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X – GCSE Glossary

This glossary is designed to help post-GCSE students review their descriptive musical terminology before starting A level. It is based around the MAD TSHIRT mnemonic (not devised by me but widely used at Key Stage 4). You can download the MAD-TSHIRT detailed handout and follow the links below for some listening that will help you understand.

The idea is that if, for example, you are asked to describe the melody of a piece of music, the bullet points under melody below tell you the sort of thing that you would need to say.


Melody (writing about individual melodic lines)

  • Direction (rising or falling)
  • Type of movement (steps or leaps)
  • Range (high or low, large or small)
  • Ornaments (trills, mordents etc.)
  • Repetition (of notes, motifs or phrases)

Listen to examples of the following melodic features to help you recognise them:

Articulation (writing about how notes are played but NOT their volume – see dynamics below)

  • Staccato (spiky) / legato (smooth)
  • Accents (suddenly loud notes – this is technically dynamics but comments about it are usually acceptable on exam questions about articulation)
  • Arco / Pizzicato / Tremolo (on string instruments)
  • Tongued or slurred (on wind and brass instruments)

Dynamics (writing about how loud or soft the music is and how it changes)

  • Fortissimo down to pianissimo
  • Crescendo / diminuendo
  • Sforzando

Texture (writing about the role of different parts and how they relate to each other)

  • What is the basic texture of the music? (click the link to listen to examples)
  • What roles are instruments/parts playing (e.g. melody, accompaniment, continuo, countermelody)
  • What relationships can you hear? (octaves, sixths, unison, call and response, contrary motion)
  • What specific techniques/features can you identify? (imitation, pedal, ostinato)

Structure (writing about the overall shape of pieces and sections)
You won’t be asked to identify the large-scale structure of pieces of music in the listening exam, but you should be able to identify the following simple forms that can apply to short sections as well as larger pieces. You might also be asked to label sections in a short extract according to whether material is repeated or not (e.g. ABAC):

  • Binary (AB – often with both sections repeated)
  • Ternary (ABA)
  • Verse-Chorus

Harmony – and tonality (writing about chords and chord progressions – and keys)

There are some important sets of opposites that you should know (click here for listening examples):

  • Consonant (‘nice’ intervals) / Dissonant (clashy ones)
  • Diatonic (notes from scale – e.g. white notes in C) / Chromatic (notes not from scale – e.g. black notes in C)
  • Major (happy key) / Minor (sad key!)

You also should be able to recognise the following cadences:

You might also be expected to comment on particular harmonic progressions (e.g. 12-bar blues) and the harmonic rhythm (how quickly chords change)

Instrumentation (writing about what instruments you can hear and what they are doing)

You need to be able to identify the most common orchestral instruments and instrument families as follows (this external link is really good for this)

  • Strings (violin, viola, cello, bass)
  • Woodwind (piccolo, flute, oboe, cor anglais, clarinet, bassoon, contrabassoon)
  • Brass (horn, trumpet, trombone, tuba)
  • Percussion (bass drum, timpani, cymbal, snare, tam tam, glockenspiel, xylophone

You also need to be able to identify the main voice types (hear them on this external link):

  • Female voices (high to low): soprano, mezzo-soprano alto, contralto
  • Male voices (high to low): treble (boys), countertenor (male alto), tenor, baritone, bass

Finally, you need to be able to recognise instruments associated with Areas of Stud

  • Gamelan (metallophones, gongs, drums)
  • Indian classical (plucked strings – sitar / sarod; bowed strings – sarangi / tanpura – plucked string drone / table – small pair of drums / flute – bansuri)
  • Bangra (Dhol – drum / sarango – bowed strings / tumbi and sitar – plucked string)
  • Tango (Bandoneon – type of accordion plus violin/piano/bass)
  • Salsa (brass, piano, voice plus perc: claves / cowbell / timbales / cogas / guiro)
  • Line dance (Slide guitar / banjo / harmonica / accordion)
  • Irish (tin whistle / bodhran / uillean pipes)

Rhythm (writing about the rhythm!)

As with all the MAD-TSHIRT elements, don’t forget the basics:

  • Tempo: is the basic speed of the music slow or fast (external link for listening to different tempos)
  • tempos
  • Duration: are individual notes short or long

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 (click here for some listening examples):

  • Pulse / beat: if you are tapping your feet to or conducting music you are probably tapping out the pulse
  • Upbeat (or anacrusis): starting a piece on the fourth beat of the bar rather than the first
  • Syncopation: playing off (or in between) the beat or pulse (example)
  • 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 (example)
    • 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 (example)
  • Triplets – three notes squeezed in (evenly) into the space of two
  • Cross-rhythm – triplets against normal rhythms
  • Pause – a wait that interrupts the pulse

Time Signature (writing about how the basic pulse is grouped into bars)

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

  • How many beats there are in a bar
  • 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).

In this example in 4/4 you would hear the main beat (crotchets) as well as the main beat divided into two (quavers):

common time

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 time

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 (e.g. “Merrily merrily” in the example above).

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