Musical Definitions for Classical Guitarists (Common Words Explained)
Words are only helpful if we know what they mean. And the world of music has a TON of specialized words with specific meanings.
The more musical terms and phrases we know, the more detail we can hear and see in music. Specialized words communicate small differences and nuance.
But until we know, we don’t. And some musical terms are thrown around so much that their meaning can become vague or fuzzy. So here are some common musical words that trip some people up. Enjoy!
Musical Definitions for 15 Common Guitar Words
What is a Chord?
A chord is more than one note played at the same time. Usually, chords have 3 or more notes.
On guitar, we have a collection of basic chords (I like to call them “cowboy chords”) that use the open strings. These common chords form the framework for most music on guitar (in any style: classical, rock, or any other).
What is a Musical Scale?
A musical scale is a collection of notes, arranged from low to high or vice versa.
We can take any group of notes and call them a scale. Though most common in Western music is the Major Scale. (Do – Re – Mi – La – Sol – La – Ti – Do).
Composers (and/or improvisors) use the notes in a scale to create melodies and chords (harmony).
In classical guitar, we practice playing scales to master the art of connecting notes smoothly, and to build speed and accuracy.
What Does it Mean to Strum?
On guitar, to strum move a right hand finger over the strings.
When we strum quickly through the strings, it sounds like all the strings play at the same time. When we strum slowly through the strings, we may hear each note separately.
Some styles, such as flamenco, have specialized strumming techniques that create distinct effects.
What is an Arpeggio?
The word “arpeggio” has two definitions. The general musical definition is “a broken chord”. Or to put it another way, to play the notes of a chord one at a time, instead of all at once. (The slow strum mentioned above could be considered an arpeggio in this way.)
The guitar definition is slightly different, though it includes the general definition.
On guitar, we use the right hand fingers to play to play the strings individually, in any given order.
So the left hand holds a chord, and the right hand uses multiple fingers to play the notes of the chord in the composer’s suggested order.
Arpeggios make up about 80% of what we do on classical guitar. So we pay close attention to the methods whereby we play them.
What are Dynamics?
Dynamics are the louds and softs, and the swells and fades in music. In other words, “dynamics” is the musical term for “volume”.
Composers may suggest dynamics, either note by note, or an overall dynamic for a section or piece of music.
Dynamics are one the main tools we can use to make music more interesting and expressive.
What is Tempo in Music?
Tempo is the musical term for speed.
Usually, an entire piece will be in one tempo (or speed). Though composers may suggest different tempos for different sections.
When we find ourselves tapping a foot along to a piece of music, we are tapping “in tempo”, or in the speed of the tune.
While performers may slow down or speed up in a piece of music, they usually return to the original tempo.
What is Rhythm?
The word “rhythm” refers to where a sound exists in time. A rhythm can be a consistent pattern (like a steady heartbeat), or can be irregular (like the sound of a chicken pecking at the dirt).
In music, rhythm is written using special notation that denotes when to play each note in relation to the others around it.
Whereas “tempo” is the overall pulse (to which you’d tap your foot), rhythm pertains to how individual notes arrive within that pulse (tempo).
What is Musical Pitch?
Pitch is the relative highness or lowness of note. For guitar purposes, each fret of each string has a particular pitch.
On guitar, our lowest pitch is the low E string, and our highest the highest fret of the high E string (usually “B” on the 19th fret).
In scientific terms, higher pitches have higher (more soundwaves hit your eardrum per second) frequencies, measured in Hertz. Lower pitches have lower (fewer soundwaves hit your eardrum per second) frequencies.
We use musical notation (dots on the page) to communicate which pitch is called for.
What is Classical Guitar “Tone”?
On guitar, the word “tone” is usually used to describe the sound quality of a note.
Depending on how and where we strike a string, we can alter the tone.
We often use descriptive words when talking about tone, such as:
Most electric guitar have a tone knob with which players can adjust the sound. On classical guitar, we do it all with our fingers.
Each note we play is actually a combination of the main (fundamental) note, and many “overtones” (other notes). The particular mix of overtones determines the overall tone quality.
What is Timbre?
Timbre (usually pronounced “TAM-bor”), is the distinct sound of an instrument (or person, or anything).
A guitar sounds different than a saxophone, even though they may play the same pitch in the same rhythm at the same volume. Likewise, we can recognize individuals by voice. This is because of the differences in timbre.
Individual guitars have slightly different timbres as well, which may attract us more or less than others.
What is Classical Guitar Technique?
Classical guitar “Technique” refers to how we use our hands to play music.
Each note we play demands that we use the left hand and/or right hand to create the sound. Our technique determines how exactly we do that.
The better our technique, the faster, more fluidly, and more easily we can play. Therefore, part of any serious study of classical guitar involves regular attention to the various elements of technique.
Some of these elements for classical guitar technique are:
- How we sit.
- How we hold the guitar.
- How we position our hands.
- How we move our fingers.
- How we connect one movement to the next.
- How we create desired sounds (tone quality)
- How we use our muscles and physiology.
The operative word in the list above is “how”. Guitar technique is how we play.
What is a Musical “Piece”?
In classical guitar, the word “piece” refers to a complete composed musical work.
Synonyms include: tune, song, composition, ditty, work, selection
What Does the Word “Practice” Mean?
Practice is the act of deliberate improvement. Playing, in contrast, has a focus on the enjoyment or act of performing.
When we practice, we actively solve problems, build skills, and train our muscles.
Much of learning to play the guitar is learning how to practice.
What does “Repertoire” mean?
The word “repertoire” refers to the pieces we know and can play.
Repertoire is to pieces as wardrobe is to clothes. It’s our list of current options.
As we learn pieces (at any level), we can maintain them and build a repertoire.
What is a Musical “Score”?
“Score” is a another word for the sheet music. It’s the written (notated) form of the music. It’s how music exists as a written communication.
For loads of free scores for guitar, see the International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP.org).
What is a Guitar Fret?
A guitar fret is the metal bar that crosses the neck of the guitar. Guitar frets stop the strings at a specific place so they sound specific notes. Guitar frets are often made of a nickel alloy and come in different thicknesses.
To play a note on the guitar, press a finger just behind a fret. This stops the string at the fret while using the least finger pressure.
Guitar frets are numbered, starting from the closest fret to the tuning keys (furthest from the soundhole). When the strings ring with no fingers on the neck, it is says to be “open.” Then the frets are numbered 1,2,3, etc. from there.
Hi, I’m Allen Mathews.
I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
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