The Dictionary Definition: An ornamental note falling on the beat, that is, one that replaces the main note at the moment of its attack, then resolves to the pitch of that note.

What That Means: A kind of ornament that adds interest to a melody by starting on a note different from the one you actually intend to use and then moving quickly to the "real" note.


Ex:  Within the "Ascot Gavotte" from My Fair Lady, the words "absolutely " and "moment" in the lyrics "What a gripping, absolutely ripping moment at the Ascot op'ning day" are ornamented with appogiaturas to give the impression of refinement. So while the chorus begins with a G on "absolutely" and "moment," the accompaniment begins with an A and moves quickly to the G. The A is an ornament.



The Dictionary Definition: A chord whose pitches are sounded successively, usually from lowest to highest, rather than simultaneously. 

What That Means: A chord is a set of three or more pitches that are played at the same time.  When the chord is played as an arpeggio, the notes are played one after the other.  Arpeggios are often used in the accompaniment of musical theatre pieces. 

Ex:  The shimmery accompaniment underneath the "wheels are turning for us, girl" section of "Wheels of a Dream"



The Dictionary Definition: In performance, the characteristics of attack and decay of single tones or groups of tones and the means by which these characteristics are produced. 

What That Means: The particular way in which you play or sing a note. One kind of articulation is a staccato marking which indicates that a note should be brief, light, and percussive. 

Ex:  In the "Ascot Gavotte" the My Fair Lady ensemble sings with very particular

attention to articulation. The use of staccato accents is particularly effective.



The Dictionary Definition: An improvised or written-out ornamental passage performed by the soloist, usually over the penultimate or antepenultimate note or harmony of a prominent cadence.

What That Means: A chance of the soloist to show off a bit, usually right at the end of a big solo piece.

Ex:  Christine's elaborate vocalizing between the words "you will think" and "of me"

at the end of "Think of Me" in Phantom of the Opera



The Dictionary Definition: Imitation of a complete subject by one or more voices at fixed intervals of pitch and time.

What That Means: One voice establishes a melody.  Other voices join in with the same tune, but instead of singing together, the voices all overlap.

Ex:  Guys and Dolls' Nicely-Nicely Johnson, Benny Southstreet, and Rusty Charlie's overlapping trio

in "Fugue for Tinhorns."  I got the horse right here...



The Dictionary Definition: The use of at least some pitches of the chromatic scale in addition to or instead of those of the diatonic scale of some particular key.

What That Means: Instead of using the diatonic scale (do, re mi, fa, sol, la, ti), the composer makes use of the extra, sometimes funky sounding notes.

Ex: The opening notes of Phantom of the Opera (that really recognizable organ part) are highly chromatic.  

All those notes outside the diatonic scale give it a more sinister sound.



The Dictionary Definition: The perceived stability or instability of a complex of two or more sounds.  In Western tonal music, consonant intervals (pairs of pitches) are those that are treated as stable and not requiring resolution.  Dissonant intervals are those regarded as having an instability that requires resolution to a consonance.

What That Means: Even if you know nothing about music theory, you can probably tell when a note doesn't quite sound right.  If it sounds as though it's not quite finished and needs to move somewhere else, then this note or chord or interval is dissonant. If it sounds pretty, it's probably consonant.

Ex:  The first two notes of "Maria" are comprised of an interval we consider to be dissonant (an augmented fourth).  

The phrase doesn't seem complete until it resolves to the fifth on the third syllable, the 'a' of 'Maria.'



The Dictionary Definition: In a piece whose texture consists clearly of a melody with accompaniment, an accompanying part with distinct, though subordinate, melodic interest.

What That Means: A secondary melody that can be played against the main tune. 

Ex:  Millie's countermelody ("Poor, not me!") against Dorothy's melody

in "How the Other Half Lives" from Thoroughly Modern Millie.



The Dictionary Definition: Increasing and decreasing loudness.

What That Means: You get the idea.



The Dictionary Definition: (1) A scale with seven different pitches (heptatonic) that are adjacent to one another on the circle of fifths; thus one in which each letter name represents only a single pitch and which is made up of whole tones and semitones arranged in the pattern embodied in the white keys of the piano keyboard; hence, any major or pure minor scale, as distinct from the chromatic scale, which employs only semitones. (2) Melody or harmony that employs primarily the pitches of the diatonic scale.

What That Means: The standard scale (as taught by Maria Von Trapp: Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Ti-Do).  A melody that is diatonic uses only these notes and no others. 

Ex:  Doe, a deer, a female deer...



The Dictionary Definition: The symbol 𝄐, placed over a note or rest to indicate that it is to be prolonged beyond its normal duration (usually with a suspension of the regular metrical pulse).

What That Means: A symbol that indicates a lengthened note, causing a disruption to the rhythm of the piece.



The Dictionary Definition: The shape of a musical composition as defined by all of its pitches, rhythms, dynamics, and timbres. 

What That Means: The general shape of a piece of music. Common musical forms in theatre include verse and refrain or AABA

Ex:  "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'" has a verse and refrain form.

"Edelweiss" follows an AABA form where the stanza beginning with "blossom of snow"

acts as the B section and the three A sections have nearly identical melodies.



