ABA   Ternary structure   see form.

Appoggiatura    The leaning on one note, not part of the chord, thereby creating a momentary dissonance or discord. It will resolve usually, but not always, in a downward direction. The appoggiatura may be thought of as a suspension missing the first note of preparation. The effect is often doleful and sad, particularly in a minor context.

Arco     A return to the bowing of stringed instruments following plucking (pizzicato).

Aria    A term used in both opera and religious music; a movement for solo voice and instrumental accompaniment. Baroque arias might be accompanied by continuo only or with one or more additional instruments. The addition of one melodic instrument is called obbligato.

Arioso  A short aria; also often used to describe highly melodic vocal lines inserted into recitatives.

The playing of a theme in which the notes are longer than, usually double the length of, those of the original version. This technique is frequently found in the articulation of the chorale in opening choruses, particularly in the second cycle.

A cappell
a  A term usually applied to unaccompanied singing i.e. without instruments.


Baroque  In music a term which covers the period approximately 1600-1750. Bach, Handel, Domenico Scarlatti , Rameau and Vivaldi were the best known composers of the last fifty years, usually considered the period of culmination. The first century is associated with such names as Monteverdi, Purcell, Corelli and many more.

Bel canto  Literally beautiful song; lyrical with sweet tone.

Binary Form  see Form.

Buffa, buffo   as in opera buffo.  A term used to describe comic opera which may or may nor descend into farce. Bach often portrays Satan in such terms, thus diminishing his stature.


Cadence     See Phrase.  The cadence is the end of the phrase, a ‘pausing point’ in the music. A harmonic cadence consists of the last two chords of the phrase.  Cadences are categorized thus; cadences which convey a sense of completion e.g. perfect cadence (most common) and plagal (the 'amen' chords) and those which are incomplete suggesting that there is more to come e.g. imperfect (most common) and interrupted (where we anticipate a 'finishing' cadence but are surprised). Every movement ends with a cadence usually of finality but composers sometimes end on a chord which sounds ‘unfinished’.

Cadenza  usually a virtuosic passage, often in a concerto,  for a soloist.

Canon    A tune, such as 'Three Blind Mice' in which a second or third voice or instrument may begin the tune before the starting voice has finished. It is popularly known as a ‘round’. The composition of complex canons was expected of eighteenth century composers  (see, for example, JS Bach's Musical Offering and Art of Fugue).

Cantabile   In a singing style.

Cantata     A term the meaning of which has altered drastically over the years. We now tend to apply it to vocal works with instrumental accompaniment, usually combinations of choruses, arias and recitatives. Often used to describe religious works there are, however, many examples of secular cantatas written for the celebration of birthdays, weddings, funerals and civic events. Ironically, the word cantata was one which Bach seldom used to describe his compositions.

Cantus Firmus      literally a fixed tune.  Either a tune which is continually repeated or a predetermined melody such as that of the chorale.

Chaconne  see Passacaglia, Form.

Chorale   In general, the name applied to Protestant hymns. Luther (1483-1546) established the Lutheran hymn book himself, contributing some texts and music. By Bach’s time a considerable repertoire had been established with some tunes associated with particular events. The chorale was, for Bach and for other composers, an important stimulus and starting point for a wide range of forms. Chorale and ‘hymn’ are used as synonyms in these essays. Note the distinction between chorale and choral, the latter adjective referring to the vocal ensemble rather than the hymn melody.

Chorale Fantasia   A movement in which the chorale melody is sung, in long notes and usually by the sopranos, throughout a movement. It is supported by orchestra and choir and is the format used by Bach for the opening choruses of the first forty of the second cycle cantatas (see the introduction to volume 2).

Chorale Prelude   A composition based upon the chorale melody, usually played with the phrases separated and in long notes and encompassed by a texture of counterpoint. It was traditionally improvised by organists, although existing also in written form.

Chord   Whilst melodies are structures of notes of different pitches played one after the other, chords are constructed from groups of notes played simultaneously.  They may be consonant or dissonant.

Chromatic, Chromaticism   Using notes outside of those of the main scale e.g. in the key of C major, the notes of the scale forming that key  are c, d, e, f, g, a, b, c. Use of these notes is called diatonic. Use of notes which lie outside that scale, in this case C#, D#, F#, G#, and A#, is called chromatic. Chords using chromatic notes immeasurably enrich the harmony.

