'Diatonic? Isn't that some sort of sports drink?'

Music can seem like a daunting subject to teach particularly when there are lots of new terms to learn that you may not have heard of.

The Irish primary music curriculum has produced a great teaching guideline which you can view here. Included in that guideline is a glossary of common musical terms. We’ve decided to take this glossary a step further and provide teachers with our definitions and examples from simple pop tunes to help explain them.

Essentially, these are musical terms you may not have heard of explained with popular music you most likely have heard of.

Before we get started, here's a quick intro on an important concept….


Introduction: What is a scale?

A scale is simply a grouping of notes. In Western music, the diatonic scale is most commonly used. This scale contains 8 notes, where the first and the last notes are the same. Here’s an image of how the C major scale appears on the piano:

Major Scale - Irish primary music curriculum

Solfa, which is mentioned throughout the Irish music curriculum, is a system developed to help identify the different notes of a scale by a simple sound. These sounds are doh, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, doh. If we were to relate this to the C major scale above it would look like this:

Scale - Irish music curriculum

Of course everyone knows the inventor of solfa is Julie Andrews** after she unveiled her teaching in the Sound of Music to the von Trapp children. After a quick explanation she and the children are all pegging it round on bikes singing in their curtain dungarees. If they can get it, you can too :)

** Please note, Julie Andrews did not invent solfa. That accolade goes to Sarah Ann Glover who was born in Norwich in the 18th century.


Glossary of Musical Terms

  • Accent - This is an emphasis on a particular note or notes. Listen to the punchy brass line in Paul Simon’s ‘Call Me Al’ and you’ll get what I mean.
  • Beat - The beat is the pulse of the music. This is what you clap to, this is what you dance to, this is what The Whispers said goes on - simples. Like most pop music this beat is in 4 time which we’ll discuss further.
  • Body Percussion - Using your body to create different percussive sounds. The master of this is Bobby McFerrin.
  • Crescendo - Music gets gradually louder.
  • Decrescendo - Music gets gradually quieter.
  • Descant - Descant is essentially a higher part above a melody. You'll recognise it in a lot of Christmas carols. For example, in 'O Come All Ye Faithful' the higher line in the ‘Sing Choirs of Angels’ verse is the descant. In popular music, Freddie Mercury was alway throwing in some lovely descants into Queen songs. In ‘Somebody to Love’, the chorus line is singing the melody “...find me somebody to love, find me somebody…..” and then Freddie sings above it with a more improvised melody.

Queen: 'Somebody to Love' - Irish music curriculum

  • Diatonic - A diatonic scale is the most common scale used in Western music. The example above of the C major scale is a diatonic scale. The scale contains 8 notes where the 1st and the last note are an octave (8 notes) apart. A good example of a simple song which uses a diatonic scale throughout it is 'With or Without You' by U2. Have a listen to the bass line. This is a phrase of 4 notes which, when we relate them to the solfa scale we’ve discussed, looks like this:

Katy Perry: 'Firework' - Dabbledoo Irish music curriculum

  • Drone - A drone is one or more continuously played notes that accompany a melody line. When I think of a drone I think of the uilleann pipes or the bagpipes. Australia’s AC/DC revisited their Scottish roots and put in a lovely chorus of bagpipers for their song 'It’s a Long Way to the Top'. Listen for the drone note that sits under the bagpipe melody.
  • Dynamics - This refers to the loudness and softness of a piece of music. In traditional musical terms ‘piano’ means quiet and ‘forte’ means loud. Bjork demonstrates change in dynamics beautifully in 'It’s Oh So Quiet'.
  • Hand Signs - These are gestures to indicate each note of the solfa scale. Here are the various signs downloaded from Irish music curriculum:

Solfa Hand Signs 1 - Irish music curriculumSolfa Hand Signs - Irish music curriculum

