This glossary is designed to explain music-theoretic jargon to pop musicians, and pop-music jargon to music theorists. To keep it to a manageable size, I’ve restricted it to terms that describe musical sound or structure (e.g., I haven’t included definitions of “bridge,” “key,” “pickup,” etc., that refer to parts of a musical instrument).

For now, the entries are purely verbal; eventually I hope to add illustrations and sound clips where appropriate (and legally permissible).

Some entries have been shamelessly cribbed from standard reference sources; others have been shamelessly jotted off the top of my head. Suggestions for improvement and clarification are always welcome. Brian Robison, Glossary Editor

Need to know the meaning of a term not listed? I’ll be happy to add it; please drop me a line.

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Schematic label for the classic 32-bar song form; not to be confused with the Swedish pop supergroup ABBA (an acronym of the members’ first names: Agnetha, Benny, Björn, and Anni-Frid).

A note that begins a phrase on any beat other than the downbeat; also known more informally as a “pickup.”

applied dominant
A harmony which, strictly speaking, is foreign to a given key, but which functions as the dominant of some harmony (other than the tonic) which is native to that key.
For example, let’s take a standard turnaround in the key of D major. The top row presents pop chord symbols; the bottom row labels each chord according to its function within the key.

D Bm7 Em7 A7 D
I vi7 ii7 V7 I

The D major triads are instances of the tonic harmony, labeled with the Roman numeral I (because its root is the first note of the D major scale). Likewise, the seventh chords on B, E, and A are labeled as vi7, ii7, and V7, respectively.

We can make the passage more interesting by changing the Em7 chord into an E7:

D Bm7 E7 A7 D
I vi7 [V7] V7 I

The E7 chord is foreign to the key of D major, because its third is a G-sharp rather than a G-natural. Nonetheless, the E7 makes perfect sense: because it’s the V7 harmony from the key of A major, it functions as a dominant applied to any A major triad.

Thus, rather than label this harmony with some form of the Roman numeral II, for the purposes of understanding classical harmonic syntax it’s more useful to label the chord as a [V7] (that is, V7 written between square brackets, and usually with a small curved arrow, drawn just below and to the right, pointing to its generative “tonic”). Spoken aloud, the label is “five-seven of five” (or, for greater clarity, “the dominant of the dominant”).

This emphasis on the A major triad represents a brief instance of tonicization. Such tonicization can be pursued recursively, to create a chain of applied dominants:

D B7 E7 A7 D
I [V7] [V7] V7 I

Working our way from right to left: The last chord is the tonic, preceded by its dominant, which in turn is preceded by its dominant, which in turn is preceded by its dominant. The Gershwins’ “Nice work if you can get it” starts with a remarkable extended chain of applied dominants: one that not only starts on the dominant of the dominant of the dominant of the dominant, but even temporarily overshoots its tonic.

   [from It. arpeggio, “like a harp”]
Technique of performing the notes of a chord successively rather than simultaneously; perhaps the most straightforward example of horizontalizing a harmony.

atonal see post-tonal


   [direct tr. of Ger. Hintergrund]
A term from Schenkerian analysis, referring to the deepest level of musical structure, from which all decoration and elaboration has been removed.

Can refer either to a genre of African-American music, or more specifically to its characteristic harmonic structure.

The basic blues pattern is 12 bars long, falling into three four-bar phrases:

    (1st phrase: bars 1-4)        I  — IV —  I  —  I

    (2nd phrase: bars 5-8)     IV — IV —  I  —  I 

    (3rd phrase: bars 9-12)     V — IV —  I  — (I)

I’ve put the last tonic harmony in parentheses because it’s often elaborated with a turnaround to articulate the boundary between statements of the pattern.

The pattern can also be adapted to fit an eight-bar or sixteen-bar pattern (e.g., Prince’s “Let’s pretend we’re married,” King Crimson’s “Red”).

The contrasting (“B”) section within a classic 32-bar song form (i.e., bars 17 – 24); also known as the “middle eight.”


   [from “chord changes”]
Jazz terminology for a composition’s distinctive succession of harmonies.