The Dictionary Definition: A continuous or sliding movement from one pitch to another.

What That Means: A continuous or sliding movement from pitch to another...

Ex: Sarah Brown uses glissandos in Guys and Dolls to slide from note to note

in "If I Were a Bell." 


The Dictionary Definition: The relationship between two pitches.  For purposes of Western tonal music, intervals are named according to (1) the number of diatonic scale degrees included, as represented in the letter names of the two pitches, and (2) the number of semitones (the smallest interval in the Western system) between the two pitches.   

What That Means: The distance between two notes: some options include minor second, major second, minor third major third, perfect fourth, etc.

Ex:  Every song has intervals because every song has notes, but some are more distinctive than others,  like the minor 7th

between the first two notes of "Somewhere" (as in "There's a") or the major second wish motive ("I wish") in Into the Woods.



The Dictionary Definition: The inversion of a melody is a melody whose contour is the mirror image of the original melody.  Thus where the original melody rises, the inversion falls and vice versa.

What That Means:  Essentially playing the original melody upside down.  If the notes of the original move up, down, down, the inversion will move down, up, up.

Ex:  The distinctive "Bean" melody in Into the Woods is played in inversion in "No One Is Alone"

as Cinderella  sings "people make mistakes."



The Dictionary Definition: In tonal music, the pitch relationships that establish a single pitch class as a tonal center or tonic (or key note), with respect to which the remaining pitches have subordinate functions.  There are two types or modes of keys, major and minor, and any of the twelve pitch classes can serve as a tonic.  The key of a work is defined in terms of the particular major or minor scale from which its principal pitches are drawn.

What That Means:  A key is basically the way we organize the notes in a piece of music. When you're listening to a piece of music, you can instinctively tell when you've come to the end of a phrase or a refrain because it just sounds complete.  This is because you have instinctively recognized the key's "tonic" - its home base, its center.  All the other notes have various degrees of importance in the key.  The way the key is organized can sound happy or sad depending on whether it is a major key or minor key (see Major/Minor Keys below).  And sometimes composers change keys throughout the song to make it more interesting (see Modulation).

Ex:  In South Pacific, "Cock-Eyed Optimist" is written in the key of G Major so a phrase like

"Immature and incurably green" doesn't sound like the phrase is quite finished because it ends on a D 

but the phrase "And I can't get it into my head" feels complete because it finishes on the note G- the key's tonic.


Key Signature

The Dictionary Definition: In tonal music, an arrangement of sharps or flats (or the absence of both) at the beginning of each staff that defines the principal pitches employed in the composition in question.  Each sharp or flat indicates, respectively, a raising or lowering by a semitone of all pitches (in whatever octave) with the letter name of the line or space on which it is placed. 

What That Means: The key signature is basically just the notation we use to indicate the key (see Key above).  If you're looking at a piece of music you might see a number of the flat (♭) or sharp (#) symbols on the left-hand side of the staff.  This is the key signature.

Ex:  "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" from My Fair Lady is written in the key of E♭ Major

so there are three flats (♭) in the Key Signature



The Dictionary Definition: Played smoothly with no separation between successive notes; the opposite of staccato.

What That Means: Something that is legato is played or sung as smoothly as possible.  Whereas a phrase that is staccato is disjointed and detached.

Ex:  A song like "Some Enchanted Evening" is intended to be sung more legato.


Major/Minor Keys

The Dictionary Definition: Guys, the dictionary definitions of major and minor keys are all about four pages long and throw around a lot of music buzzwords like "temperment" and "Ionian mode." Let's just skip to the simpler explanation.

What That Means: While there are lots of different scales or "modes" that we use in music, composers of pop and rock and musical theatre typically only use two basic types: major and minor.  In general, major keys have a "happier" sound while minor keys sound more "sad."  Obviously this is a a pretty simplistic explanation, but for the purposes of this blog, that's pretty much all you need to know.

Ex:  "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" is in a minor key (which contributes to that dark, brooding feel)

whereas Mrs. Lovett's more chipper solo "By the Sea" is in a major key.



The Dictionary Definition: The pattern in which a steady succession of rhythmic pulses is organized; also termed time.  One complete pattern or its equivalent in length is termed a measure or bar and in musical notation is enclosed between two bar lines.

What That Means: The meter is how we organize the rhythm of a piece of music. It is indicated by the Time Signature (see below).

Ex:  The meter of "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'"  is organized in beats of three.

We call this 3/4 time since there are 3 quarter note beats per measure.



The Dictionary Definition: In tonal music, the process of changing from one key to another, or the result of such change.

What That Means: The process of changing from one key to another.  This can give a piece some harmonic interest.  It's often used in musical theatre to make a moment more dramatic.  

Ex:  In "Wheels of a Dream" the key modulates from Gb major  to G major right after "own a car, raise a child, build a life with you"

and then from G major to C major at "Beyond that road." Modulations like these elevate the drama of the moment.



The Dictionary Definition: A short rhythmic and or melodic idea that is sufficiently well defined to retain its identity when elaborated or transformed and combined with other material and that thus lends itself to serving as the basic element from which a complex texture or even a whole composition is created.

