Definitions

On this page, you will find the most common singing terms and their definitions. The list is not exhaustive by far, just a few words that pop up frequently on this site.

Dictionary

Alto  – the lowest female voice. Read more about voice classification and voice types.

Articulation – the way tongue, mouth, jaw, lips and soft palate and other articulators move to create speech or singing. Articulation in music refers to music notations that affect the way a note is played or sung. The most common articulation symbols are legato (notes are played or sung smoothly and connected) and staccato (notes are shortened).

Attack – the beginning of a sound. It can be hard (vocal cords slam together abruptly) or easy (vocal cords come together in a relaxed way)

Baritone – a male voice type between tenor and bass. Baritone is not always separated in choral singing. Read more about voice classification and voice types in this article.

Bass – the lowest male voice. Read more about voice classification and voice types in this article.

Bass clef – a musical symbol placed on one of the lines on the staff to indicate the pitch of the note on that line. Other notes are then read relatively to this note. The bass clef is placed on the fourth line of the staff. It is used for low pitched voices.bassclef

Beat – a unit of time, a pulse. A sequence of beats make up rhythm.

Bel Canto – means “beautiful singing” in Italian. It is a type of singing characterized by great agility, smoothness and purity of tone.

Belting – a style of singing that uses heavy tones throughout all the vocal ranges. This technique helps singers bring their natural chest register above their breaking point (passagio). It can be potentially damaging to vocal cords.

Blending – smooth transitions between voice registers, bridging one register to another.

Castrato – a male singer who was castrated before puberty in order to preserve his high (soprano) voice. This practice was common when women were not allowed to sing opera or in churches (400 years ago).

Choir – a group of singers performing together.

Chord – three or more notes played simultaneously. In a broken chord, the notes are played one at a time.

Chord progression – a series of chords played over a number of measures.

Chorus – a part of a song that is repeated. Chorus can also refer to a choir – a group of singers performing together.

Chromatic scale – a scale containing 12 notes – played on all white and all black keys within an octave.

chromatic scale

Ascending Chromatic Scale

Coda – an ending part of a song.

Common time – 4/4 time signature.

Crescendo – a term referring to gradual changes in volume in a piece of music. It means “gradually louder”.

Decrescendo – the opposite of crescendo. This dynamics term refers to “gradually softer”.

Diaphragm – is a large breathing muscle in our body. It separates the abdominal (belly) and chest cavities. It descends when contracted, which cause the air to flow into the lungs. It ascends when relaxed, which causes the air to be pushed out of the lungs. Read more articles about breathing: Breathing for Singing, How Do I sing from My Diaphragm? and Breathe In and Out.

Dynamics – refers to the relative volume in a piece of music. This term can be also used to describe any aspect of the execution of a piece of music, for example legato, staccato, fast, slow.

Falsetto – the highest voice register above a head voice that is characterized by a breathy and light quality. The vocal folds are very long, stiff and thin during falsetto. Only a small portion of vocal folds vibrate thus creating a high pitch sound. There is a slight gap between vocal folds during falsetto giving this type of voice a breathy quality.

Forte – a basic dynamic indication referring to volume. It means “loud”.

Fortissimo – a basic dynamic indication referring to volume. It means “very loud”.

Frequency – a measurement of a vibratory cycle. In singing, vocal cords create vibrations of certain frequencies. The faster the vibrations, the higher the pitch. An average female voice frequency is around 200 Hz. A male voice vibrates at lower frequencies – around 150 Hz.

Glottal fry – a low pitch sound, during which the vocal folds are relaxed and air pressure and airflow are very low

Half step – the smallest distance between two pitches. For example from C to C sharp, from E to F etc.

Harmony – a combination of musical notes producing chords or chord progressions, usually with a pleasing effect.

Head register – the high part of a vocal range, characterized by light and soft tones. Also called a head voice.

Interval – the distance between two pitches or notes.

Key signature – the incidentals (sharps or flats) placed at the beginning of a staff to indicate the key of a music.

Larynx – otherwise known as a voice box – is a body part that houses vocal folds. The larynx is found just above the upper end of the windpipe. The larynx plays a role in breathing and voice production. It also protects the windpipe from foreign objects. Learn more about the larynx and how voice is created in the larynx in this video.

Legato – a type of music notation indicating that notes should be played or sung smoothly and connected.

Measure – a group of beats.

Melody – a combination of notes played or sung in a sequence that is pleasing.

