes can sometimes seem a bit daunting with lots of unfamiliar names and terms, know that those are there to help enhance your concert experience. Keep an eye on our blog for more content that helps demystify the Classical Music world!

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