What That Means: A short, distinctive musical phrase.  It has to be memorable enough that the motive itself can still be recognized even if the composer is messing with it and developing it.

Ex:  The Bean motive in Into the Woods is instantly recognizable even though various characters use it in different ways.  

The Witch's variation has a sharp rhythmic profile whereas Jack's variation is more legato.  But it still can be recognized as the Beans in either form.



The Dictionary Definition: An interval bounded by two pitches with the same pitch names and the higher of whose frequencies is twice the lower.

What That Means: In a scale (Do-Re-Me-Fa-Sol-La-Ti-Do), an octave is the distance between the first Do and the second Do.

Ex:  DO- re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-DO 



The Dictionary Definition: A short musical pattern that is repeated persistently throughout a performance or composition or a section of one.  

What That Means: A musical pattern the repeats underneath the melody of the piece.  This can be a rhythmic idea, a specific set of chords, or often a combination of both.  

Ex:  The steady rhythmic/chordal accompaniment underneath "Agony" in Into the Woods



The Dictionary Definition: A style of text setting that imitates and emphasizes the natural inflections, rhythms, and syntax of speech.  Such a setting avoids extremes of pitch and intensity and repetition of words, allowing the music to be primarily for the words.

What That Means: A style of music where the composer tries to set the text to music as naturally as possible in imitation of spoken speech.  It's most often used in opera or oratorio, but occasionally you'll find a passage that is recitative-like in musical theatre.

Ex:  The opening measures of "Oldest Established" from Guys and Dolls.

"The Biltmore garage wants a grand, but we ain't got a grand on hand..."



The Dictionary Definition: In performance, the practice of altering the relationship among written note-values and making the established pulse flexible by accelerating and slowing down the tempo; such flexibility has long been an expressive device.

What That Means: Speeding up and slowing down the tempo to allow for greater expression.

Ex:  The opening phrases of "Will He Like Me" in She Loves Me

"Will he like me when we meet? Will the shy and quiet girl he's going to see..."



The Dictionary Definition: A momentary contradiction of the prevailing meter or pulse. This may take the form of a temporary transformation of the fundamental character of the meter, e.g., from duple to triple or from 3/4 to 3/2, or it may be simply the contradiction of the regular succession of strong and weak beats within a measure or a group of measures.

What That Means: The rhythm of a piece of music is organized by the meter and this meter tells us how many beats there should be in each measure. Sometimes though, the composer briefly messes with the rhythm so that the measure takes on a different rhythmic character.  This is known as syncopation. Moreover, measures have strong beats and weak beats and another kind of syncopation can occur when a composer chooses to emphasize the weak ones.

Ex:  In South Pacific's  "Bloody Mary," the words often fall on the offbeats.  In the phrase, "Bloody Mary is the girl I love,"

the two syllables of "bloody" and the words "girl" and "I" all fall on offbeats (i.e. weak beats).



The Dictionary Definition: The speed at which music is performed, i.e., the rate per unit of time of metrical pulses in performance.

What That Means: The speed of a piece of music.

Ex:  In My Fair Lady, "On the Street Where You Live" moves at

a relatively slow tempo whereas "Show Me" has a very fast tempo.



The Dictionary Definition: Without internal repetitions, especially with respect to the setting of a strophic or other text that might imply the repetition of music for different words; thus, e.g., a song in which new music is composed for each stanza of the text.

What That Means: Whereas most musical theatre pieces have multiple verses and a repeating refrain, a piece that is through-composed does not repeat any of its music.  Each phrase is a new musical idea.  This is pretty unusual in musical theatre.

Ex:  "My Time of Day" from Guys and Dolls


Time Signature

The Dictionary Definition: The sign placed at the beginning of a composition to indicate its meter.  This most often takes the form of a fraction, but a few other signs with origins in the system of mensural notation and proportions are also employed (See Meter).

What That Means: The notation we use to indicate the meter of the piece. The time signature will tell you how many beats there are in each measure.

Ex:  "Climb Every Mountain" is in 4/4 time. The time signature indicating this

can be found at the beginning of the piece on the left-hand side of the staff.



The Dictionary Definition: The principal tone in a community of pitch classes, called a scale.

What That Means: When you're listening to a piece of music, you can instinctively tell when you've come to the end of a phrase or a refrain because it just sounds complete.  This is because you have instinctively recognized the key's "tonic" - its home base, its center.

Ex:  In South Pacific's "Cock-Eyed Optimist," a phrase like

"Immature and incurably green" doesn't sound quite finished whereas the phrase

"And I can't get it into my head" feels complete because it finishes on the key's tonic.



The Dictionary Definition: Three notes of equal value to be played in the time normally occupied by two notes of the same value, indicated by the figure 3, often with a slur, above or below the group.

What That Means: A type of rhythm where three beats are squeezed into a place where there should be only two.

Ex:  The words "getting to" in "Getting to Know You"

"Somehow you" in the phrase "and someone you know" from "Some Enchanted Evening"

Work Cited

The Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music and Musicians. edited by Don Michael Randel, Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard                              University Press, 1999.