Diction ry

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«Music starts where the power of words stops», Richard Wagner used to say. That may very well be, but isn’t it equally true that words can help a great deal when it comes to understanding music, to grasping why and how a certain tune sends shivers down our spine while another makes our feet itch for the dancefloor? 

To drive the point home, the Philharmonie team has compiled on this page a little musical dictionary that might come quite handy next time a piece leaves you speechless! 


Ever wondered how performers stay in time with each other? Bars are a big part of it. Also known as measures, bars are like small boxes for musical notes and rhythms – each containing a specific number of beats.  

Within a piece or section, these musical segments typically have the same number of beats as each other, which is determined by the time signature at the start. Together, they provide a structure that helps to organise the music and keep the musicians in time by counting the beats in the bar together. 


A concerto is much like a symphony – in that it’s a large-scale work written for orchestras. Except this time, a soloist takes the spotlight out front. They might be a violinist, pianist or even xylophone player – anything’s possible! As well as telling a story, the music showcases their impressive skills, usually over three different movements – each highlighting different strengths. But they can’t do this without the orchestra. Far more than just a ‘backing band’, the orchestra are collaborative partners – engaging in a musical conversation that enhances the fireworks coming from the front of the stage.


Put simply, counterpoint is like a musical conversation between different melodies that all have their own distinct character. Imagine a group of friends engaging in a lively discussion, each person contributing their unique perspective while still listening and responding to others. Similarly, in counterpoint, different musical lines intertwine and interact, creating a rich tapestry of sound. One melody might answer or echo another, creating pleasing harmony or intriguing contrasts. The effect dates back to medieval times, but it reached its peak during the Renaissance and Baroque periods, as people like Johann Sebastian Bach mastered the intricate technique. But ever since, composers have explored how to use counterpoint to add depth and complexity to classical music, creating compositions where melodies intertwine in captivating ways. 


Dynamics are all about volume: how loud or quiet a piece of music is, and how players transition between the two. Like tempo, we still use the Italian words. Here are the most common examples: 

  • Forte: Literally translates as strong, i.e., forceful, or loud! 
  • Piano: Not the instrument this time… Pronounced «pi-AH-no», it means soft, or in other words, quiet. 
  • Crescendo: When players gradually increase their volume from piano (quiet) to forte (loud). It can happen quickly or slowly, and getting a smooth transition with no sudden changes in level takes immense skill!
  • Diminuendo: Like a crescendo, but in the other direction – decreasing volume from forte to piano. Often takes even more skill than a crescendo and can either release musical tension or when done well, increase it! 

Very simply, an ensemble is a group of musicians performing together as a unified entity. Ranging from singer/pianist duos and string quartets to big bands and full symphony orchestras, an ensemble can contain any number of musicians and any combination of instruments. In fact, the world’s largest ensemble recorded to date was in Venezuela in 2021 and included 8,573 musicians, aged between 12 and 77, all playing Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Slavic March 

Just as in a sports team, each musician in an ensemble has a specific role to play, whether it’s taking charge of the melody, harmony or rhythm. Through collaboration and teamwork, together they bring compositions to life, blending individual voices into one collective sound.


Fugues are a prime example of a piece of music that uses counterpoint. The main theme, known as the «subject» – i.e. the subject of the piece – is introduced at the start. Then one by one, other melodies enter, each with their own unique interpretation of the subject. As the fugue progresses, the lines overlap and weave in among each other, building intensity as they unfold, leading to moments of great drama and excitement! As the King of Counterpoint, Johann Sebastian Bach wrote fugues that are still considered to be some of the best in the genre despite being nearly 300 years old. So, if you want to hear a fugue in action, why not check out his famous Toccata & Fugue in D minor? 



Ever had a piece of music hit you right in the feels when you weren’t expecting it? That’s the power of harmony! 

Harmony happens when two or more notes are played or sung at the same time, adding richness and depth to a tune in order to enhance music’s beauty and emotional impact.  

It all started in the Renaissance era when rebel monks started «harmonising» their plainchant. And ever since, composers have experimented with different techniques and sounds, whether it’s building rich warm chords or combining clashing notes for effect. But whatever the style, the challenge is the same – to weave multiple musical elements together to create something greater than the sum of its parts.


The key of a piece of music tells us which scale the main notes of the melody and chords come from. In other words, a piece in C major is mainly made up of the notes from the C major scale – bar a few fruity exceptions for interest! The same would be true of a piece in E minor, Ab major, and so on – with 24 key options in total.  

But why is this important? Well, for composers, choosing what key to compose a piece of music in is, well, key… Some instruments, including voices, sound different in some keys than others according to their range (how high or low they can play) and their timbre (how vibrant, rich or bassy they sound). This means different keys give the music distinct characteristics. 

Some composers have even been known to have a favourite key. For instance, it’s thought that Ludwig van Beethoven liked to use C minor to create an intense and stormy mood. Have a listen to his famously dramatic Symphony Nᵒ5 in C minor to see what we mean.


A mode is simply a type of scale. As with major and minor scales, they each have a specific pattern of spaces – or intervals – between the notes. Each mode’s pattern evokes a specific emotional quality, such as the bright and uplifting Ionian mode, or the melancholic and introspective Dorian mode.  

Just like their names – others include Phrygian, Mixolydian, Aeolian and Locrian – their patterns can be quite complex. But once you’ve learned them, there’s a whole host of diverse musical flavours at your fingertips. Composers use modes to create specific atmospheres, like tense, grandiose, or serene. So, that beauty we talked about in «Harmony»? Often, a clever choice of mode has a lot to do with it!


