Piano - Technique

Piano Terms: The Terminology & Lingo You Should Know   

Piano Terms- The Terminology & Lingo You Should Know   

When wanting to learn a new instrument, the piano is by far one of the best instruments to begin with. But keep in mind that you can’t become Beethoven in a day!

There is still a lot of music theory that goes into learning any instrument, which can seem very overwhelming and difficult to learn, but is a building block in your music education.

Learning your instrument in-depth this way is almost like taking on a new language. There are many common musical terms that every musician should be familiar with.

Here we will outline some of the basic music terminology and lingo that anyone learning the piano should know.

COMMON MUSICAL KEYS & SCALES

Starting with the most basic and well-known musical terms for piano, here is a short description of each:

  • Key Signature – any combinations of sharps or flats after the clef at the beginning in your sheet music, indicating the key of a composition. When playing a piece of music the first thing you need to know is what key signature that you are playing in.
  • Treble / Bass Clef – these show you which hand you are playing with, everything on the treble staff is played with the right hand, and in the bass clef, is played with the left hand.
  • Chord – this is 3 or more notes that are played at the same time to create a fuller sound.
  • Arpeggio – this is known as a broken chord, where scales contain the notes of a key, arpeggios contain the notes of a chord.
  • Half Step / Whole Step – this is demonstrated as the distance between one note to the other, with the half step being the smaller distance (notes right next to each other, with half notes), such as C to C# and E to E#. A whole-step being twice as big, and is played notes like C to D, or E# to F#.
  • Major Scale –  a scale, known as a pattern of both whole steps and half steps, that contains all of the tones of any major key played in order of lowest to highest or the highest to lowest. There are 12 major scales. Most beginners will start with ones that utilize all the white keys, such as C Major, and then move to others like D Major, E Major, etc.
  • Minor Scale – a scale that contains all of the tones of any minor key, and just like major scales they are played in order of lowest to highest or highest to lowest, and there are 12 of them on the piano.  (Note: There are some variations on minor scales that you will hear later in music studies such as a melodic minor or harmonic minor).
  • Chord Progression – this is a series of piano chords that are played one after another, sometimes in a pattern (like a song).

TEMPO TERMS

The way that the piano is played shows expression, so this terminology is very important to know how to play. Many of the terms stem from the Italian language.

Some of these terms may come with the word “molto” in front of them, which translated means “very.” For example “molto allegro” would mean “very quickly.”

  • Largo or Lento – playing at a slow speed.
  • Adagio or Andante – a step up from largo/lento, medium-slow speed, literally translated the Italian word means “walking.”
  • Moderato – to play at a moderate speed, so slightly a bit more than andante or adagio.
  • Allegretto – playing at a moderately fast speed, so faster than moderato.
  • Allegro – this is to play at a faster speed than allegretto, a brisk tempo.
  • Vivace – this means to play in a lively manner with a very quick and upbeat tempo.
  • Syncopation – though not exactly a tempo, this is more of a rhythm, where you actually play more off the beat.
  • Accelerando or Stringendo – these mean you should speed up when playing a piece of music as you go along.
  • Rubato – this term refers to expressive and rhythmic freedom by a slight speeding up and then slowing down of the tempo of a piece
  • Ritardando or Rallentando – this is often seen as “rit.” in sheet music, where you should gradually slow down/decrease speed over the duration of the song while playing. Usually, you will see this at the end of a song.

EXPRESSIVE MARKINGS 

These musical terms aid in creating the mark of a sophisticated piano player, giving your playing more style. It allows you to be more versatile in your piano playing.

  • Legato – this means to play in a fluid motion, smooth and flowing where you don’t break in between notes.
  • Staccato – this is the opposite of legato, where you play with sharp, quick motions and detach in between notes.
  • Marcato or Accent – means to play emphasized, so heavier than a staccato, so more forcefully, and seen as the symbol “^”.
  • Tenuto – this means to play sustained, held longer than the actual length in your sheet music, literally the Italian word meaning “to hold.”
  • Dolce – the Italian word for “sweet” which means you play in a gentle and sweet way.
  • Grazioso – this means to play in a graceful and elegant style.
  • Maestoso – means to play your song in a majestic manner, with the idea to appear more noble and impressive.
  • Espressivo – to play with expression, or expressively (this may also indicate for the performer to be more expressive as well).
  • Animato or Brio – this indicates to play with excitement and spirit, the term “con brio” meaning “with spirit/vigor.”
  • Leggiero – this means “light”, meaning that you play delicately and lightly, with swift motions.
  • Pizzicato – this indicates for you to not utilize the sustain pedal, to give a more “plucking” of the strings type of sound.
  • Fermata – this is known as the “bird’s eye” in music, and it appears over a note meaning that you hold that note for longer than the length, like tenuto, but just for one specific note.  For example, if you see a quarter note with a fermata above, that means you will hold it for more than its time signature of 4/4 (worth one beat), you’ll hold it for more than one beat.

MUSICAL DYNAMICS ON THE PIANO

Another way to show expression and draw emotion, the dynamics really help to convey the music you are playing and are important to know. Again, these music terms do stem from the Italian language.

  • Pianissimo (pp)- this means to play at the softest volume possible, very quiet.
  • Piano (p) – this is a step up from pianissimo, playing just a tad louder, but still soft.
  • Mezzo Piano (mp) – this is a little bit louder than piano,
  • Mezzo Forte (mf) – this is translated as “medium-loud” so louder than Piano in volume.
  • Forte (f) – this means to play at a “loud” volume.
  • Fortissimo (ff) – this means to play at an extremely loud volume.
  • Crescendo – to gradually play louder during a phrase, sometimes with the symbol “<“. (Side note: you may see the word “poco” in front of these terms, which means “little” so a little crescendo or decrescendo means to play into it even more gradually.
  • Decrescendo or Diminuendo – This is the opposite of a crescendo – when you play you gradually get softer in the song, sometimes seen as the symbol “>”
  • Subito piano – the word “Subito” is the Italian word for “suddenly,” and it means you are to suddenly play a given note or passage quietly.

MUSICAL DIRECTIONS

There are certain terms that actually tell you what to do, right in the music, and these music terms are good to know when you are learning the piano as well:

  • Da Capo – this is the Italian phrase meaning “from the head”, which means you return to the beginning of the music.
  • DC Al Fine – in music this literally translates to “from beginning to end” and instructs you to play through the music until you reach where it says “fine.”
  • DC Al Coda – this translates to mean “from the head to the tail” and instructs musicians to go back in their sheet music and repeat the music from the beginning, known as the Capo, and continue playing until they reach the first coda and jump to the other coda to finish.
  • DS (Dal Segno) Al Coda – this means that you go back to a certain part of the musical piece when the al coda is reached and you jump from the first coda to the second coda.

All of this piano terminology can seem very complex. You will not have to learn everything all at once, so do not worry. Your instructors will take great care of your development to introduce just a few at a time.

And, as you become more acquainted with the piano, you will see that these terms and instructions become easier to understand; you’ll be playing a Bach Minuet in no time!

These terms are important fundamentals in music and are a key component of learning the piano and building your knowledge so that you can play in a more informed way.

Vincent Reina
Vincent Reina
Vincent received a Bachelor of Music Degree in Piano Performance from Purchase Conservatory, earned a Masters of Arts in Teaching Music from Manhattanville College and is an alumnus of the prestigious Manhattan School of Music Preparatory Division. Vincent has performed for television, audio recordings and on professional stages in various genres of music. He’s the proud winner of many significant piano competitions, including the Westminster Choir College Artistic Excellence in Piano Award.
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