GCSE Keywords


Writing about how loud or soft the music is and how it changes.

Just because this is obvious doesn’t mean you won’t get marks. You can just write about how the music is quiet or loud, when the volume changes and whether it changes gradually or suddenly. (e.g. “The music starts very quiet then gets gradually louder before suddenly getting quiet again).

You also need to know the appropriate Italian terms:

Circling it once....is NEVER enough!












mezzo forte

mezzo piano






Terraced Dynamic

Very loud


Medium Loud

Medium Quiet


Very Quiet

Getting Louder

Getting Quieter

Suddenly Loud

Changing immediately to a new dynamic


Writing about the length of notes and their relationships together

There are lots of technical terms to describe rhythm but don’t be put off – what is actually being described is often quite simple. Some basic terms:

Duration: are individual notes short or long

Pulse / beat: if you are tapping your feet to or conducting music you are probably tapping out the pulse

Anacrusis/Upbeat: starting a piece on the fourth beat of the bar rather than the first

Syncopation: playing off (or in between) the beat or pulse {listen}

Dotted rhythms: making pairs of notes uneven by adding half the value to the first note of a pair taking it away from the second (e.g. if you dot quavers your first quaver is three rather than two semiquavers long and the second quaver is shortened to a semiquaver {listen}

Swung rhythms (jazz): like dotted rhythms but a bit lazier, so the first note is not quite so long and the last not quite so short {listen}

Triplets: three notes squeezed in (evenly) into the space of two {listen}

Cross-rhythm: triplets against normal rhythms

Pause: a wait that interrupts the pulse

Chaal (Bhangra): the basic triplet rhythm underlying Bhangra played on the dhol (a drum)

Time Signatures

Writing about how the basic pulse is grouped

You need to be able to recognise basic time signatures by ear and there are two things to listen for:

1) How many beats there are in a bar

2) Whether the beats are divided into two or three

Simple metres have a main beat that can be divided into TWO (e.g. a crotchet beat that can be divided into two quavers).

  • The time signatures for simple metres have 2, 3 or 4 at the top (e.g. 2/4, 3/4, 2/2 or 4/4).

Compound metres have a main beat that is divided into THREE (e.g. a dotted crotchet beat that can be divided into three quavers).

  • The time signatures for compound metres have 6,9 or 12 at the top (e.g. 6/8, 9/8, 6/4 or 12/8).

Compound metres have a distinctive three-to-a-beat feel (diddle-dee diddle-dee) which simple metres lack. Listening for this is the best way of telling between the two types


You will need to know how long each note and its assoicated rest lasts for.

For extended A-level Vocabulary, see here.


Writing about styles of music, composers intentions and ensembles

It is important to be able to recognise what style each piece of music might be in. Each style has their own main 'fingerprints' which are typical of the style. Below are the styles and a few fingerprints for each.

Film Music

For Film Music you may need to recognise the typical fingerprints of different film styles. Here are a few as an example.


Lastly you will need to name the different groups of instruments together, e.g. Choir, Orchestra, String Quartet, Brass Band, Rock Band etc.


Writing about the technique used to play an instrument.

Each instrument can be played in a variety of different ways. This can add to differences in the sonority of the performance and can make the performance or composition more exciting to listen to as there is more contrast.

Some techniques can be used on all instruments (including voice), whereas some are particular to specific instruments or groups thereof.

Most instruments

Vibrato: a rapid but small changing of pitch up and down

Staccato: Short sharp notes

Legato: Long smooth notes

Sustained: held notes

Accent: louder, accentuated notes

Glissando/slide: a glide from one pitch to another

Pitch bend: small glissando: bending the string with excessive finger pressure

Detached: each note given a new start - change of bow, tounged on woodwind or brass, glottal in voice

Slurred: not detached!


Rim shot: Hitting the rim and the skin at the same time

Drum roll: quick repeated hits on a drum


Pizzicato: using fingers to pick the strings

Arco/bowed: using the bow

Double Stopping: playing two notes at the same time

Tremolo: Rapid repetition of one note, pulling the bow forward and back


Distortion: A guitar effect created by overuse of gain

Hammer on: Sharply pressing the fretting finger onto the fretboard to create a note

Slap bass: a percussive bass picking technique - pick so hard the string 'slaps' against the instrument body

Plucked: pulling at strings

Strummed: several strings played at the same time in a sweeping motion

Pull off: Picking a string with a fretting finger on the fretboard


Humming: sound made with the closed mouth

Scat: Improvised jazz style of singing with no words but using nonsense syllables

Falsetto: Notes higher than the normal male range

Belt: using the chest voice loudly above the usual break to head voice

Rap: spoken or chanted rhyming lyrics performed in time to a beat

Syllabic: One note per syllable

Melismatic: More that one note per syllable

Woodwind and Brass

Tongued: Each note given a new start with a 't'

Muted: Using a mute to dull the sound


Writing about different parts and how they relate to each other. The layers of the music.

