major scale, major key: The most common scale in Western musical tradition, often associated with a certain brightness of mood. Here is the major scale starting on C:
The major third is the interval between the first and third notes of the major scale. Add the fifth and you have a major triad:
major second: See whole tone.
measure or bar: The standard unit into which a piece of music is divided, with barlines marking the border between one measure and the next. Musicians orient themselves within a work by counting measures—i.e., “Let’s go to eight measures before the end.”
meter: A piece is said to be in a particular meter, such as 3/4, if it falls into recurring patterns of beats, such as three quarter notes to a bar. Some common meters are 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, and 12/8 (twelve eighth notes to a bar, grouped into sets of three).
micropolyphony: In the nineteen-sixties, György Ligeti developed a technique of assembling large masses of sound from multiple layers of minute contrapuntal activity, with many different instruments playing the same material at different speeds. This is from the Kyrie of Ligeti's Requiem:
Ligeti took inspiration from Renaissance church music, notably Johannes Ockeghem’s Missa prolationum, in which voices begin in unison and then move slowly out of phase. Imagine a very chaotic round of “Row, row, row your boat” in which each voice moves at its own pace. Steve Reich applied a similar principle in his phasing music, though to very different effect.
microtonal: Music that uses intervals smaller than the semitone, or uses a tuning system other than the equal-tempered system that has been standard in Western music for the last couple of centuries. An important early pioneer in microtonal music was the West Coast American composer Harry Partch, who, rejecting the division of the scale into twelve equal intervals, used a scale of forty-three notes. Here is Partch singing By the Waters of Babylon and accompanying himself on an Adapted Viola:
From Harry Partch: Enclosure 2, Historic Speech-Music Recordings, Innova 401 (via PromoNet).
See also natural harmonic series (below).
minor scale: A seven-note scale in which the third note is a minor third above the first note and the sixth note is a minor sixth above. In this example, you first hear first the major scale, then the minor:
If you take the minor third interval and add the fifth note of the scale, you have a minor triad:
minor second: See semitone.
mode: A term with a history going back to medieval times, variously suggesting rhythmic patterns, scales, and melodic types. It is most often understood to mean a system of scales that emerged in church music of the medieval and Renaissance periods, inspired by ancient Greek and Byzantine music theory. The four principal church modes were the Dorian, Phyrgian, Lydian, and Mixolydian; they can be produced by playing white-key scales starting on the notes D, E, F, and G respectively. Later theorists added the Aeolian and Ionian modes, rooted on A and C; these indicated a shift to the familiar major and minor scales.
modes of limited transpositions: A system of scales devised by Messiaen, analogous to the modes of ancient Greek and Renaissance music. A few of these scales are already familiar from late-nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century music (the whole-tone scale, the octatonic scale, a scale not unlike the blues scale, Strauss’s slithering Salome scale) while others are more eccentric scales of Messiaen’s devising. They are all symmetrical in shape, divided by the tritone. "Limited transpositions" means that if you move any of these scales upward or downward you will sooner or later end up repeating the same notes. With the whole-tone scale, for example, if you move it up a semitone, you will have a different set of notes, but if you move it another semitone you will be back where you started. Here are the seven modes one after another:
modulation: In tonal music, a transition from one key to another.
monodic: Music characterized by a single, clearly articulated melodic line. Madrigal and opera composers of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries favored monodic writing as a way of projecting words more plainly to the listener; they felt that the complex overlapping patterns of polyphony had made texts too hard to understand.
natural harmonic series: The frequencies that emanate from any plucked string or other vibrating musical instrument. If you take a string tuned to C, pinch it in the middle, and pluck it on one side, the tone will rise exactly one octave to the next higher C. If you divide the length by a third, it will rise a fifth, to G. As you repeat the procedure with smaller fractions, you will produce the fourth (landing on a yet higher C) and the third (E). These intervals are, however, different from the ones that occur in standard modern Western tuning. The fifths are a little wider, the thirds a little narrower. Go here for Reginald Bain's demonstration of the differences. Equal-tempered tuning, which came into general use in the nineteenth century, adjusted the intervals so that composers could move freely and naturally among the twenty-four major and minor keys. The chromatic scale was tuned into twelve equal semitones. Some twentieth-century composers, among them Harry Partch, Lou Harrison, and La Monte Young, advocated a return to “natural” tuning, or “just intonation” as it widely known — meaning that every note you hear can be related to the natural harmonic series. Spectralist composers in France and elsewhere also paid close attention to the natural harmonic series.
neoclassicism: In the 1920s and 30s, Stravinsky, Hindemith, the members of the French group of Les Six, and many other composers turned back to the styles, forms, and characteristic musical gestures of the Baroque and Classical periods. The movement persisted into the latter part of the twentieth century. Here is Stravinsky's Pulcinella (1919-20), one of the inaugural works of the neoclassical trend:
Stravinsky conducting the Columbia Symphony, Works of Stravinsky.
octatonic scale: An eight-note scale associated with the late-nineteenth-century Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. It consists of semitones and whole tones in alternation: i.e., go up one half-step, then two half-steps, then one half-step, then two half-steps, and so on:
The scale may also start with a whole tone and alternate from there. Stravinsky, Rimsky's student, used this scale extensively, as did Olivier Messiaen; both composers prized its ability to produce tonal chords without following tonal rules.
octave: If you go from middle C on the piano to the next C above, you have traversed an octave.
ondes Martenot: An early electronic instrument, related to the Theremin. It figured in many major scores by Olivier Messiaen, and has recently been revived by Jonny Greenwood, of the British rock band Radiohead. Go here for a video demonstration.
open fifth: See fifth.
ostinato: A melodic, rhythmic, or chordal pattern that is repeated continuously, even obsessively, in an extended musical passage. Ravel’s Bolero, with its insistent bolero rhythm and melodic shape, is perhaps the most notorious example of ostinato writing in twentieth-century music. Stravinsky used ostinatos to create a primitive, ritualistic atmosphere in The Rite of Spring, as for example in "Ritual Action of the Ancestors":
overtones: See natural harmonic series (above).