Basic and more specific musical terms for piano

Here you find information that helps you understand musical terms.
Subjects covered: Dynamics | Tempi | Moods | Scales | Intervals

Dynamics in music

On piano sheets you will often find abbreviations like “pp”, “mf” and so on. The abbreviations stand for Italian terms which are directions for the dynamics, in other words, how soft or loud you should play. The abbreviations for dynamics and their meanings are:

p (piano) – soft
pp (pianissimo) – very soft
mp (mezzo piano) – moderately soft
mf (mezzo forte) – moderately loud
f (forte) – loud
ff (fortissimo) – very loud

Tempo in music

It is also a common use to indicate the tempo with Italian terms. As well as many of the other terms in this overview, these are often written out on the piano sheet and some of the most common are listed below:

Largo – very slow
Adagio – slow
Andante – walking pace
Moderato – moderately
Allegretto – fairly fast
Allegro – fast
Vivace – very fast

For your reference, a moderate tempo is around 100 beats per minute.  

In addition, there are directions for gradual changes:

Crescendo – gradually louder
Decrescendo – gradually softer
Accelerando – gradually increase the tempo
Ritardando – gradually decrease the tempo

Moods in music

Another thing that can turn up on piano sheets are indications of moods. These are instructions that lead you to the right expression when you play. There is of course room for a personal approach in the manner of expressions, and these mood indications can be seen as guidelines.

Cantabile – in a singing style
Con amore – with love
Con brio – with spirit
Dolce – sweetly
Furioso – with passion
Scherzando – playfully

Terms connected with scales

Even scales have its own terminology, mostly used to tell how many notes that are included per octave in a scale or the interval structure.

Tetratonic scale – a scale with four notes, since these are unusual, no examples can be found on this site.
Pentatonic scale – a scale with five notes, for example the Pentatonic Scale.
Hexatonic scale – a scale with six notes, for example the Whole Tone Scale.
Hemitonic scale – a scale with one or more semi-notes, in contrast to an anhemitonic scale.
Heptatonic scale – a scale with seven notes, for example the Major Scale.
Octatonic scale – a scale with eight notes, for example the Diminished Scale.
Diatonic scalesee an article about this term.
Symmetrical scale – a scale with the same interval throughout the scale.

Terms connected with intervals

Intervals are often referred to in music and are explained here.

Prime – this is really not an interval in the true sense being the same as the reference note. A prime interval could for example be C-C.
Second – indicate the interval of one step, for example C-D.
Third – indicate the interval of two steps, for example C-E. A third is also the interval from the first to the second tone in a major chord.
Minor third – indicate the interval of three half steps, for example C-Eb. A third is also the interval from the first to the second tone in a minor chord.
Perfect fourth – indicate the interval of five half steps, for example C-F.
Perfect fifth – indicate the interval of seven half steps, for example C-G. A fifth is also the interval from the first to the third tone in a major or a minor chord.
Sixth – indicate the interval of nine half steps, for example C-A.
Minor seventh – indicate the interval of ten half steps, for example C-Bb. A minor seventh is also the interval from the first to the fourth tone in a minor or dominant seventh chord.
Major seventh – indicate the interval of eleventh half steps, for example C-B. A major seventh is also the interval from the first to the fourth tone in a major seventh chord.
Octave – indicate the interval from one tone to the same, but with the double frequency (if going up), for example C(1)-C(2).

There are even more intervals, such as ninth, eleventh and thirteenth, which are following the same rules as implied above.