Coda   A piece of music which ends or completes a movement.  It might consist of only two bars or, in the case of the first movement of Beethoven’s fifth symphony, over one hundred bars. A codetta is a small coda usually completing a section of a movement rather than the entire piece.

Compound Time
. Organizations whereby the basic beats of each bar are divisible into three e.g. 6/8= two beats in the bar but each beat is divisible into three rather than two quavers. 9/8 is three similarly divided beats in each bar and 12/8 denotes four.

   The solo parts in a concerto grosso or choir. See C 109/1 for typical examples of choral solo/tutti writing. The additional musicians added in the tutti section form the ripieno.

A piece usually for one soloist with orchestra. Bach was one of the composers largely responsible for liberating the harpsichord from its continuo duties, allowing it to become the solo instrument, usually supported by a string orchestra.

Concerto Form   see Form.

Concerto Grosso.  An earlier form of the concerto in which more than one instrument, often two violins and a cello, shared the solo roles. Corelli’s and Handel’s opus 6 sets are fine examples, as are the Brandenburg Concerti.

Consonance/concord    The effect produced by a chord in which the notes sit happily together without stress or tension e.g. c, e, g.  Antonym: dissonance, discord.

Continuo     As a rule baroque bass lines were played by the lower strings, celli and basses, sometimes bassoons. They were supported by a keyboard instrument, usually harpsichord or organ, which filled in the chords. Continuo was the name for the combined components i.e. bass line and harmony.

Counterpoint  also Polyphony. The weaving together of two or more themes of more or less equal importance and interest. This is a different texture than may occur when one melody is predominant, supported by an accompaniment.

  A theme written in counterpoint against the subject i.e. a theme secondary to but combining with a fugue subject.


Da Capo     Go back to the beginning.  The da capo arias and choruses were so called because the first section was repeated. To save time it was not written out again and the players would recommence the movement, stopping as indicated. Also referred to as ABA structure and ternary form because the result is three sections of which the first and last are identical.

Dialogue cantatas   Works for two voices which explore developing relationships between Christ and the Soul. e.g. 57, 32, 49, 58, 152.

   The theme is sung or played in shorter notes than in the original.  Antonym: Augmentation

Diatonic   Using the notes of the scale or key of the piece i.e. the notes of the scale of C major (or minor) if that is the key in which the music is written: See also chromatic.

Dissonance /Discord   The effect produced when the notes of a chord seem to clash and produce tension e.g. the notes of c and c#  sounded together. Such chords feel that they need to resolve onto a more consonant sound. Twentieth century music has resulted in an increased tolerance of what is now acceptable with regard to combinations of notes which do not require resolutions. Antonym consonance.

  The fifth note of a scale and also the key to which music frequently modulates to initially. Tonic notes and chords generally have an effect of finality. Dominant ones appear incomplete with an expectation of more to come.

Dominant Pedal   see Pedal

Double Counterpoint    also invertible counterpoint.  See Inversion.



False Relation an oddly archaic effect achieved when an altered note is heard immediately in another part e.g. c natural in the bass line immediately followed by c# in the tenor. The effect does not occur if the alteration is made in the same part.

Fantasia   see Chorale Fantasia.

Figure of joy    see Joy Motive.

      18th Century forms come in two broad categories:

1.    Variation Forms. These generally remain within the given key and repeat a theme or bass line, inventing such additional ideas as should maintain interest e.g.
Theme and Variations (Goldberg Variations, Bach)
Ground Bass (Lament from Dido and Aeneas, Purcell)
Passacaglia (Passacaglia in Cm for organ, Bach)  
Chaconne (Charconey in Gm, Purcell).

2.    Tonal Forms.  The principle is described in volume 2 chapter 19. Common forms in Bach's day were:
Binary form:   two balanced sections, one unfinished, one finished.   
Ternary form: also da capo and ABA, in three sections the first the same as the last.   Rondo:  the main theme keeps returning separated by other themes   
Ritornello:  a body of thematic material which is stated at the beginning, at the end and throughout the movement. Known as the ritornello, it will be restated wholly or partially in various related keys, separated by episodes which move to and from these keys. Employed by Bach and Vivaldi in many concertos, therefore sometimes referred to as Concerto Form.    
Fugue   A monothematic contrapuntal structure in which a number of voices or instruments enter with the same tune or subject thence proceeding like ritornello; i.e. the subject occurs in related keys separated by episodes. The main theme recurs at least once at the end. A permutation fugue was devised with the subject and all countersubjects fitting together in invertible counterpoint (see C 182, vol 1 for an example and further details).  

