Do you need help keeping your music vocab straight?

There’s so many words and phrases to know when learning how to make music. Below, I’ve included some of the most popular terms used in my courses as a “quick reference guide” for you to easily look up one you’ve forgotten! 

Notes

Whole note

Whole notes are held for four beats. These look similar to a hollow oval, with no stem or flag attached to the note. 

Half note

Half notes are held for two beats. Half notes are notated with a hollow oval, like a whole note, and straight stem. 

Quarter note

Quarter notes are held for one beat. These are notated with a solid, filled-in oval and a stem attached. 

Eighth note

Eighth notes are held for a half of a beat. These are notated with a solid oval, stem attached, and a flag on the end of a stem. . 

Sixteenth note

Sixteenth notes are held for a quarter of a beat. These are notated with a solid oval, a stem, and two flags on the end of the stem. 

Rests

Whole rest

A whole rest is a rest held for four beats. These look like a rectangle hanging from the middle line of a staff. 

Half rest

A half rest is held for two beats. These look like a rectangle sitting on top of the middle line of the staff. 

Quarter rest

A quarter rest is held for one beat. These look like a fancy letter “Z” connected to a backwards letter “C”. A squiggle might be a better way to describe this shape. 

Eighth rest

An eighth rest is held for half of a beat. These look very similar to a fancy number “7”. 

Sixteenth rest

A sixteenth rest is held for a quarter of a beat. These aren’t too common in music we’ll be using. Sixteenth rests look like two fancy “7s” stacked on top of each other. 

Piano types and terms

Digital piano

  • These pianos need to be plugged into an electrical source in order to work. The nice thing about digital pianos is that they do not need to be tuned every year like acoustic pianos do. Most digital pianos come with a variety of options, which allows you to enable a metronome while playing, change the sound of the piano, or even record what you play. Because they reproduce digital samples of much larger instruments (often concert grands) and require less space they have in many ways replaced acoustic upright pianos in the market as the preferred “first entry” instrument for beginners.

Keyboard

  • The keyboard refers to just the black and white keys on the piano. This general term can apply to both digital and acoustic pianos. A full size keyboard has 88 keys. Many smaller digital keyboards exist with less keys.

Acoustic piano

  • An acoustic piano is a non-electric piano made of wood that has felt hammers striking strings made of steel wire inside to create sound. Acoustic pianos typically have two or three foot pedals, depending on the model. Acoustic pianos need to be tuned once or twice per year to keep the piano (and your ears) healthy.

Upright piano

  • Upright pianos are acoustic pianos and are most commonly found in private homes or practice studios. Their strings run vertically, at a right angle to the floor, in the square case right behind the keyboard. The taller that case, the longer the strings can be, and likely the better tone and volume that the piano can project.

Grand Piano

  • These are the larger acoustic pianos often seen in churches, event spaces, and in concert venues. 
  • The strings run horizontally away from the keyboard, parallel to the floor, with large sound boards that allow them to project more volume and richness than upright pianos.

Tuning

  • Tuning an acoustic piano is the process of manually adjusting the tension of its strings, thereby altering their pitch, or frequency of vibration, by slightly turning the tuning pins to which they’re attached, so that each string sounds the correct pitch required. Digital pianos do not require tuning.

Other key terms

Treble Clef

  • The treble clef designates the G above middle C on the second line of the staff. The right hand will usually play the notes written in the treble clef, which also is usually the melody line. It is the upper staff of the two staffs in a “grand staff” typically used for traditional, classical piano sheet music. It is the only staff used in the style of notation used for non-classical genres–a lead sheet.

Melody

  • This is a sequence of single notes that create the sounds most people can relate to as what you would sing along with. It is the counterpoint to the harmony, and is typically found notated in the treble clef in a lead sheet.


Chords

  • A group of notes played together that produces harmony (often in conjunction to a melodic line). In traditional grand staff classical notation chords are notated verbatim, typically on a bass clef. In a lead sheet, chords are designated using chord symbols up above the notation of the melody line in the treble clef.

Lead Sheet

  • The type of music notation used to accurately convey most non-classical genres of music, where the goal is not to recreate something verbatim as in classical music, but rather, to interpret a tune to create your own personal version or arrangement.
  • Lead sheets contain a single staff (the treble clef) with notation of the melody line of a song, with chord symbols up above the notation denoting the harmony of the tune.. 

Fake Book

  • A large collection of lead sheets, often by genre. We highly recommend checking out fake books, as they are a phenomenally cost effective way to acquire tunes versus trying to buy sheet music of individual tunes.

Chord Progression / Chord Changes

  • The movement of chords throughout a tune that describes the harmony of a song. In lead sheets they are conveyed by the chord symbols found above the notated melody line

Chord symbols

  • A nomenclature often used in non-classical genres by professional musicians, rather than verbatim notation notated in the bass clef of grand staff notation in traditional piano sheet music. They appear as a letter name of the chord’s root, and are sometimes followed by extra markings to designate different chord types such as minor, 7th, diminished, augmented, etc. The chord symbols convey the underlying harmony of a tune without an explicit notated arrangement, thus giving the performer the freedom to interpret and create their own performance on the fly, versus re-creating something previously arranged by another.

