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Music Talk: 10 Terms that Run the Gamut from Fun to Fabulous

color photo of an open dictionary on a podium in a reading room
The Bates reading room at Boston Public Library

Like any endeavor, classical music has its own specialized language. But unlike many endeavors, the lingo of classical music comes from many different European languages, each with its own special sounds and sensibilities.

Some of the many colorful musical expressions have made their way out of the practice room, the concert hall and the opera house and into common usage in English. Others, while no less amusing, remain rooted in music-speak.

Ever primed for a good linguistic romp, I wanted to share some of these terms with you — just for kicks.

1. dolce

If you’ve ever eaten dessert at an Italian restaurant — or at a restaurant that’s trying to be Italian — you already know what dolce means: sweet. On a menu, you usually see it as a plural noun: dolci, meaning "sweets."

In music, dolce is an expressive indication that tells the musician to play or sing sweetly, maybe a little gently, a little flirtatiously.

2. prima donna

Maybe you know one – heck, maybe you are one. The term "prima donna," meaning "first woman," comes from the world of Italian opera, as the designation for an opera’s leading lady.

The notoriously challenging behavior of opera’s high-maintenance leading ladies leaked out beyond the opera house under the label "prima donna," which now refers to women who, outside the realm of opera, act like divas (another great musical term!).

3. gamut

Now this is a cool word. When something "runs the gamut," it is running the full musical scale, just like the Von Trapp children did when they sang, "Do re mi" in The Sound of Music.

The story of how "gamut" became a word out of the murky mire of music theory terminology is a complex one, but here is the basic outline: Back in the Middle Ages, musicians came up with a system to give each note in what we would call today the musical scale a name.

At the time, musicians thought in terms of scales of six notes, called hexachords, the note names for which were ut, re, mi, fa, sol and la. The first, or lowest, note of the lowest hexachord in the Medieval system was called gamma ut.  Slide those two words together and knock an M out from the middle, and you’ve got the word "gamut."

4. chromatic

Even though the keys on a piano are only white and black, the sounds they make, in musical terminology, evoke infinite sound colors. The term "chromatic" comes from the Greek word chroma, meaning color.

When you play all the white and black keys on a keyboard in order, you are playing a chromatic scale – a scale that has all of the colors in the musical rainbow.

Here’s the chromatic scale in action in Liszt’s Grand Gallop Chromatique, performed by pianist Valentina Lisitsa:


5. schleppend 

I’m sure you’re already familiar with the Yiddish cousin of this German word, for almost everyone has had to schlep, or drag, something or someone along somewhere at one time or another.

The word schleppend – a participle of the German verb schleppen, meaning "to drag" – often shows up in the expressive indications Mahler put in his scores, where the word usually appears in the negative imperative nicht schleppend, meaning "don’t drag," or "not dragging(ly)." I love the way you have to push the word out between your teeth when you say it.

6. gemächlich

Unlike schleppend, which is fun to say and sounds like what it means, the German word gemächlich, meaning "comfortable" or "comfortably," isn’t and doesn’t.

There is nothing comfortable about saying gemächlich: The ä is in its own little sound world, the "ch" in the middle and at the end of the word sound like Lamaze breaths and the "i" in the final syllable, "- lich," is one of those thin, pinched ee-sounds.

All that, plus the hard “g” at the beginning of the word, makes saying gemächlich feel not unlike sitting on a hard church pew — for all of Lent.

Mahler, not exactly a "comfortable" kind of guy, also used gemächlich quite a bit in the expression indications for his scores, which could explain everything.

7. a cappella

If you’ve listened to the Pentatonix (come on, I know you have), you’ve heard an a cappella group – an ensemble of singers with no accompanying instruments.

The term "a cappella," meaning "in the manner of the chapel," comes from the world of European church music, where the tradition of unaccompanied worship singing extends back to at least the early Middle Ages.

8. ostinato

We all know that people can be obstinate, or stubborn, but music can be, too. An "ostinato" is a tune, rhythm, phrase or, simply put, lick that repeats stubbornly and unrelentingly.

While being a stubborn person isn’t exactly a good thing, being a musical ostinato can serve a useful purpose to unify a musical work and to give the ear something to hold onto. A tried-and-true type of ostinato is the ground bass, a brief pattern of notes that repeats in the lowest voice of the texture.

The one in Monteverdi’s Zefiro torna is a snappy one, especially in this performance by the early music ensemble L’Arpeggiata:


9. da capo

If you were rehearsing a Broadway show and you heard the director say, "OK, everyone, from the top," you’d go to your mark, plaster on a smile and await your cue.

The Italian term da capo means, literally, "from the head" – the top of the body. It’s an indication that composers put in their scores to tell the performer, who has played or sung through the first few sections of a piece, to go back to the beginning – to the "head" – of the piece and sing or play from there all over again.

The Baroque era saw the rise of a distinct style of opera aria now called the da capo aria, in which a vocalist sings through the first section of an aria, then progresses through the second section — which contrasts in mood from the first — then returns to the beginning of the aria to sing it "da capo," from the head.

Here’s countertenor Philippe Jaroussky in a beautiful performance of a da capo aria, "Ombra mai fu," the opening aria of Handel’s opera Serse:


10. sotto voce

You know those little remarks some people mutter under their breath? Supposedly toss-off lines that actually tend to have great ironic force? Well, they do that in opera, too. And in opera, as in real life, there’s a technique to it.

"Sotto voce" means, literally, "under the voice." When a vocalist sings sotto voce, he or she sings quietly yet very deliberately, to convey a point by way of understatement.

Beyond the world of opera, composers sometimes use the designation sotto voce in their scores of instrumental work, to tell the musicians to play a particular passage quietly, yet with clear conviction — advice so sage that it could serve as a guide for living life.

Jennifer Hambrick unites her extensive backgrounds in the arts and media and her deep roots in Columbus to bring inspiring music to central Ohio as Classical 101’s midday host. Jennifer performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago before earning a Ph.D. in musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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