(See further discussion on several of these musical structures in the essay on C 78 volume 2).

French Overture     Often mentioned alongside the Italian Overture, both popular 18th century forms. The latter was in three movements or sections, fast—slow—fast which was also to become the usual practice for the concerto. The former began and ended in an imposing, moderately slow tempo of imperious dotted rhythms enclosing a central faster fugal section. All four of Bach’s Orchestral Suites begin with a French Overture and he makes use of it also in about half a dozen of the cantatas (see C20 in volume 2).

Fugetto   A shortened version of a fugue which tends not to proceed further than the point at which all voices have entered.    

Fugue  see Form.


Gavotte    see Suite.

Gigue    see Suite.

Gregorian Chant  Medieval religious chants only occasionally used as archaic chorale tunes in the 18th century.

Ground Bass   A repeated theme in the bass above which variations are devised (see also passacaglia and form).


Harmony     A succession of chords which may be supporting a single melody or underpinning a contrapuntal texture.   A harmonic progression is a sequence of chords.  

Head motive/theme
   A short pithy idea forming the first few notes of a melody. Usually marked by a robust and easily recognizable rhythmic characteristic, it tends to play an important part in the ultimate development of the musical material.

Hemiola   A rhythmic device whereby groups of two or four notes are superimposed upon groups of three; and vice versa.

Heterophony   The combination of lines of counterpoint which are not truly independent i.e. the one may be an embellishment of the other. See, for example, the two lowest lines of the second movement of Brandenburg 6.

   In effect, the opposite of counterpoint. The music is structured in a series of chords rather than through a combination of simultaneous melodies.

Hybrid    A term often applied in these essays to recitatives which may incorporate elements of aria or arioso, chorales and/or ritornello themes. Bach’s continual formal experiments mean that arias and choruses too may well become hybrids with the inclusion of other components.


Imperfect cadence   also interrupted cadence   see cadence.

Interval    A way of describing the gap between individual notes. Notes next to each other would be described as a second apart. A wider interval might be a 6th or 7th.  An octave is an 8th.

Instrumental line   see vocal line.

Inversion    This has several musical meanings.  A single chord may be inverted which means that a different note of the chord would become the bass note. Counterpoint is also said to be inverted when the parts change places e.g. what was the top melody would change places with the bottom melody (also known as double or invertible counterpoint). Most commonly the term is used to describe a melody which is literally turned upside-down i.e. an interval which went up now goes down and vice versa.

Italian Overture 
  see French Overture.


Joy Motive A motive signifying joy. Referred to throughout the text this is a figure of three notes, two short and quick the third longer e.g. two semi-quavers followed by a quaver. Albert Schweitzer isolated this and a number of other motives Bach associated with certain actions or emotions e.g. pacing or treading, notions of sorrow, lamentation or grief.


Key  see also Tonality. If a piece of music is written in a particular key, say D major, it has a tendency to predominantly use the notes of the scale of D and will feel as if it wants to return to the home or tonic note of D. Introducing notes and chords from another key, say B minor will allow the music to migrate towards it and establish the note of B to which we then feel we would want to return. This process is called modulation. Much of Bach’s musical architecture is built around the principle of starting in and establishing one key, moving through and repeating material in related keys, thence returning to the first tonic key to ensure a sense of finality.

Key Signature a combination of sharps or flats at the beginning of a piece of music signifying the key (see Tonality) in which it has been composed.


Leit motive (leitmotif)    A musical phrase, motive or theme which is associated with a particular person, event or situation, repeated throughout in order to bring to mind such circumstances to the listener and/or to intensify the drama of the situation. Particularly associated with Wagner's operas, the recurring motive was a device used by many composers. The main point is that the musical idea had important associations extending beyond its purely musical functions.

Lombard Rhythm   see Scotch snap.


Major (and minor)      (see also Scale and Tonality). Melodies and harmonies are built upon the notes of the chosen scale or mode. Major scales are thought to give rise to more extrovert, heroic and openly joyous musical ideas. Minor scales can denote more subdued and tragic expression.  Bach's uses and contrasts of different scales colours continually the character of his music. In these essays, minor keys are usually designated thus: F#m.