   [from Gr. choros, orig. a ring dance, or a group of singers performing such a dance]

1) The AABA portion (or refrain) of a classic 32-bar song form.

2) In jazz, any complete statement of a composition’s repeating harmonic pattern. If the piece in question is a 32-bar song form, then to “take a chorus” would mean playing a solo over that 32-bar chorus; but the same term is also used for soloing over a set of changes that doesn’t fit that form (e.g., the Gershwins’ “But not for me,” or Thelonious Monk’s “Straight, no chaser”).

3) An electronic delay effect that modulates the audio signal to create interference effects (colloquially described as “thickening” the sound, and/or making it “shimmer”). The difference between the sound of the original signal and the chorused version resembles that between the sound of the same tone as sung by one singer and as sung by an entire choir or chorus of singers.

   [It., “tail”]
The classical term for a concluding section of a piece of music which is understood as an addition after the main action of the piece has been concluded, to reinforce the sense of closure after the tonic triad is regained.

   [It., diminutive of coda]
A very short coda.

compound melody
A musical texture in which a single performer (or instrumental “voice”) articulates two or more melodic lines in alternation.

contrapuntal = adjectival form of counterpoint

   [from Latin contrapunctus]
Usually denotes the combination of two or more melodic lines that move with considerable independence (as opposed to one line simply duplicating the other at a different pitch level). It can also be used to describe contrasting relationships that exist along another parameter (e.g., rhythmic counterpoint in funk arrangements).


Denotes a family of electronic effects that alter a sound by adding a duplicate signal that is delayed in relation to the original signal.

Extremely small delays are heard as timbral modification: delay on the order of 3 to 16 milliseconds (ms) creates a flange effect; delay of 20 to 40 ms (with pitch modulation) creates a chorus effect.

Longer delays are more characteristic of reflected sound, and thus are heard as reverberation or echo: delay on the order of 30 ms (without pitch modulation) is heard as reverb; delay of ca. 50 to 80 ms. creates “bathtub” reverb; delay of ca. 90 to 140 ms creates a slapback echo; and delays on the order of hundreds of milliseconds are heard as echo within proportionally larger spaces.

Alteration of a sound signal through electronic amplification, “overdriving” it beyond the system’s ability to reproduce the waveform faithfully.

In a typical sustained musical tone, most of the component frequencies are harmonic (related to each other by simple ratios, and thus mutually reinforcing), while others are inharmonic (especially in sounds produced by plucking or striking).

Extreme amplification can lead to “clipping” of the original signal, which makes the inharmonic partials stronger in proportion to the harmonic ones. Furthermore, if two or more notes are played simultaneously, they give rise to audible difference tones that further complicate the waveform (e.g., notes at C = 262 Hz and F# = 370 Hz will create a third note at [370 – 262] = 108 Hz = slightly flat A, inharmonic in relation to both original frequencies). High levels of overdrive thus interestingly blur the boundary between timbre and harmony.

In classical music theory, refers either to the fifth degree of the scale, or to any triad (or seventh chord) constructed on that root.

One may also identify a dominant function, which is usually, but not necessarily, fulfilled by a dominant harmony. For example, because of the defining role of the leading tone in classical music, a seventh chord built on it is essentially interchangeable with the dominant. On the other hand, in minor keys, the unaltered dominant triad lacks the leading tone, and thus does not fulfill the dominant function.


An electronic delay effect that imitates the acoustic reflection of sound in reverberant spaces (e.g., caves, canyons, cathedrals), in which the reflected sound is heard hundreds of milliseconds after the original sound.

When a given pitch is made to function as two or more theoretically distinct notes (e.g., G-sharp and A-flat), we say that the two notes are enharmonically equivalent.


An electronic delay effect in which a sound signal is duplicated ca. 15 ms after the original. It was originally achieved by running two identical analog reel-to-reel tapes; one was de-synchronized by applying slight pressure to the flange of the tape reel.

   [direct tr. of Ger. Vordergrund]
A term from Schenkerian analysis, referring to the most immediate level of a musical composition, comprising all of its notes or sounds.