Meter – the organisation of beats.time note values

Mezzo forte –  a basic dynamic indication referring to volume. It means “medium loud”.

Mezzo piano –  a basic dynamic indication referring to volume. It means “medium soft”.

Mezzo soprano – a female voice type characterized by a lower range than a soprano. Read more about voice classification and voice types in this article.

Notation – the process of writing musical notes.

 

Note – a symbol representing the duration and pitch of a sound.

Octave – two pitches located 12 half-steps apart.

Otolaryngologist  – a medical specialist (physician) treating problems with ears, nose and throat.

Passaggio – a point where vocal quality changes from one register to another (for example from the chest to head register).

Perfect pitch – the ability to hear and name pitches without relating them to a source of tones.perfect and relative pitch

Pharynx – otherwise known as a throat – is divided into three parts. The bottom part, laryngopharynx, is located above the larynx, the oropharynx is located behind the mouth, and nasopharynx is the part that is located behind your nose.

Phonation – voice production. Read more about voice production in this article.

Phrase – a part of a song that has a musical sense of its own. It’s a group of notes that makes up a melody.

Pianissimo – a basic dynamic indication referring to volume. It means “very soft”.

Piano – a basic dynamic indication referring to volume. It means “soft”.

Pitch – a frequency of a tone.

Placement – a vocal technique used to direct voice to different body parts (for example palate, front teeth, behind eyes). Read more about vocal placement.

Range – the distance between the lowest and highest tones of one’s voice. It can also refer to the span of tones in a song.

Register – a group of tones that are produced in a similar way resulting in a similar vocal quality. We recognize chest register, head register etc.

Relative pitch – the ability to identify relationships between notes, the ability to name a pitch by relating it to the sound source.

Resonance – the process of enhancing a basic sound resulting in higher intensity and a better voice quality. Read more about resonators in this article.

Rhythm – the organisation of sounds in time, the organisation of beats in songs.

SATB – stands for soprano, alto, tenor and bass. Read more about voice classification and voice types in this article.

Scale – a sequence of pitches. There are ascending scales (pitches going up) and descending scales (pitches going down).

Solfeggio – or solfege is a set of solfa syllables representing notes in a scale (Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti). Made famous in a song “Do,Re,Mi” from the musical “The Sound of Music”.

Song form – a structure of a song.

Soprano – the highest female voice. Read more about voice classification and voice types in this article.

Speech and language pathology – the study of communication and swallowing disorders. A speech and language pathologist is a specialist in speech, language, voice and swallowing disorders.

Staff – a set of horizontal lines and spaces representing different pitches.

staff

Syncopation – an accent on an unexpected beat or the lack of an accent where you would expect it.

Tempo – the speed at which beats are played or sung in a song.

Tenor – the highest male voice. Read more about voice classification and voice types in this article.

Tessitura – the most comfortable vocal range of a singer – a range of notes that is comfortable to sing. The tessitura of a song is an area of a song where most notes lie.

Throat – refers to both the pharynx and the larynx – it is a muscular tube that functions as an entryway for air, food and liquid. The throat is found behind the nose and mouth.

Timbre – voice colour, tonal quality or tone of voice described as bright, dark, strident, metallic, ringing or shrill.

Time signature – a symbol consisting of two numbers indicating the meter of a song. The top number indicates the number of beats in a measure. The bottom number indicates the type of notes receiving one beat.

timesignature

Tonic – the first note of a scale (so called “Do” in Solfeggio).

Treble clef – a musical symbol placed on one of the lines on the staff to indicate the pitch of the note on that line. Other notes are then read relatively to this note. The treble clef is placed on the second line of the staff. It is used for high pitched voices.TrebleClef

Unison – voices singing the same pitch.

Vibrato – small variations in pitch during singing used to produce a stronger or richer sound.

Vocal nodules – thickenings or a mass of tissue on vocal cords due to vocal misuse or trauma.

Voice – can have many meanings but let’s say that it is a sound produced in the larynx, amplified and articulated in the vocal tract.

Voice box –  otherwise known as a larynx – is a body part that houses vocal folds. See the term larynx for definition. Read more about the voice box (larynx) and how voice works in this article.

Vowel – a speech sound that is characterized by an open structure and vocal fold vibration.

Vowel modification – a technique when the usual pronunciation is modified to achieve better resonance.

Whole step – an interval consisting of two half steps. For example from C to D, or from E to F sharp, etc.