Mass   A religious choral piece not unlike an oratorio but with a particular five-part structure and function within the service. Bach wrote several masses, the largest of which is the Great Mass in B minor, a work of ideal rather than practical proportions.

Melisma       A composer may choose to set one syllable of text against one note of music. A run of notes to a single syllable is called a melisma. Frequently the key to a movement may be found in the words to which Bach chooses to give emphasis in the form of ‘melismas’.

Melody     Also Theme and Subject.  An organization of notes of different pitch played or sung one after the other so as to achieve a desired expressive effect. See vocal line.

Minor see Major.

Minuet  see Suite.

Mode    see Scale. In these essays the terms scale and mode are frequently used interchangeably and refer to major and minor colourings of the harmony. Bach occasionally makes use of old melodies using archaic modes e.g. the Phrygian which ends on a particularly distinctive cadence (see, for example, the essays on C 135 and C 248/6)

Modulation   see Key.

Motet     A choral composition for church use usually for unaccompanied choir or with instruments doubling the vocal lines and thus having no independence of their own. Bach invoked the tradition of the German motet on several occasions; see the opening choruses of Cs 2 and 38 in volume 2.

    also motif.  A short musical idea which may be manipulated to give rise to complete melodies. One of the best known is that which begins Beethoven's fifth symphony    'DA--DA--DA--DAH'. A proper understanding of Bach's music requires a recognition of the main motives, their sources and development.

Moto perpetu
o     A continuous flowing melody, usually a stream semi-quavers or even faster notes. Often makes use of minimal accompaniment.


Neopolitan 6th chord     A chord often used to approach a cadence in minor keys. It is built upon the flattened second note of a minor scale e.g. the chord of Bb major in the key of Am. It has an extraordinarily powerful expressive effect.


Obbligato  Also Obligato. the name given to a single instrument and its melodic line (excluding the bass or continuo) accompanying the voice(s) in an aria.

   A family of three woodwind instruments much used by Bach in the cantatas. One might think of them as soprano, alto and tenor versions each with their own particular tone colour i.e. oboe, oboe d’ amore, oboe da caccia.

    All sound is created by vibration. When the number of vibrations per second is doubled, the pitch rises by an octave (i.e. from A to a higher A, from C to C etc). The effect is of hearing the same note at a higher pitch. Western music divided the octave into twelve more or less equal notes called semitones. Two semitones make a tone so there are six tones to the octave.  Modes and major/minor scales are ladders of notes built of different combinations of tones and semitones.

Opera buffo/buffa 
see buffa.

A setting of a religious text usually of some magnitude and using choir, orchestra and soloists.  It is usually performed in concert fashion which differentiates it from opera.


Paraphrase     A reworking of a previously composed piece of music usually to accommodate a new text. In Bach’s case the practice was generally to paraphrase secular movements for religious use rather than vice versa. The process could be extremely minimal, small alterations of rhythm only required for the new words. It could also be quite a substantial rethinking of the music (see vol 3, chapter 50 for a description of the process whereby the Agnus Dei from the Bm Mass was paraphrased).

   see Form   A musical structure which depends upon the repetition of one theme, usually heard wholly or predominantly in the bass. See C 78 volume 2, chapter 14.

Passion    A term commonly used to describe the settings, musical and otherwise, of Christ’s sufferings.

Pedal    Organs and some harpsichords have pedals for additional bass notes. However in the context of these essays the word pedal is usually used to signify a sustained or repeated note usually on either the dominant or tonic notes of the scale of the piece. The former usually produces an effect of tension or ‘unresolvedness’ whilst the latter sounds more final, complete or ‘home based’.

Phrase    see Cadence.  A phrase is a unit of melody, very often four bars long. Where it ends, there is a breathing space in the music. Phrases will end either with a feeling of completion (implying the end of a section or movement) or incompletion (suggesting that there is more to come). Bach was a great innovator in the design of phrases of varying lengths.

Phrygian  See Mode.

Pitch    see Octave. The highness or lowness of a note.

   Plucking rather than bowing of stringed instruments.

see   Counterpoint.


Quodlibet   Literally ‘that which pleases’. A collection of tunes, often of a popular nature, brought together and sung or improvised upon. They were, apparently, regularly performed at Bach family events.