Refers to the succession of musical materials in a piece of music, from its start to its finish. When diagramming musical form, the initial material is labeled as “A,” and successive contrasting material is labeled with successive letters of the alphabet. In classical practice, lowercase letters are used to label individual phrases, and capital letters are used to label larger sections. In analyzing popular music, it usually suffices to use only capital letters (e.g., in describing the classic 32-bar song form as “AABA”).

A passage in fugal style or emulating fugal texture, but not instantiating an entire fugue.

   [from Latin fuga, “flight”]
A texture of imitative counterpoint, in which a principal theme (the “subject”) and its reply (the ”answer”) are extensively manipulated, in combination with each other or fragments thereof, and sometimes with a recurring countermelody (the “countersubject”), traversing several contrasting keys before returning to the tonic.
Students of the American musical theater may note that in Stephen Schwartz’s show Godspell, the opening Tower of Babel sequence actually has nothing whatsoever to do with a fugue. In Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls, the “Fugue for Tinhorns” offers a much closer approximation, but still doesn’t present a full-fledged fugue; one might generously label it as a fugato passage.

   [synaesthetic contrast to the “smooth” sound of the undistorted signal]
Colloquial label for heavy distortion effects.


Rhythmic ostinato, usually distinguished by rhythmic counterpoint (i.e., not all instruments articulate all beats; instead, the rhythmic activity is distributed among the performers in complementary fashion, with all or most lines coinciding only on structurally important events).



A musical texture in which multiple performers articulate the same melodic line, but each varying or ornamenting it independently.

   [from Latin hoquetus = “hiccup”]
A musical texture in which a single melodic line is distributed among two or more performers.

A musical texture in which multiple melodic lines share the same rhythm.
e.g., the opening bars of Queen’s “Bohemian rhapsody” (“Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? Caught in a landslide...”) Not to be confused with monophony.

horizontal, horizontalize
   [from conventional music notation’s use of the x-axis to represent temporal relationships]
In music analysis, refers to the arrangement of pitches across time. If the notes of a given harmony (i.e., a vertical construct) are performed successively rather than simultaneously (as in arpeggiation), we may say that the chord has been horizontalized.



integer notation
In post-tonal theory, the use of the integers 0 through 11 to label the chromatic pitch-classes, rather than the traditional letter names; “ 0 ” is used to label any C or B-sharp, “ 1 ” to label any C-sharp or D-flat, “ 2 ” to label any D, and so on up to “ 11 ” for any B or C-flat.

These numeric labels greatly simplify the task of calculating intervals, and hence of calculating interval-classes and relating various pitch-class set-classes to each other.

Refers to the registral distance between two pitches.

In classical theory, each interval is described with respect to its size (second, third, fourth, etc.) and quality (diminished, minor, perfect, major, augmented).

The labels for size are ordinal numbers based on counting notes along a scale, taking the first note as “one” (rather than “zero”). Hence, the next note of the scale to either side of the reference note is labeled as a “second” away from it; a note two notes away is labeled as a “third” away; and the duplication of the reference note as the seventh note of a complete scale is labeled as the “octave.”
This taxonomy notoriously leads to some confusing arithmetic, e.g. “ 3rd + 3rd = 5th,” and “ 3rd + 3rd + 3rd = 7th.”
Additional confusion can arise from the enharmonic equivalence of some intervals.

In post-tonal theory, analysts usually jettison the traditional taxonomy altogether, labeling intervals according to the number of semitones (i.e., counting along a chromatic scale rather than a diatonic scale, and counting from zero rather than from one).

The set of all intervals that are equivalent under one or more operations, such as transposition or inversion.
In traditional tonal theory, the equivalence of intervals under transposition is taken for granted, such that scarcely anyone bothers to refer to the intervals of a “nineteenth,” “twenty-sixth,” or “thirty-third” instead, we simply reduce them all to the interval of a “fifth.”
In modern post-tonal theory, equivalence under inversion is taken as fundamental, so that an interval of three semitones is not only equivalent to intervals of 15 (12+3), 27 (24+3), and 39 (36+3), but also to intervals of 9 (12-3), 21 (24-3), and 33 (36-3).