  • Harmony - This is when 2 or more notes are played together. Harmony is everywhere in music and exists to enrich and give context to a melody line. Chords are then a set of those different harmony notes played together. Lots of bands are great at vocal harmonies. Two good examples are 'Sound of Silence' by Simon and Garfunkel and 'The Chain' by Fleetwood Mac.
  • Interval - This is the distance between two notes of a different pitch. The smallest interval is called a semitone. No piece of music demonstrates this interval better than the 'Jaws Theme' by John Williams.
  • Key Signature - This indicates what scale is being used for the piece of music. It is represented by the amount of sharps (♯) and flats (♭) and in traditional notation will look something like the image below. When the key signature changes it’s called a modulation. Beyoncé didn’t hold back on the modulations in 'Love On Top'.

Key Signature - Irish primary music curriculum

  • Major Scale - Think of this as the happy scale. A good example of it is a song by The Divine Comedy called 'Everybody Knows'. The opening 3 lines of the song start with a full major scale. Another good example of a song which sticks to a major scale very closely is 'Lean On Me' by Bill Withers.
  • Metre - This is the grouping of the number of beats in a bar as indicated by the time signature. For example when a piece of music is in 4/4 that means there are 4 beats in a bar.
  • Minor Scale - Think of this as the sad or bluesy sounding scale. A good example of a piece which stays close to the minor scale is the 'James Bond Theme' (here’s a fun version by the Skatalites). Another song utilising the minor scale is 'Moondance' by Van Morrison.
  • Modal Scale - This is a scale which uses the same notes as a major scale but has a different starting and finishing note other than 'doh'. There are many different types of modes. A common one is the lydian mode where the scale starts on the note 'fa'. An example of a piece that uses this is 'The Simpsons Theme'. Listen to the quirky bass line in it to hear it.
Simpsons school band - Irish primary music curriculum


  • Mood - This means the feeling created by the music. Here’s a happy song about ice cream and here’s a very sad song about loneliness. You might notice that both of these are from the same album called 'Closing Time' by Tom Waits.
  • Octave - Remember what we said about the scale having 8 notes. Well because the first and last note of a scale are the same, they are therefore an octave apart. An example of this is in the song ‘Firework’ by Katy Perry where the first two notes of the chorus are an octave apart. Here’s how the first four notes would look to the lyrics ‘cause baby you’re….’:

U2: 'With or Without You' - Dabbledoo Irish primary music curriculum

  • Ostinato - An ostinato is a continuously repeated musical pattern. The string part at the start of 'Bitter Sweet Symphony' by The Verve is a good example of this. Also, an ostinato doesn’t have to be high in pitch. Listen to ‘I Feel Love’ by Donna Summer and you can hear a more bassy ostinato on the keyboard.
  • Pentatonic Scale - This is a scale that uses 5 notes and is most commonly found in folk music. An example of a popular song that can be played using just the notes of the pentatonic scale is ‘My Girl’ by The Temptations. The pentatonic notes in solfa are highlighted in blue:

Pentatonic scale - Irish primary music curriculum

  • Percussion Instruments - There are lots of different percussion instruments you can use in the classroom which are both tuned and untuned. Here are four example instruments with songs linked in which they make an appearance. Starting top left and going clockwise: guiro, cabasa, xylophone and tambourine:

Guiro - Irish primary music curriculumcabasa - Irish primary music curriculum

Tambourine - Irish primary music curriculumXylophone - Irish primary music curriculum

  • Phrase - This is the natural division of a melody line. It’s the musical equivalent of a sentence. The chorus line in 'Hey Ya' by Outkast is an example of a phrase which is repeated.
  • Pitch - This refers to how high or low a sound it. Kate Bush’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ is an example of a high pitch song. The opposite of Kate Bush might be Barry White who had one of the lowest voices in popular music.
  • Pulse - The pulse is the ongoing beat of the music. In ‘September’ by Earth Wind and Fire, the pulse is immediately set by the cowbell which marks the start of each beat.
  • Rest - This is a gap of silence for a specified length of time. In ‘Uptown Funk’ by Bruno Mars there’s a two beat rest of complete silence after the bridge section. As you can see below, there are different names given to the different types of rest:

