De-mystifying a Concert Program

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Most concert programs provide interesting reading and information regarding both the composer and the music to be played. But many people, who are not versed in the language of music, open a concert program and are often at a loss to understand some of the words, terminology and phrases they encounter.

The idea for this subject came from a good friend and former colleague, W. Richard Smithousen, a biologist. After going to a Danville Community Band concert he told me he had no idea what some of the words meant and was confused by the terminology. He asked me to clear up and explain some of the mysterious words and phrases in the program.      I can appreciate his confusion and frustration. Many people don’t know some of the commonly used musical jargon found in almost all concert programs.The main part of a program is in English but Italian is the language usually used for musical directions in the vast majority of music compositions. So if one does not understand the Italian language, many musical terms are quite a mystery. Italian is the universal music language but this is not the case in 100 percent of music written throughout the world. The directions for playing, singing or conducting are usually in Italian. This may also be true in music written in other countries by composers who speak other languages.

Some of the words and phrases are categorized according to their function and meaning. Many words denote names of movements that make up the composition, others are directions for volume, tempo, and style of playing.

There are literally thousands of words that could be used to describe some aspects of musical expression. Space does not permit but a few of the most common words and expressions found in music literature. Some of the words and phrases used in music are:


Volume or dynamics, indicates loudness or softness

            Pianissimo pp – very soft

            Piano p – soft

            Mezzo piano mp – medium soft

            Mezzo forte  mf – medium loud

            Forte f – loud

            Fortissimo  ff – very loud


Tempo or speed of a composition

            Allegro – fast, happy, quick

            Allegro con brio – played in a brilliant style

            Allegro con fuoco – played with fire and extreme animation

            Allegro con spirito – performed with spirit

            Allegro ma non troppo – allegro but not too rapid

            Allegretto – slightly slower than allegro

            Andante – a moderate or walking tempo

            Andantino – slightly faster than andante

            Moderato – a moderate tempo

            Vivace – quite fast, lively, quick

            Presto – very fast

            Presto assai – as fast as possible

            Adagio – slow

            Largo – very slow and broad

            Lento – slow

            Grave – very, very slow

Terms used to alter tempo markings:

            Accelerando – becoming gradually faster

            Stringendo – quickening the tempo

            Ritardando – gradually slowing the tempo

            Rallentando – slowing the tempo

            Meno mosso – less movement

            L’istesso tempo – the same rate of speed

            Maestoso – majestically

            Dolce – sweetly

            Grandioso – grandly

            Pesante – slowly, heavily

            Con moto – with motion

            Agitato – agitated

Program Makeup

The components of a concert program vary according to the ensemble, either band, orchestra or choral and what each ensemble deems important and appropriate to mention.

I’m proud to say that the programs of the Danville Community Band (DCB) are very complete in content and scope. When we take sample programs to national conventions they are called exemplary and are quickly sought after.

Our printed programs begin with greetings from the conductor and a list of dates for all upcoming concerts and events. Then the musical selections to be performed and a brief history of the founding of the band follows. Biographies of the conductors and featured guest artists (if performing) are next, then a list of the musicians name, profession and the instrument they play. Corporate and individual contributions of financial donations follow. Also included are

acknowledgments of individuals who help the band in many ways, including the Board of Directors of DCB. Photos of band members are featured throughout the written program.

Program Notes

This section is where you will find some words and phrases that you may not now. These are common words to describe something that is inherent in the music being performed.

            Acappella – unaccompanied

            Bel canto – beautiful singing, associated with Italian opera

            Chorale –         a hymn tune (or a choral group)

            Coda – means tail, a section at the end of a piece

            Concerto – a composition for one or more solo voices and orchestra or band

            Consort – a small instrumental ensemble

            Counterpoint – two or more melodic lines played together

            da capo – go back to the beginning

            da capo al fine – go back to the beginning and play to the end or fine

            Diatonic – major and minor scales

            Etude – French for study

            Legato – play smoothly without separate attacks

            Leitmotif – a recurring theme

            Libretto – text of opera, oratorio or musical

            Minuet – a country dance in triple time

            Monophony – a single line of melody, no harmony

            Ornaments – a little quick note, a trill, grace note or turn

            Opus – a number assigned to the works of a composer

            Overture – an introduction to a musical work

            Polyphony – two or more independent lines combined

            Sotto voce – Soft or low voice

            Staccato – detached, each note short

            Syncopation – accent on the weak part of the beat

            Secco – dry or simple

            Segue – without a break

            Sonata – multi-movement composition for solo instrument

            Sordino – mute

            Subito – suddenly or immediately

            Tacet – be quiet, do not play or sing

            Tessitura – range of a part

            Tutti – all

            Timbre – tone quality or color

            Unison – two or more playing the same note

            Vibrato – a wobble or fluctuation of pitch

There you have it. A thumbnail sketch on how to read and interpret the words and phrases in a concert program.

Many thanks to the very fine members of DCB who produce our programs before each event. George March, DCB’s business manager, who does the leg work and writes the copy for each issue, Jim Ketsdever, of Sara Waters Design Group, who designs the graphics and does the layout and Steve Tom, of Printing by Coast Litho for printing our beautiful programs. These dedicated folks do a superior job, getting the word out to our audience and making us look good.

Hopefully, I have dismissed some of the mystery in understanding what is offered in a program.

Happy concert going.

Submit your questions and comments to Visit our website at for up-to-date information about the Danville Community Band.

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