Music Lingo

Whenever you venture into a new area in life, it’s filled with phrases and words that are unfamiliar. There are many resources to learn the terms and symbols printed on sheet music, but not nearly as many resources for learning common phrases that surround the world of classical music. For parents or new students who don’t have any prior experience, not knowing the jargon can be intimidating. Here are definitions of some frequently used terms.




Lesson: a weekly meeting between a teacher and a student, where the student plays for the teacher and receives feedback. This is also called a private lesson, and in terms of learning, you would find it more similar to a one-on-one tutoring session than taking a class with other students. There is a strong tradition of classical music students taking private lessons as their primary form of instruction.

"Oh no, I just realized that I have a lesson tomorrow and I haven't practiced the Debussy at all..."

"Have you ever gone to a lesson and tried to pretend that you practiced a piece when you actually didn't? I have. Also, just a fyi, teachers catch on to this immediately and it depressing them."


Group Lesson: a small group of students studying regularly with the same teacher at the same time on the same instrument, but not intending to perform as a group. Although not nearly as common as private lessons, you might try group lessons as an introduction to an instrument, with the idea that if you want to continue, you will eventually switch to private lessons.

"Group lessons are great except that I keep knocking my pencil off my stand. It's getting really embarrassing."


Coaching: a weekly session between a teacher and a group of musicians who perform as a group, such as a woodwind quintet. Coachings take place in addition to, rather than as a replacement of, private lessons. This is a chance to focus on the group instead of the individual, so the teacher might address selection of new music, how the group is interacting musically, and so on.

"This guy in my trio keeps forgetting to bring his music to our coachings."
"Have you ever been in a chamber duo with your best friend and kept intending to practice for your coachings, but instead just kept talking the entire time?


Studio: 1. the physical place in which lessons take place. You might take lessons in a fancy studio, with diplomas and concert posters on the walls, or you might find yourself in your teacher’s suburban basement.

2. a collective group of students who are all studying with the same teacher, but each have their own private lesson. A teacher might say, “Wow, I really have a big studio this year!” meaning that they have a lot of students. Or you might say to a violinist that you just met, “Oh, you study with Mrs. M too? We’re in the same studio!”


Studio Class: individual performances by students who all study with the same teacher, performing for each other and for this teacher. Usually the teacher and students will offer feedback on each performance throughout the session. Studio classes are particularly common for students majoring in music or studying at a conservatory. Although studio classes are more similar to a performance than a class, they are not typically open to the public.


Masterclass: a hybrid of a performance and a lesson. Generally a masterclass is offered by a well-known teacher, maybe one who is traveling through the area or perhaps as part of a music festival, giving you the chance to play for someone other than your regular private teacher. Each student first performs their piece and then receives comments and criticism from the teacher, just as you would in a private lesson. All of this is done in front of an audience, so the audience watches the student perform, then listens to the teacher’s critique, and then observes the student as they apply the teacher’s suggestions to various passages. Frequently the audience is made up of other students, or people who are looking to gain insights from the teacher even though they aren’t performing themselves.

Practicing and Rehearsing


Practice: time when you as an individual are alone with your instrument. You might be learning new music, working on skills, diving into exercises and so forth. Practicing is not done in groups and is basic and necessary to all musical pursuits.

"After I practice, I like to reward myself with chocolate ice cream, which is great for my practicing, but could get dangerous."

Rehearsal: when a group of musicians prepare music together, generally in preparation to performing the music together. Usually in this context, you have already practiced the music by yourself and now you’re focusing on putting it together with everyone else. Rehearsals can be somewhat informal, such as a group of four musicians getting together to rehearse brass quartets at a mutually agreed-upon time. They can also be highly scheduled for professional musicians. If an organization is putting together a large-scale performance involving many musicians, the rehearsal schedule is set months in advance and all participating musicians must be at every rehearsal, no exceptions.