Rests - Irish primary music curriculum

  • Rhythm - Rhythm is the different durations of notes in a piece of music. ‘We Will Rock You’ by Queen is perhaps one of the most recognisable rhythms in popular music. The two stomps and then one clap would be notated as two quarter notes and then one half note.
  • Rhythm Syllables - This is a system of using simple words or syllables to demonstrate a particular rhythm. Here’s an example using our graphic notation:

Rhythm syllables - Irish primary music curriculum

  • Round - This is where a melody is repeated by another voice exactly the same but a set amount of time later (e.g. 2 or 4 beats). This is used a lot in nursery rhymes like ‘Row row row your boat’ and ‘Frère Jacques’. An example in popular music is at the end of ‘God Only Knows’ by the Beach Boys. Here you can see the two singers sing the same line but 8 beats apart.
  • Staff Notation - These are the notes written on a five line stave. It looks like this:

Staff notation - Irish music curriculum

  • Stick Notation - This is a shorthand way of writing the staff notation above. Here’s a useful image from the teaching guidelines in the curriculum which explains it and how it relates to staff notation and the rhythm syllables:

Stick notation - primary school music curriculum Ireland

  • Structure - This means how the music is planned out in its various sections. A common form in music is AB. This means there is a first section (A) followed by a contrasting second section (B). An example of this is ‘Empire Ants’ by Gorillaz. The song starts off quite soft and around 2.15 of the song a stronger beat kicks which signals the start of the B section.
  • Style - The style is the combination of the speed of the piece (tempo), the overall sound of the piece (timbre) and the loudness or quietness of it (dynamics). The Talking Heads piece ‘This Must Be The Place’ has lots of variation in its style: different instrument sounds, variations in volume, all while a very steady beat continues throughout.
Talking Heads: 'Stop making sense' - Irish primary music curriculum


  • Syncopation - This is an accented note which occurs on the off beat in music. You can think of it like an interruption in the steady pulse of a piece. Stevie Wonder’s ‘Superstition’ is littered with syncopation. Most notable, is the very first entry from that famous keyboard line. The drums start and hold a steady beat and then the keyboard enters on the off beat.
  • Tempo - This is the speed or pace of the beat. The Isley Brothers song ‘Shout’ is a great example of a piece that has lots of shifts in tempo.
  • Texture - The combination of the tempo, melody and harmony in a composition are what make up the texture. An example of a song with lots of textures can be heard in Paul McCartney's 'Live and Let Die' which transitions from big orchestral themes to smooth reggae beats.
  • Timbre - The colour of the music. It refers to the type of sounds created by the different instruments. A good example of a song with lots of timbres is ‘Love Cats’ by The Cure. The song starts with a very plucky bass line. Contrast that with the upbeat but relaxed sound of the vocals. Later on you have the entry of the loud and spiky brass.
  • Time Signature - This is the symbol placed at the start of the music which indicates the number of beats in each bar. Most popular music is in 4 but here are some more obscure examples:

’What’s New Pussycat’ by Tom Jones is in 3 time.

‘When Your Mind’s Made Up’ by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova is in 5 time.

  • Tonic Solfa - The solfa scale, as discussed, is doh, re, me, fa, so, la, ti, doh. The doh or the first note of the scale is what we call the tonic solfa. If we play a piece in C Major, then C is the tonic solfa.
  • Treble Clef - This is the swirly symbol at the start of written notation which indicates where the note G lies. In this case, the G is placed on the 2nd line from the bottom.

  • Tremolo - This is the rapid repetition of a note or the alternation between two notes. Keith Richards guitar part in ‘Gimme Shelter’ by the Rolling Stones has a lot of tremolo effects throughout the song.


Are there any other terms you don't know which you'd like us to add to this list? Or do you have your own suggestions of any tunes you know that are a good example of a musical term? Let us know in the comments below.


Dabbledoo Music Trial - Irish primary music curriculum