Solo style

  • Refers to playing a tune entirely on the piano, both the melody and the harmony.

Accompaniment Style

  • Refers to playing a tune on the piano without the melody line knowing the melody line will be provided by a singer or other instrumentalist.

Blues chord changes / Blues progression

  • Blues changes consist of a (most often) 12 measure chord progression, repeated indefinitely over which thousands of melodies of blues tunes can be played interchangeably. The progression in generic form is:

Voicing

  • A way to play a chord other than in root position. Often sounding more stylistic or professional, particular voicings are sometime used to sound more authentically  “genre specific.” Voicings often leave certain notes out of a chord, and are often stacked in a particular order other than root position. For this reason voicings are very helpful for playing larger, more complex (4 or 5 note) chords that would otherwise be very physically difficult to manage in one hand.

Half step

  • The next immediate note on the keyboard. Examples include: E-F, G-G#, B-B♭

Whole Step

  • Two half-steps paired together. Examples include: B♭- A♭, E-F#, G-A

Inversion

  • Inversions are simply stacking the notes of a chord in some order other than root position (see definition below.) For example a C major chord in root position is C-E-G. An inversion of that chord could be either E-G-C (known as first inversion) or G-C-E (second inversion).

Root Position

  • A chord in root position puts the letter name of a chord symbol at the bottom of the chord, thus making it the lowest note heard – or the bass note. Example: D major chord =  D-F#-A. Because D is the root note (the lowest note, or the bass note), then the chord is in root position. (See inversion definition above for alternative to root position)

Major chord

  • Commonly referred to as a stable or “happy sounding” chord. This 3 note chord family is made of a root note, a major third (4 half-steps higher), and a perfect fifth (3 half-steps higher) For example: C major = C-E-G. 

Minor chord

  • Commonly referred to as “melancholy sounding” chord. This 3 note chord family is made of a root note, a minor third (3 half-steps higher), and a perfect fifth (4 half-steps higher) For example: A minor  = A-C-E.   You’ll notice the difference between a major and minor chord only being that the middle note of the minor chord is one half-step lower than that of a major chord.

Seventh chord / Dominant 7th chord

  • This 4 note chord family is made of a root note, a major third (4 half-steps higher), and a perfect fifth (3 half-steps higher), and a dominant seventh (3 half-steps higher) For example: C7 = C-E-G-Bb  

Sustain Pedal

  • This pedal is by far the most often used pedal while playing piano. If your piano has only 1 pedal, it is a sustain pedal. If it has 2 or 3 pedals, the sustain pedal will be the one furthest to the right. When depressed, it allows whatever keys are played to keep sounding even after you have lifted your fingers from the note, which would normally stop the sound. It tends to smooth out transitions, for example when you are lifting your hand to move to a new chord. By pressing the pedal before you lift up to move, the previous chord will keep sounding until you can get to your next chord, at which point you release the pedal and play the new chord simultaneously. The effect is smoothly moving from one chord to the next without a gap in sound. 

P/V/G sheet music

  • P/V/G is a designation used for non-classical sheet music notated specifically for  piano, vocal and guitar. This looks like a complex mix between classical piano sheet music and a lead sheet. It contains three staffs of music. The top staff is in the treble clef which contains only the melody line and lyrics (Vocal), up above that melody line there are chord symbols. Focusing on just those two elements is in essence what is found in a lead sheet. So you can in effect turn a P/V/G formatted tune into a lead sheet simply by ignoring everything but the melody line and chord symbols.
  • In addition, along with the chord symbols there are “fret charts” that show finger positions for guitarists who do not know the chord symbols.
  • Finally, below the single staff of the melody line (for pianists that can not read chord changes) there is a grand staff (treble and bass clef) containing a fully notated arrangement often created by a staff arranger at a music publishing company as opposed to the author of the tune. 
  • Something important to note here is that almost always the top note of the piano arrangement is the entire melody line of the tune. You’ll notice the top note of the piano arrangement is an exact copy of the single note vocal line in the vocal staff above with the lyrics. That is fine if the song is to be played as a piano solo. But it is awkward (and very amateurish) if the piano player is accompanying themselves or someone else singing. Accompanists should never play the melody line along with the soloist. That is yet another reason it is more musically appropriate when playing non-classical music to read from chord symbols as opposed to trying to read someone (other than the author) else’s fully notated arrangement verbatim.

Grand Staff

  • A staff is a set of five horizontal lines and four spaces that represent a musical pitch. Two joined by a brace make a grand staff. These are appropriately used in fully notated classical piano sheet music. 

Maybe you haven’t taken my courses, but recognize some of these words and phrases from your time in high school band or orchestra. Are you interested in getting back to making music and playing the piano? You can sign up for a webinar below to learn more about Piano in a Flash courses!

2 Comments
  • Connor
    Posted at 12:51h, 07 August Reply

    Oh this is super helpful! Thank you so much for sharing.

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