"I'm totally going to wear my new cute jeans to rehearsal tomorrow in case there are any cute guys."


Open Rehearsal: a rehearsal to which an audience is invited, sometimes in the interest of allowing patrons or supporters to see behind the scenes of an organization. This might be a bit more formal than a typical rehearsal. An open rehearsal is usually announced in advance so that the performers are not surprised.

Dress Rehearsal: the final rehearsal before a performance. For a theatrical production, such as an opera, all of the singers need to be in costume. For instrumental musicians, such as an orchestra, this does not mean that you have to wear formal clothing, but simply that this is your last rehearsal before the performance. Sometimes a dress rehearsal involves doing a straight run-through of the performance, but not always.


Sectional: a rehearsal when everyone is split into groups according to instruments. All of the cellos might be rehearsing in one room, and then there could be a viola sectional in a separate room. You could also divide into larger groups, such as a woodwind or brass sectional, rather than flute or trumpet sectional. This type of rehearsal is a time to work on small details or particularly tricky passages.


Reading Session: a rehearsal that is not followed by a scheduled performance. An orchestra might have reading sessions as part of their regular schedule, frequently with new compositions that were just written. Or you might get together with a group of friends to try out some new music just for fun.



Venue: the place in which a performance takes place. This could be all kinds of places, including a fancy concert hall, a local club, an outdoor bandstand, or a high school auditorium.
"I've been on way too many freight elevators in venues. Some of them are quite scary."


Performance: a catch-all term referring to any kind of presentation of a concert, recital, or other event.


Concert: a performance with more than one musician performing together, such as a band concert or a percussion ensemble concert. This could either be a professional or an amateur event. Concert and recital are frequently used interchangeably, but do have some subtle differences. See below for recital.


Recital: a performance with just one performer playing alone, or a succession of performers playing alone one after another. You might attend a student piano recital where each student plays a solo. You could also attend a professional recital, if say, world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma came to town and presented a solo cello recital.


Gig: any kind of paid performance or event. You might ask a musician friend to go to the movies with you on Saturday night and they might respond, “I can’t. I have a gig.” Sometimes they also specify the kind of gig, such as a wedding gig, a church gig, or an orchestra gig. The term gig is used in all styles of music, including rock, pop, jazz, and classical.


Call Time: the time you must arrive for a performance. You might be told that the performance is at 8:00 p.m. and there is a call time of 7:30 p.m. This means that you must be at the venue by 7:30 p.m.


Start Time: the time when the performance begins. If the start time is 3:00 p.m., then you must be completely ready to play at 3:00 p.m. You must be in place with your instrument ready to go and your music open in front of you by the start time, not just arriving at the venue.


Concert Order: the order of music for a performance. If the conductor announces that a program will be rehearsed in concert order, this means that you are going to play everything in the same order as you would for the actual performance. Sometimes they might also announce reverse concert order, which is exactly what it sounds like, starting with the last piece and working backwards.


Audition: the musical equivalent of a job interview, where the musician plays for a judge or panel of judges. Auditions might be required for a competition, for admission into a musical group, for admittance into a music school, and so on. Sometimes auditions are live. Sometimes they are audio or video recorded and then sent to the judges. Auditions can be extremely formal and played behind a screen with each musician referred to only by number for the sake of anonymity. Auditions can also be relaxed and similar to a lesson in format.


Audition List: a list of music by title and composer of each piece that must be performed for an audition. Sometimes auditions require all musicians to play the same music. Sometimes auditions might only require one or two specific pieces, or be completely open to free choice in music.


Recording Session: a scheduled time to record. Just like a rehearsal or performance, set times are established and you must be ready to play by the start time.


Concert Dress: performance clothes. For a performance involving a small number of musicians, what to wear might be decided by those performing. For a larger organization, guidelines are typically provided. Choirs frequently have female members buy the same dress so that everyone matches. For many orchestras, women wear all black clothing and men wear a black tux or suit. Especially in professional organizations, guidelines might be highly specific, designating tails or no tails on tuxes, and designating sleeve lengths or even the type of stockings acceptable for women.