In classical music theory, refers either to the third degree of the scale, or to any triad (or seventh chord) constructed on that root.


middle eight
The contrasting (“B”) section within a classic 32-bar song form (i.e., bars 17 – 24); also known as the “bridge.”

middleground (direct tr. of Ger. Mittelgrund)
A term from Schenkerian analysis, referring to a stripped-down version of the music from which decorative notes and harmonies have been pared away, revealing a deeper level of musical structure.


A musical texture of a single melodic line, whether performed solo or by multiple voices (e.g., Gregorian chant, or the refrain of Queen’s “We will rock you”). Not to be confused with homophony.



ostinato [It., “stubborn”]



phrase rhythm

A note that begins a phrase on any beat other than the downbeat; also known more formally as an “anacrusis.”








pump-up modulation







rhythm changes

ride cymbal

Roman numeral



scale degree

Schenker, Schenkerian analysis, Schenkerian theory

In academic music circles, invariably refers to the ideas of the Austrian theorist Heinrich (1868 – 1935), not the German guitarist Michael (b. 1955). Schenker’s theories revolve around the recursive removal of decorative notes or chords to reveal deeper levels of musical structure, with a special emphasis on linear (i.e., stepwise) and contrapuntal structures, especially those that impart a clear logic to otherwise anomalous harmonic successions.

Over the past few decades, Schenkerian analysis has become one of the towering orthodoxies among academic musicians. If you read a recent academic book or article that delves into the details of tonal music, the author more likely than not will invoke Schenkerian concepts such as foreground, middleground, and background to explicate the music’s large-scale structure. Although Schenker developed his theory to demonstrate the structural richness of the masterworks of European (and especially Austrian and German) classical music, his concepts have also been fruitfully applied to the analysis of popular music.

A simple example of linear structure near the foreground level is the first phrase of Rodgers and Hart’s “Bewitched, bothered, and bewildered.” The melody incorporates various upward and downward melodic motions, but it can be readily analyzed as a combination of two simple lines (i.e., and example of compound melody). The top line is simply the tonic scale degree (in the song’s standard key of C major, the note C), each time prefaced by its leading tone (B). This essentially static line is interleaved with elements from an ascending line:

“I’m wild again, beguiled again, A whimpering, simpering child again ... ”

The syllables in boldface fall on the notes E, F, G, G#, and A (the last of which connects stepwise to the B-C of the last “again”).

A slightly more complex example can be found in the Gershwins’ “Someone to watch over me.” The melody ascends to a high note and then gradually works its way downward. Many different melodic intervals occur: some steps, some skips, some large leaps; all of these represent a mix of upward and downward motion. Nonetheless, one can trace a clear downward scale that lends coherence to the variety of melodic motions:

“There’s a somebody I’m longing to see, I hope that he, turns out to be, some - one - who’ll watch over me.”

In the song’s standard key of E-flat major, the syllables in boldface fall on the notes F, E-flat, D, C, B-flat, A-flat, G.

At the most immediate, foreground level, such linear structures seem almost obvious and incontrovertible; what separates the skeptics from the true believers is the extent to which you’re willing to apply such analytic techniques recursively.

For a considerably more thorough introduction to Schenkerian ideas, techniques, and notations, consult Introduction to Schenkerian analysis by Allen Forte and Steven E. Gilbert (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1982).

secondary dominant — see applied dominant

song form, 32-bar song form

Formal structure characteristic of hundreds (if not thousands) of popular songs, especially those composed during the first half of the twentieth century. Such songs typically divide into two sections, labeled as verse and chorus (or refrain). Most listeners think of the more familiar chorus section as the song itself, and think of the verse section as its introduction.

The chorus is usually 32 bars long, divided into four phrases of eight bars each. (The Brazilian samba and genres derived from it often use a 64-bar form, as four sections of 16 bars apiece.) The first phrase’s musical material (conventionally labeled as “A”) is also used for the second and fourth phrases; contrasting material (“B”) is used for the third. The succession of materials over the course of the song is thus mapped as AABA.

