Thoughts on composing, teaching and performing music, by Fergus Black


Vocabulary for talking about music

ABRSM Aural Tests assess students' listening skills by requiring discussion of a piece of music which is played to the student on the piano. In my experience, students are sometimes disadvantaged by a lack of vocabulary in discussing the music.

The title of this section in exams is "Musical Features". And while no respectable teacher teaches solely to an exam syllabus, it is a good peg on which to hang an exploration of these performance terms.

Basic musical vocabulary

Younger students will likely know piano, forte, staccato and legato, or their English equivalents. The very beginner may well confuse the terms, saying a word when they mean the opposite, and mistaking high for loud and low for quiet.

Besides, forte and piano are blunt instruments, that are improved with qualifiers:, with the mezzo prefix and the -issimo suffix, as well as subito (suddenly), and gradually (crescendo and diminuendo).

A Taxonomy of the Elements of Music

What students may also lack is a taxonomy - that is the general heading (e.g. dynamics) that forte and piano come under. So they might answer the question "Does the music get quieter at the end" with the answer, "It slows down towards the end".

Also, students often need practice in pronouncing the terms, most of which are in Italian. (N.B. In Grades 1-3 of Associated Board, English only is used, not Italian. “Is this music smooth or detached?” would be what they would ask, not “Is this music legato or staccato?”). Try this test: show the student the word "Adagio", and ask them to say it. Nine out of ten, in my experience, will give it a hard "G".

In the higher grade exams, although students can be right in suggesting a provenance for music, I find that most of them need practice in providing reasons for their answers. They need to 'show the working'. That means discussing the elements of music, for which this vocabulary provides a good foundation.


Here are three separate sheets for ABRSM Grades 1 to 5, introducing a vocabulary of musical terms, step by step.

Listening to Music with Understanding - 1 - ABRSM Grades 1 to 3

Listening to Music with Understanding - 2 - ABRSM Grade 4

Listening to Music with Understanding - 3 - ABRSM Grade 5

I have also posted these links to the downloads on the resources page for aural training of my teaching web site. There is a 4th page on that site, dealing with Rhythmic Forms (Dance Music to you and me).



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