Here are some fresh definitions of some of the rather archaic and sometimes inexplicable terms used in music, collected from music students over the years.
The tempo marking “Con moto” usually designates “a fairly brisk speed for the beat.” The alternate definition from the New Music Student Dictionary is “to move your body when you play.” Another tempo marking, “Meno mosso,” means to play a little slower than the previous passage. Literally translated, meno mosso is “less more.” I explained that to a woman “of a certain age” at her lesson and she said, “Oh - menopause!”
Another adult student slipped and referred to the treble clef as the Bubble Clef, then laughed and told me that’s the one used by “that Swedish band leader” (Lawrence Welk, whose popular TV show often opened with a shot of floating bubble).
A dot over a note, called a “staccato,” instructs the performer to play the note detached (rather than connected). When I asked a student to try to play a “crisp” staccato he said, “What’s that, Mexican food?” A line over a staccato mark indicates portato playing, or a long staccato. Pointing at one of those on the score with my usual, “What’s this?” I was informed that it was a “stucko.”
A student told me he wanted to play a piece he’d heard his friend playing, he thought it was a tood. I said, “Can you spell that for me?” “Yes, t - o - o - d.” So now in my teaching studio all the dudes play toods to warm up for their etudes.
In most piano pieces the right hand plays the melody and therefore should be a little louder than the left hand, which plays the harmony. A student was beginning work on “Skating At Twilight,” which has the melody in the left hand. In the score, the player is instructed to perform the left hand a little louder than the right. I asked the student the reason for that instruction and she replied, “Because the right hand is playing the stars twinkling.”
Those of you who have had trouble coordinating your right and left hands might get some inspiration from this epiphany from a student: “I get what the left hand does - it keeps the music stuck together!” - an important function!
A mother dropping off her child explained that the girl had been having trouble practicing because she was having “attention spasms.” The same day I had another girl, who usually comes to her lessons very well prepared, show up for the second week in a row fumbling and frustrated. “What’s going on, is everything okay with you?” I asked. The nine-year-old girl sighed and told me, “I’ve just been crampacted.”
The symbol that looks like a number sign (#) is called a sharp; in front of a note it raises it a half-step. “What is that sign telling you to do?” “Sharpen the note.” “Right! What does that mean?” “Make the note pointy!”
A miniature note before a normal-sized note is usually called a grace note; the performer slips it in - hopefully gracefully - before the beat, embellishing and enhancing the primary note. I was tickled by a student asking me after he’d played a passage with a grace note, “Did I play that Beauty Note right?” (And it WAS delightful!)
As to the title of this article, when a young student reported to me that she had seen the Hallelujiah Chorus performed I asked, “What does ‘hallelujiah’ mean?” Her answer: “It’s the capital of Honolulu!” And I say, "Amen!" to that.
Thanks to my many students over the years for enriching my life with the many joys of learning.
Piano and Composition Teacher
Creative School of Musical Arts