The endings of the first, second, and fourth phrases may differ slightly, to create varying degrees of closure (saving the greatest closure for the fourth phrase). These alterations can be reflected through the use of prime marks (AA’BA’, or AA’BA”).

Examples of songs in this form include:
  Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg:
    “Over the rainbow”
  Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler:
    “Stormy weather”
  Irving Berlin:
    “Puttin’ on the Ritz”
    “You can’t get a man with a gun”
  Vernon Duke and Ira Gershwin:
    “I can’t get started with you”
  Vernon Duke and John Latouche:
    “Taking a chance on love”
  Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, and Johnny Mercer:
    “Satin doll”
  Duke Ellington, Don George, Johnny Hodges, and Don George:
    “I’m beginning to see the light”
  Duke Ellington and Paul Francis Webster:
    “I got it bad and that ain’t good”
  George and Ira Gershwin:
    “Aren’t you kind of glad we did?”
    “I got rhythm”
    “Let’s call the whole thing off”
    “Nice work if you can get it”
    “Someone to watch over me”
    “They can’t take that away from me”
  Antônio Carlos Jobim and Newton Mendonça:
    “Desafinado (Slightly out of tune)”
    “Samba de uma nota só (One-note samba)”
  Antônio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes:
    “Chega de saudade (No more blues)”
    “Garota de Ipanema (The girl from Ipanema)”
  Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields:
    “Just the way you look tonight”
  Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II:
    “Can’t help lovin’ dat man”
  Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach:
    “Smoke gets in your eyes”
  Cole Porter:
    “Just one of those things”
    “Let’s do it”
    “Let’s misbehave”
  Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart:
    “Bewitched, bothered, and bewildered”
    “Blue moon”
  Billy Strayhorn:
    “Lush life”
  Harry Sullivan and Harry Ruskin:
    “I may be wrong (But I think you’re wonderful)”

In classical music theory, refers either to the fourth degree of the scale, or to any triad (or seventh chord) constructed on that root.

In classical music theory, refers either to the sixth degree of the scale, or to any triad (or seventh chord) constructed on that root.

In classical music theory, refers either to the second degree of the scale, or to any triad (or seventh chord) constructed on that root.




tone color




Modulation of a sustained tone (or chord) by a regular, rapid, shallow wavering in its volume (as opposed to its pitc; see vibrato).


A brief series of harmonies interpolated between two tonic harmonies, for the sake of variety and formal clarity (e.g., to mark a boundary between the concluding tonic of one blues chorus and the initial tonic of the next). A turnaround thus reinforces the home key, rather than moving to another key; in more formal music-theoretic terms, prolonging the tonic rather than progressing elsewhere. Common examples include

I—vi—ii—V in jazz and

IV-#IV-V in blues.



The words and music that precede the 32-bar chorus of a classic song form.

vertical, verticalized (from conventional music notation’s use of the y-axis to represent registral relationships)
In music analysis, refers to the arrangement of pitches across register. If the notes of a given melody (i.e., a horizontal construct) are performed simultaneously rather than successively, we may say that the melody has been verticalized.

Modulation of a sustained tone (or chord) by a regular, rapid, shallow fluctuation in its pitch (as opposed to its volume; see tremolo). Thus, the term “tremolo bar” for the “whammy bar” on some electric guitars, by which the tension of all strings can be altered simultaneously to bend entire chords up or down in pitch), is a misnomer; strictly speaking, it’s more accurate to call it a “vibrato bar.”

In discussions of musical harmony and texture), refers not just literally to a person singing, but abstractly to refer to any melodic line or part. Thus, a single singer can articulate a texture of two or more voices (as in compound melody); conversely, multiple singers can articulate a single line (as in the traditional practice of monophonic Gregorian chant).

Refers to the horizontal connections among the notes of one voice within a multi-voice texture. Many of the same harmonies may be found in both classical and popular music, but the former is notoriously more restrictive in its principals of voice-leading.





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Glossary updated 24 July 2005
Brian Robison, Glossary Editor