Various Groups


Ensemble: a generic term for any group of musicians playing together. Orchestras and choirs are both examples of large ensembles. You could also have a small ensemble of only three or four musicians.


Choir, Chorus, or Chorale: a group of singers who perform together, usually under the direction of a conductor.


Mixed Choir: a choir of both male and female singers.


SATB Choir: an abbreviation for soprano, alto, tenor, and bass choir. Soprano and alto are both female voices (high and low) and tenor and bass are male voices (high and low), so an SATB choir is automatically a mixed choir. This is a standard form for a choir.


Concert Band or Wind Ensemble: a group of musicians led by a conductor and consisting of woodwind, brass, and percussion instruments. Generally string instruments are not found in bands.


Orchestra, Full Orchestra, Symphony Orchestra, Philharmonic Orchestra: a group of musicians that cover all of the different families of instruments in classical music, including strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion. An orchestra is led by a conductor.


String Orchestra: a group of only string instruments, still led by a conductor. Sometimes there might be a piece on a full orchestra concert that is written for strings only, such as Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Many elementary schools have a string orchestra and a band, but no full orchestra with string and wind instruments combined.


Chamber Music: a small group of musicians, around two to eight players, who perform as a group without a conductor. Performing without a conductor requires musicians to be more responsible for their parts and for the group to take turns leading various sections. Piano trios, string quartets, woodwind quartets, and brass quintets are all examples of standard chamber music groups. There are variations on these groups and other types of groups as well.

Types of Music


Repertoire: music that you’re playing or have played. This is frequently abbreviated as “rep.” You could say, “'Clair de Lune,' what a beautiful piece, but it’s not in my repertoire,” meaning that you haven’t played it. Or you might ask, “What rep are you working on?” This would be an inquiry into what pieces the person is playing right now.


Song: music that has words, that is sung, such as "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." It is extremely common for people to use song when they actually mean piece. See below.


Piece: music that has no words. An instrumentalist, such as a cellist, plays a piece of music, not a song. For example, you might ask your child, “Did you get a new a piece in your lesson today now that you’ve finished the Bach Cello Suite 1?”


Tune: any sort of piece or song. This is a broad term. “Let’s get together and play some tunes!”


Cadenza: a short solo passage during an ensemble piece. Cadenzas are frequently technically demanding and sometimes quite flashy. During a performance, all of the other musicians stop playing and the conductor stops conducting, in order to give the performer artistic freedom to shape the cadenza however they choose. Also, cadenzas are frequently part of audition repertoire, so you might study one with your private teacher even if you’re not playing the piece in your orchestra.


Concerto: a piece featuring a solo instrument plus orchestra. If you were to see someone perform Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto no. 2, the pianist would be at the front of the stage playing a prominent and impressive part, backed up by the orchestra. A concerto is a chance for a particular instrument or a particularly amazing performer to show off. Sometimes organizations have concerto competitions, where the prize is a chance to perform a concerto with an orchestra.


Aria: a song that features a singer or singers. Operas are full of arias and they’re an opportunity for the leads of the show to dazzle the audience with their virtuosity and musicality. Also, rather than a full opera, you could attend a recital of arias, which showcases highlights from a variety of operas.



I vividly remember my first semi-professional orchestra dress rehearsal when I was in high school. I had no idea whether it was the same as a theater dress rehersal and I needed to wear fancy clothes. My mom and I debated for quite some time, but in the end there was nothing for it: I asked the conductor, who was quite nice about it but seemed to find it amusing all the same. (Short answer: no. See above for more details.) Even though it might be just a small detail, sometimes this kind of information is really useful. I hope these explanations make life a bit easier!

© 2015 Jacqueline Pollauf. All rights reserved.