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Beginner Music Theory Lesson for Piano Students: Music Terms and How to Read Sheet Music Symbols

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For the beginner in piano music, what do all those foreign words and strange symbols mean on your sheet music? And does it matter?

Ritardando? Da Capo al Coda? Acciaccatura?

People from earliest times decorated their bodies and their dwellings, and worked designs on their implements in order to make them more attractive to use or just for pleasure in their leisure time. We still have the same desires today.

So too, throughout the ages, ornamentation has played an important part in increasing our enjoyment in listening to music in its many forms. Decorations for melodies have been found way back in Gregorian music (c. 540 - c. 604 AD) and in the music of the Middle Ages (500 - 1450 AD). Ornaments were prominent in keyboard music in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries and further embellishments, not written on the scores, were no doubt added by the singers.

If you aim for excellence in your piano music, being able to understand musical terms, symbols and ornaments will help you to follow written music more accurately, play with correct timing and expression, and add attractive ornamentation. This will bring an entirely new dimension to your music!

So what do all those Italian words and symbols mean? Let's look at a few examples!

Musical Terms

Musical terms tell you all about the speed, loudness and other qualities of your music.

For example, 'Ritardando' tells the musician to play this section gradually slower and slower. 'Ritardando' may be abbreviated as 'ritard.' or 'rit.'. It is an Italian term derived from the word meaning 'to retard'.

Musical Symbols

Musical symbols tell you everything you need to know about written music from the staff itself to accents, repeats and pedal signs. For example, a common symbol seen on popular piano music is the Coda symbol. This symbol, along with the words, 'Da Capo al Coda', tells you when to play the various parts of your song.

'Da Capo al Coda' is normally abbreviated as 'D.C. al Coda'. This Italian phrase means literally, 'From the beginning (or head) to the tail'.

A section of music at the end of the score will be marked with the word 'CODA'. There will also be two places in the music marked with Coda symbols, each shaped like an oval with a '+' written over it.

When you reach the words, 'D.C. al Coda', in the music, return to the beginning of the music and play through until you reach the first Coda symbol along with the words, 'To Coda'. Jump from that place in the music directly to the section at the end of the score marked with 'CODA' and the second Coda symbol. Continue playing to the end of this section.


Ornaments are attractive decorations for your music.

For example, the 'Acciaccatura' or 'crushing note' is a very short accented note, played just before (or sometimes simultaneously with) the main note and instantly released. It is written as a miniature quaver note with a short oblique line through the hook of the quaver.

'Acciaccatura' is an Italian expression meaning 'a crushing'. It makes a pretty decoration in a melody.

About the Author:

Betty Wagner of Music With Ease has been teaching music for over 30 years. Her unique multimedia ebooks make learning to play the piano fun, easy and surprisingly affordable. Music With Ease has produced a comprehensive List of Sheet Music Symbols. This glossary and two free piano chord charts are included as bonuses with Betty's ebook on piano chords for the beginner. You can also learn all about beginner piano scales with unique easy-to-read scale charts and fingering tips in Betty's music scales ebook. Or master those tricky ledger notes with ease: /read-ledger-line-notes.html

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See also:
Middle Ages Music
Renaissance Music
Baroque Era Music
Classical Era Music
Romantic Era Music
Nationalist Era Music
Turn of Century Music

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