Most important of all is to DESCRIBE WHAT YOU HEAR. A really good description of a texture might be “the trumpet is playing the tune and the strings are holding chords. There is also a long held note in the bass”. However it is also important to use correct technical terms as listed on this page.

Basic overall texture descriptions

Monophonic: a texture consisting of a single unaccompanied line

Homophonic: all parts play together in chords

Melody and accompaniment: a melody is accompanied either by chords or by a simple texture

Polyphonic/contrapuntal: a texture with several rhythmically independent parts

Specific Texture Features

Unison: All parts performing together

Chordal: Using chords

Imitation: The same melody passed to a different instrument. It may have been moved up or down in pitch

Layered: Several instruments playing together

Countermelody: A secondary melody, different to the main tune

Descant: A particular countermelody performed on the last chorus of a hymn or carol

Round: A looping melody repeated with staggered entry

Canon: One part coming in after the other

Drone: A continuous bass note

Call and Response: One instrument or group of instruments performs and another replies, playing afterwards

For extended A-level Vocabulary, see here.


Writing about how the overall shape of pieces and sections

Structure is basically about repetition. You are often asked in the exam to identify patterns of repetition using letters (e.g. ABA means that the first idea is followed by a second idea before the first one returns).

Some patterns of repetition have specific names:

AB = Binary

ABA = Ternary

ABACA = Rondo Strophic

A A1 A2 A3 = Theme and Variation

AABABA CCDCDC ABA = Minuet and Trio

Coda: An ending in classical music

In Music with words different terms are used:

A A A A (but with different words each time) = Strophic

A B A B = Verse-chorus

32 bar song form/AABA: Think 'Somewhere Over The Rainbow' structure. Used a lot in Musical Theatre

12 bar blues: A 12 bar structure using chords I IV and V

You can add lots of extra sections to verse-chorus structure:

    • Intro / outro: a section stuck on the beginning or end

    • Bridge: a contrasting section often leading back into a chorus

    • Middle 8: An 8 bar section in the middle of a piece

    • Instrumental / Break: a section in which there is no singing, often based on the verse or the chorus

    • Loop: a repeating section of sound used in electronic music

    • Fill: a short phrase between sections to hold the listeners attention. e.g drum fill

For extended A-level Vocabulary, see here.


Writing about individual melodic lines.

Don’t forget to describe the obvious – the first three of these are easy to hear and will usually get you marks. Only then move onto the more complicated, technical terms.


Is the melody rising or falling? Describe what happens in detail, e.g. “At first it rises then it falls” or “the melody keeps falling and rising in a repeated pattern”

    • scalic: in a scale.....

    • ascending: going up

    • descending: going down

Type of movement

Is the melody leaping (e.g. arpeggios) or moving by step (scales)?

    • Conjunct - in steps

    • Disjunct - in jumps

      • Arpeggios - jumps that are each one note of a chord

      • are the gaps small (e.g. thirds) or large (e.g. sevenths

Range / Tessitura

Does the melody use only a small range (a fourth or a fifth) or does it cover a much wider range? Is the range of the melody generally high or low? As with all elements it is worth listening to see if it changes (“e.g. at first the range is quite low but it slowly gets higher”)


Is the melody based on a particular scale? The most common scales are listed below:

    • Major: happy sounding

    • Minor: sad/mysterious sounding

    • Chromatic: All the notes in a scale - black and white

    • Blues: used in Jazz

    • Pentatonic: Five note scale. Often used in Folk Music

Simple repetition

Most composers use lots of repetition – it makes life easier for them (less to write) and for the listener (we don’t have to cope with too much information).

