Music 101 – Classical Terms and Definitions (Part 1)

Musical compositions have many forms in which concerto, sonata, symphony and partita are all included. These terms were well defined at a particular moment in time and the meaning of them might have changed from year to year; however they all serve one purpose which is to describe a musical composition. Centuries had passed, along with which came so many changes in the musical structure as well as the nature of composition types, making the genre and its term become indefinable. Because there is no specific rule made by the community, composers can just name their work however they want. Having a clear understanding of those terms will not only give you a sophisticated image, but it will also bring you more insights into the wonderful world of music.


Partita (meaning ‘piece’ or ‘divided off’) was a word that describe a lone brief movement musical instrumental fragment. Nowadays nobody plays partitas anymore so the one example I can give you is the partitas of Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach used the idea of ‘dance suites’ – a collection of dance-like movements which are both fast and slow – for a solo instrument presentation to define his partitas. Notice that people at that time did not actually dance to these partitas, what I’m trying to say here is that those Bach’s partitas were made to represent the actual dances such as Courante, Minuet, Bouree, Gigue, Sarabande and Allemande. You can find Bach’s work on YouTube with the keyword “Bach’s partitas”. The great thing that separates Bach’ partitas from the rest is that each of his works was written for a solo instrument performance. Even so, Bach had made it so that the one instrument was able to create a perfect harmonic structure and melody without the need of other instruments. The secret behind those partitas was Bach’s perfect usage of rhythmic figuration.


Now we can talk about something bigger than partita. Sonata includes multi-movement works that were written for a solo instrument and piano, or maybe just for the piano alone. Sonata itself simply means “song” so by this name, a sonata packed itself with a theme and the theme will be presented during the outset or after a short intro.
The sonata’s theme is usually played in various keys, by a various method and instruments. All the themes should interact with each other. In most cases, the second theme contrasts with the first one and the difference lies in keys and temperament. With these options, the composer can create a kind of story with the first theme being a young man, for example, and the second one talking about a pretty woman and so on (or the whole thing can be an abstract). After halfway through the sonata, the two themes will get involved with the third theme and all of this interaction is called the development (it can be the scene where the villain appears). This can go on until the composer find it necessary to mix things up, usually it will be emphasized by a big appearance of the first theme (this is called the recapitulation) and then come a great ending which ties up everything like a bow.


Overture is a kind of musical composition that usually serves as the orchestral introduction to a musical work (often dramatic works such as an opera or a ballet). Composers at the early Romantic era such as Mendelssohn and Beethoven began to use the term overture to introduce a separate, self-existing instrumental works that were undoubtedly designed to be played at the beginning of the symphonic poem.
Successively in the 17th century, operas were sometimes set up by a brief instrumental piece called a sonata or sinfonia. Other famous overtures you may have heard (there are more than you can even think of and movie makers tend to use overture a lot) are the William Tell Overture by Rossini, Ride of the Valkyries by Richard Wagner and many more beautiful overtures from Tchaikovsky.

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