10863510-1416476088-549536(Musical) Terms

Descriptive words, usually in Italian, used to define tempo, expression, articulation, dynamics, pedaling or a specific feature such as a glissando or cadenza. We start learning and accumulating musical terms from the moment we begin to play the piano, starting with the simplest terms – forte (loud), piano (soft), allegro (quick or brisk), andante (at a walking pace). As we progress in our piano studies, we add more terms to our dictionary – allegretto, adagio, largo, presto, cantabile, accelerando, rallentando…..

metronomeComposers use terms to guide us in our interpretation of their music. With the invention of the metronome terms relating to tempo (such as presto, allegro, andante, adagio) became more standardised and suggested tempi are given on the body of the metronome in beats per minute, and also at the start of a piece. These speeds are not set in stone, however, and terms should be interpreted according to the character and style of the piece, as well as our own abilities and limitations.

Andante is a term which has always interested me. We know it means “at a walking pace”, but my walking pace may not be the same as yours. And maybe one day my walking pace is hurrying for a train, and another it is strolling in the park……. In the slow movement of Schubert’s Sonata in A, D959, the tempo marking is andantino and the character of the music suggests to me the weary tread of a melancholy traveler. Some will disagree, preferring a brisker walking pace, or the plod of an almost-funereal Adagio.

I love highly descriptive terms – allegro con fuoco (fast and with fire), allegro amabile (which means amiably quick, but which I prefer to translate as “smile as you quickly place”), affettuoso (with affection and tenderness), accarezzevole (caressing), bruscamente (brusquely), perdendosi (dying away). Once could write a passionate love story from these terms.


When I asked for suggestions for this entry in the Pianist’s Alphabet, a number of my pianist friends and colleagues suggested Tea. What would we do without it? I must drink six or seven cups a day. It fuels my practising, my teaching and my writing. Tea keeps fingers and brain lubricated. My morning ritual is to make a large mug of smokey Lapsang Souchong which I take to the piano. The ritual is repeated at regularly intervals, and mid-morning my husband will silently bring me a cup of tea and place it on my desk behind the piano. Coffee makes me jittery and nauseous – not an ideal combination when one is trying to refine Schubert’s heavenly length.

Others T’s (suggested by friends and colleagues)…..





Terrifying Thalberg

Tickle (as in “tickle the ivories”)








Pianist, teacher and writer Catherine Shefski studied at Smith College, Massachusetts, and at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama in London, where she was taught by EPTA founder, Carola Grindea.  Catherine has performed as a soloist and chamber musician, has taught “virtual” piano lessons, and writes an informative blog, All Piano, with the mission to “make piano lessons relevant for the digital generation”.

During my piano playing “formative” years, age eight to seventeen, I studied with four piano teachers. Two teachers at college and four post-grad brings the total to ten. Each teacher contributed something to my growth as a pianist and as a teacher. I find myself passing along choice tidbits of information to my students, clearing up confusion about musical terminology and offering practice tips.

I’d like to share just a few lessons I learned along the way, in addition to all the repertoire, which made certain teachers (and lessons) memorable.

  • Piu means “more” and peu means “little.”
  • Piu mosso means more motion and meno mosso means less motion.
  • Accidentals do not affect the same note of a different octave, unless indicated by a key signature.
  • Senza means without and sempre means always.
  • To shape the melodic line it usually makes sense to go to the long note.
  • If there is no fingering written in the score, follow the “next note, next finger” rule.
  • Una corda means use the soft pedal (one string); tre corda means release the soft pedal (three strings).
  • When you have two phrases with identical notes and rhythm, make them different by dynamic contrast or a change in touch.
  • Grace notes in Chopin are generally played on the beat.
  • F# minor melodic scale is the only scale that changes fingering on the descent.
  • m.d. (main droite) right hand and m.g. (main gauche) left hand.
  • With a ritardando at the end of a piece pay attention to the space between the notes. Should be incrementally longer with the longest wait before the last note.
  • When working on very soft passages, practice “excavating the pianissimo.” In other words, begin from nothing and then gradually you’ll get to the softest sound possible.
  • Before playing extended octave passages, try flipping your arm over and reaching an octave with your hand upside down, fingers pointing to the floor. It a good stretch!
  • Sopra means above.
  • Sotto voce meas “under voice”, or soft.
  • A staccato note under a slur is a portato. Think of it as a “plump staccato.”
  • When working for dynamic contrast, practice stopping and preparing before the change.
  • When working with large complicated chordal passages, practice squeezing the chord to shape the hand. Your muscles will remember.
  • Sightread chords from the bottom to the top.
  • To play a passage of thirds, fourths, fifths, etc. legato lift the finger that is to be repeated while connecting the rest.
  • When in doubt sing the melody.

© Catherine Shefski