Classical Music Terms You Should Know

This is an evolving list of classical music terms you should know.

Any orchestra would be blessed to have you join them for a concert, especially for the first time. But sometimes the things you’re expected to know beforehand can add up. This can be difficult, especially for new symphony goers who look at a concert and wonder in vain what a concerto is, or why the symphony starts with 1. Allegro.

This guide is meant to be an ever-expanding repository of the lingo you should know to be a confident insider at any classical music concert.

Concert-going Terms:

Program Notes

Program notes are a short essay or introduction to a piece of music.

Program Notes usually give a history of the composer, the piece, and suggest some things to listen for. They are usually found in your (duh) program book at the concert, but you don’t have to wait until the concert to read them. More and more orchestras are providing their program notes digitally before the concert, or you can search online for another orchestra’s program notes. The Fort Collins Symphony provides its program notes ahead of time on each concert page, and they can also be found in our Program Notes Archive.

If you’re new to the symphony, we highly recommend reading the program notes for all the pieces on your concert. They can give important historical context to the music by providing information on the composer, the history of the music, and what to listen for at the concert.

Pre-Concert Lecture

A pre-concert lecture is a short talk or lecture before a concert.

These talks are usually included with your ticket purchase and begin one hour before the concert begins. Pre-concert talks cover the music that’s being performed that evening, and they are intended to help the audience learn more about the composers and their works. They can help to connect the dots between the pieces on the concert. At the FCS, our pre-concert lectures are called “Maestro’s Musings,” hosted by Maestro Wes Kenney.

Attending a pre-concert lecture at any orchestra is a great idea if you have the time. It gives you the chance to get comfortable, learn about the music, and have a bit more context as you go into the concert. This is especially helpful if the concert features music that you’ve never heard before.

Combine a pre-concert lecture with program notes and you’re all set to enjoy your evening.

Common Questions:

“Piece” vs. “Song”

Broadly speaking, a piece is any music without words or singing, while a song has words and vocals. This is a minor point for most people, but if you call a symphony a song in a classical music crowd, then you’ll stand out like a sore thumb. When attending an instrumental concert, it’s best to assume that everything is called a “piece.”

One of the other issues is that songs, such as pop songs, are usually short. Just about 3-5 minutes depending on the song. But most classical pieces are larger with multiple shorter movements within them. A symphony will very often be 40 minutes long with 4 large sections within it, each of those having its own sections and melodies and phrases. These sections of larger pieces are called movements.

Side note: in an opera, what you may think of as a song may actually be an aria, duet, or chorus. These are opera-specific terms, so you probably won’t encounter them at an orchestra concert.

“Recital” vs. “Concert”

You already know what a concert is, but there are a few different ways to use the term “recital.”

A recital is a type of concert, but it’s shorter and only features a single performer or a small group of musicians, such as a string quartet.

For students, a recital is a performance used to test their abilities, show progress, or complete a part of their degree requirements. Children may give a ballet recital, or a graduate student may give a master’s recital. The audience is made up of their family and friends and tickets are not sold to attend.

For a professional performer, a recital is a small concert. A pianist may travel and give recitals, or a duo or trio may do the same. For professional recitals, tickets are required and the audience is made up of people that the performer doesn’t know.

“Recital” can be difficult to use correctly because it means different things depending on the performers. You can reasonably call any recital a concert, but you shouldn’t call an orchestra concert a recital. In general, if there are 5 or more people on stage, or if you have to purchase tickets, you should call it a concert.

“Symphony” vs. “Philharmonic” vs. “Orchestra”

When talking about a group of musicians that perform together on a stage, the words “symphony,” “philharmonic,” “orchestra,” and “symphony orchestra” are interchangeable. While each word comes from different origins and may have its own connotations and history, there is no difference between their uses as the title of a body of musicians.

Primarily, these words can be used to distinguish between similar ensembles in the same city to avoid confusion. The Vienna Philharmonic and the Vienna Symphony are two different performing groups that coexist in Vienna.

So, in short, today these words are entirely interchangeable.

For a more detailed exploration of these words and their origins, see this article by WQXR.org

Symphony Orchestra” vs. “Beethoven’s 5th Symphony

As we said above, a symphony orchestra is a group of musicians. This can sometimes be confused with the other meaning of “symphony,” which is a specific musical form.

A symphony is a large, 4-movement work for orchestra. These pieces can last from 20-50+ minutes depending on the individual piece. Early symphonies were written by the composer Joseph Haydn in the 1700s, and Ludwig van Beethoven took the symphony to new levels in the 1800s. Composers today continue to write symphonies, but the famous works of the 18th and 19th centuries remain the standard.

The 4 movements of a symphony follow a formal pattern. The first movement is usually weighty and often the longest and most involved. The 2nd movement is most often a slow movement, while the 3rd is either a dance or a “scherzo.” The 4th movement, or finale, is always fast and celebratory.


If you enjoyed this guide…

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