Recitative   A musical texture, originating in early Italian opera, which places most of the musical interest in the (usually single) vocal line lightly accompanied so that the words will not be obscured. Often used to tell the story or convey information and may also imitate the rhythms and inflexions of speech. Secco recitative is a term used to describe the barest forms with a slow moving bass supporting the usually more complex vocal line. The harmonies between them were filled in by keyboard instruments, usually harpsichord or organ. Bach developed the recitative considerably so that it could deal with philosophical and doctrinal notions of some depth.

Rondo  see Form.

Ripieno  see Concertante.

Ritornello  see Form.


Scale     A ladder of notes from octave to octave. By Bach's time there were two main scales major and minor but he occasionally made use of archaic scales called modes. The choice of scale is immensely important in the colouring of the music and attention is frequently drawn to Bach’s choice of major of minor in these essays.

Scotch snap   A short note followed immediately by a longer one; a ‘throwing’ of the rhythm onto the second note. Also known as Lombard rhythm. (See vol 1, chapter 74, C 195 for an example).

   See Recitative.

Semitone (and Tone).   A one twelfth division of the Octave.

Sequence   The repetition of a musical idea (motive, melody or harmonic progression) at a higher or lower pitch.

Structure   see Form.

Sturm and drang     Literally storm and stress. A dramatic form of emotional expression borrowed from literature and often associated with turbulent minor keys. Popular particularly in the mid eighteenth century.

Subject   A theme or melodic idea may be called a subject. The term is most commonly used when referring to the main theme of a fugue.

Suite   As a ‘suite of furniture’ is a collection of pieces with elements in common, so is a musical suite a group of movements united by key or theme. Baroque suites were a collection of dances e.g. Bach’s French and English suites for keyboard. Many dance forms have implications of a courtly or civilized demeanor e.g. minuet and gavotte. Others may suggest jollity and celebration e.g. gigue. Bach makes as much use of suite forms in his religious as in his secular music.

Suspension   A harmonic technique whereby one or more notes are held or repeated against chords to which they do not belong. This produces a controlled dissonance which is usually immediately resolved. It is often used to creates moods of sadness or weeping.  

Syncopation   A ‘throwing’ of the rhythm when long or accented notes are heard on the weaker beats of the bar. An established characteristic of much jazz.


Tacet   Silent: no one plays or sings at this point.

Ternary Form   see Form.

Tessitura    The range of a voice or instrument. A low tessitura would indicate use of the lowest notes of the instrument or voice.

Texture   A piece of music may consist of only melody (e.g. folksong), melody and accompaniment, a combination of two or more melodies etc. The particular layout of the music is referred to at its texture.

   see Melody.

Theme and Variations
   A musical structure in which the basic theme is varied by way of changes of mode, rhythm, instrumentation, texture etc.  See Form.

Through Composed      A process whereby a movement appears not to repeat sections (e.g. A-B-A) but develops organically from beginning to end.

Time signature  One figure set above the other at the beginning of a piece  of movement designating the basic rhythm e.g 3/4 = 3 beats to the bar and 4/4 four beats. In general the top figure gives the number of beats and the bottom figure the value of the beats e.g. 4=crotchets, 8=quavers.

Tonality  Music constructed from certain scales, particularly major and minor.

Tone      A one sixth division of the octave.

Tonic   The first note of a scale and the note to which the music feels it wants to return i.e. the  doh note upon which the scale is built: see tonality.

Tonic Pedal
  see Pedal.

Tremolo   Tremolando
  A rapid repeating of a single note usually associated with stringed instruments.

      Kettle drums. The largest of the drum family in general use at the time, often accompanying trumpets in ceremonial or celebratory music.

   Literally 'all:'   all instrumentalists, singers (or both) sounding together. Often used in concerti/concerti grossi between solo sections.



 Vibrato a rapid undulation in pitch giving a richness to the tone. Most associated with stringed instruments and voice.

Vocal Line
.  A vocal or instrumental line is simply another way of describing a melody. The normal layout of a choir is that of a four-part chorus of which the top two parts (soprano then alto) are women and the bottom two (tenor then bass) are men. In Bach's day all parts were sung by men or boys whose voices had not broken. Bach very occasionally adds a fifth line by dividing the sopranos.





Copyright J. Mincham 2010. Revised 2014, 2017.