    • motif: a short 3 or 4 note melodic phrase

    • Thematic: using a Theme/motif again and again

    • Leitmotif: using a theme for a character

    • Ostinato: A continuously repeating pattern

Modified repetition

    • Sequence: the same melody, but up or down in pitch

    • Inversion: a melodic idea repeated upside down

    • Retrograde: a melodic idea repeated in reverse

    • Answering Phrase: the second half of a melody


    • Trill: rapid alternation of two notes

    • Grace note: an accented extra note


The gaps between notes

Other Melody words

Contrast: something different

Improvisation: making up on the spot

Fanfare: a short melody played to announce something, usually played on brass

Walking bass: A bass line which moves using the blues scales with notes close to each other

Blue note: a flattened note from the Blues scale e.g. flat 3 or flat 7

Countermelody: a secondary melody

For extended A-level Vocabulary, see here.


Writing about what instruments you can hear

Listening to music on Youtube / Spotify etc. and making sure that you know what different instruments sounds like is the most important way of preparing for this. Also try Focus on Sound, where you can listen to each of them.















french horn




bass drum




tam tam








Male voices (high to low)

treble (boys)

countertenor (male alto)




Female voices (high to low)






Dhol – drum

saranghi – bowed strings

tumbi and sitar – plucked string

tabla - two headed drum


The speed of the music.

This one is pretty simple. It's just how fast or slow a piece of music is. You will need to know the italian terms.

Accelerando: getting faster

Allegro: a very fast tempo

Allegretto: a relatively fast tempo

Andante: walking pace

Moderato: a moderate tempo

Largo: slow and stately

Rallentando / Ritenuto (Rall / Rit): getting slower

Rubato: playing rhythmically flexibly – slowing down and speeding up for emotive effect


Writing about chords and chord progressions (and keys)

When describing harmony there are three main sets of opposites to keep in mind.


Chords are made of notes played together, usually using the root (first), third and fifth note of a scale. So a chord of C major (C D E F G A B C) uses C E G. The relationships between chords and different specific chords are named.

Primary Chords: Chords I IV and V - the most commonly used chords

    • Tonic: Chord I - in C major, C major

    • Subdominant: Chord IV - in C major this is F major

    • Dominant: Chord V - in C major this is G major

Secondary Chords: Chords ii iii vi and vii - less commonly used chords

Relative minor/major: keys which share the same key signature,

    • The relative minor of a major key is chord vi

      • e.g. C major= I A minor= vi

    • The relative major of a minor key is chord III

      • e.g. A minor=I C major=III

Dominant 7th Chord (V7): A chord including the root, third, fith and seventh of chord V of a key. In C major chord V is G major. The root, third and fifth of G major are G B D. The 7th is F, so the dominant 7th in C major has G B D F.

Chord progression/chord sequence: Several chords used one after the other. 12 bar blues, for example.

Power Chords: Chords without the 3rd, using root and fifth only. Used in rock music.

Inversions: Changing the order of notes in a chord.


Cadences which sound final...

Perfect Cadence: V-I - Heard at the end of most pieces. It makes the piece sound final and complete, for example the line 'all day long' from The wheels on the bus uses a perfect cadence

Plagal Cadence: IV-I - also makes the piece sound finished by mostly heard in religious music. Sometimes know as the 'Amen' cadence;

Cadences which sound unfinished...

Imperfect Cadence: finish on V. This sounds incomplete as we don't return to chord I. For example in C major we might end of a chord of G. Your musical ear will want to hear the tonic chord again.

Interrupted Cadence: finish on vi. This is a surprise to finish on a minor chord in a major key and vise versa.

Key signatures

Each key uses certain sharps or flats to sound 'correct'.

For GCSE you need to be able to recognise keys in up to 4 sharps or flats.

The order of sharps on the stave to make a key signature

    • Father Christmas Gave Dad An Electric Blanket

The order of flats on the stave the make a key signature:

    • Blanket Explodes And Dad Gets Cold Feet

To work out a a major key with sharps

    • Look at the final sharp. Go up one semi-tone to find the key. e.g. Final sharp=D#=E major

To work out a major key with flats

    • Look at the penultimate flat. That is the name of the key. e.g. penultimate flat = Bb=Bb major

Exceptions - C major has no sharps or flats. F major has 1 Flat

To work out minor keys:

  • Work out the major key signature, then work out the relative minor by counting 6 from the major key. E.g. if C= I, count 6 - A, so A minor. if G =I, count 6, so E minor


major: using the major scale - sounds happy

minor: Using the minor scale - sounds sad/mysterious

Pentatonic: Using only a five note scale. Used in folk music

Chromatic: Using all the notes - black and white/all frets

For extended A-level Vocabulary, see here.

Other useful words

Drone/Pedal: A continuous or repeating note, ususally the tonic or dominant

Modulation: Change key

Harmonic rhythm: How often the chords change/after how many beats or bars