A book has chapters, a movie has scenes, a play has acts... and a piece of music has movements! Whether it’s a symphony, a concerto or a sonata, a classical composition is typically divided into various sections which each give off a different vibe and bring the musical narrative forward in their own, unique way.  

And remember – movements are often set up to create an emotional journey, so it’s best to wait until the very end of the piece to clap so you can appreciate the full effect.

According to archeologists, people were already writing about music theory in Ancient Mesopotamia!

Did you know?

Crowd in the Grand Auditorium waiting for musicians to come on stage

Rhythm is the result of combining notes of different lengths with silences – or «rests» – in between to create different patterns. They can be made up of long notes, spiky notes, and any number of variants in between. The possibilities are endless.  

Rhythm is like the steps and movements in a dance. Just as dancers follow a choreographed sequence of steps to a beat, musicians follow these rhythmic patterns created by notes and rests. For instance, imagine a waltz with its graceful pattern of three beats in a bar, where each step corresponds to a beat in the music. Similarly, in music, rhythm dictates the pace and flow, setting the groove for listeners to tap their feet or sway along.   

In this way, rhythm is a fundamental part of what makes music memorable and interesting. After all, you could write the best melody in the world, but if there was no rhythm it wouldn’t be half as interesting. 


What melody comes to mind when you think of the famous Sound of Music lyrics «Do re mi fa so la ti do»? Well, you might not realise it, but we’re willing to bet you’re thinking of a scale! 

A scale is a sequence of musical notes arranged in ascending or descending order according to a specific pattern of intervals – or gaps – between the notes. Common examples include the major and minor scales, each with its own distinctive character. Major = happy. Minor = sad. 

Just like languages have letters, words, and sentences, music has notes, scales, and harmonies. And just as learning new words helps us build sentences that make sense when speaking a foreign language, learning scales provides a framework for composing melodies and harmonies that sound nice to the ear.  

Scales have another use too. By practising them as a technical exercise, musicians can build the strength and dexterity they need to play challenging music with precision and fire. If you’ve ever wondered how they move their fingers so fast, the answer is – hours of practising those pesky scales! 


If a symphony’s a story told by an orchestra, then a sonata’s a story told by a single soloist – like a pianist, clarinettist, or trumpet. Usually consisting of two to four movements, think of it as a musical story with different scenes and characters. The first movement introduces them, the middle movements take them on a journey, and the final movement brings it all to a thrilling close.

Lasting anywhere between 10 and 45 minutes, the structure of sonatas has evolved over centuries. But whether it’s a sparkly sonata by Mozart, a brooding Brahms version, or an innovative Ligeti special, they give composers the perfect platform to showcase their style.

Sonata Form

Sonata form is a musical structure often used in the first movements of, well, sonatas, but also symphonies and concertos. It typically consists of three sections,  called exposition, development, and recapitulation. Stick with us – it’s simpler than it sounds! Think of it like a musical story with three main parts: the beginning, middle, and the end. In the beginning (the exposition), composers introduce their different musical ideas or themes. Then comes the middle (the development), where they play around with these themes, changing them up and adding new twists. Finally, in the end (the recapitulation), the original themes come back, but this time improved by their modifications – as if returning home older and wiser after a long trip.  

Sonata form’s flexible yet clear framework gives composers a way to organise their music, keeping it interesting and exciting for listeners by mixing things up while still bringing it all together in the end. 


Symphonies are the grand storytellers of classical music. These large-scale pieces explore diverse themes and emotions over multiple movements, like an epic film trilogy or binge-able box set. Designed for orchestras, the different instruments – strings, woodwind, brass and percussion – give composers a wide range of sounds and textures to express complex musical ideas.  

Usually lasting between 40-80 minutes, the structure typically consists of four movements. After a light-hearted opener could come a melancholy second part, followed by a stormy third, building momentum for a grandiose finale! 


If you’ve ever measured the tempo of your heart rate, heard a sports match described as «high tempo», or had your boss ask you to increase the tempo of a project to meet a deadline, you already know that this notion is all about speed. 

The tempo at which a piece is played can be dictated by the composer, or decided by the performers based on the style, difficulty, and their interpretation. However, composers will sometimes name whole movements after the speed they intend them to be played – so there’s usually a clear clue! 

Like lots of musical terms, the Italian words used by many early composers to describe different tempos have stuck, and we still use them today. Here are some examples: Allegro (fast), Presto (really fast), Prestissimo (really, really fast!), Largo (very slow) and Andante (literally, walking pace – so we guess that depends on how long your legs are!).


A theme in classical music is the musical idea or melody that acts as the main building block of a piece. They’re used to capture your attention, express emotions, tell stories, or evoke imagery. And composers usually build the rest of their compositions around them, as if they were the central character in a story or the main topic in a conversation.  

The catchy tune you find yourself humming after listening to a new piece? That’s the theme. They can be complex, simple, joyful, or melancholic, it doesn’t matter. The important thing is that it leaves an impression on you long after the music ends. 


Have you ever wondered how composers keep classical music fresh and exciting? Variations are the answer!  

In classical music, a variation is like a remix or makeover of a theme. To create variations, composers will play around with their theme or melody, exploring different ways to present it by changing aspects like the rhythm, harmony, or instrumentation to create something new and interesting while keeping the essence of the original intact. It’s like looking at a painting from a different angle or trying out different flavours of your favourite dish.  

So next time you’re listening to a piece of music, see if you can spot the variations. Are they bold or subtle? How do they transform the familiar melody? And what new musical ideas do they introduce?

Phil+ content, Gustavo Gimeno directing an orchestra


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