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Basic Music Terms and Abbreviations for Beginners

Learning how to read music or play an instrument can be confusing in the beginning. Playing the right notes and staying in the correct key are tough enough without reading the many musical abbreviations on the page! Learn what all those tricky music abbreviations and terms mean with this handy list.

Boy Playing PianoBoy Playing Piano

Sheet Music Abbreviations

A piece of sheet music can look like a different language. And in many ways, it is – most musical instructions are written in Italian. Learn all about different dynamic and stylistic directions that you might find while sight-reading a new composition.

Dynamic Markings

Playing a piece at the same volume can bore an audience. Music needs highs, lows, pianos, and fortes. See how many of these abbreviations you already know, and how many you could probably practice a few more times. 

  • 8va - Octave up

  • cresc - Crescendo (also noted as <)

  • decresc. - Descrescendo (also noted as >)

  • dim. - Diminuendo 

  • f - Forte

  • ff - Fortissimo

  • fff - Fortississimo

  • fp - Fortepiano

  • mf - Mezzo-Forte

  • mp - Mezzo-Piano

  • p - Piano

  • pp - Pianissio

  • ppp - Pianississimo

  • vol. - Volume

Stylistic Abbreviations

There’s a big difference between a flowing aria and a military march. Why? Stylistic directions tell the musician to play faster or slower, as well as more expressively or more rigidly. Here are some common abbreviations for stylistic instructions.

  • a - Accelerando (“getting faster”)

  • ad lib. - Ad Libitum (“freely”)

  • bc - Basso Continuo (“continuous bass accompaniment”)

  • gliss - Glissando (“gliding, sliding”)

  • pizz - Pizzicato (“plucking”)

  • rall - Rallentando (“gradual slowing”)

  • rit. - Ritardando (“slowing down”)

  • Rf or Rfz - rinforzando (“with sudden force”)

  • sf or sfz - Sforzando, Sforzato (“sudden accent”)

  • sfp - Sforzando followed by Piano

  • smorz. - Smorzando (“dying away”)

  • sord. - Sordino (“muted”)

  • sost. ped - Sostenuto pedal (“sustained pedal”)

  • spicc. - Spiccato (“bounce bow on a stringed instrument”)

  • stacc. - Staccato (“playing each note separately from the others”)

  • sul pont. - Sul Ponticello (“playing with the bow near the bridge”)

  • tr - Trill

  • trem. - Tremolo (“trembling, wavering”)

  • vib. - Vibrato (“pulsing, vibrating”)

Direction Abbreviations

A piece of music rarely runs from beginning to end. There are lots of segnos and codas along the way that create interest for both musician and audience. These directions can include:

  • A.S. - Al Segno (“To the sign”)

  • D.C. al Coda - Da Capo al Coda (“from the beginning to the Coda sign”)

  • D.C. al Fine - Da Capo al Fine (“from the beginning to the end”)

  • D.S. al Fine - Dal Segno al Fine (“from the Segno mark to the end”)

Other Sheet Music Abbreviations

Other abbreviations that you might encounter detail the page number, measure number, metronome marking, or movement. Check out these notes that you may also found in your sheet music.

  • bpm - Beats per minute

  • c.f. - Cantus Firmus (“main melody”)

  • m. - Measure

  • mm. - Measures

  • M.M - Metronome tempo

  • mvt. - Movement

  • p. - Page

  • pp. - Pages

  • rpm. - Revolutions per minute

Instrument Abbreviations

If you see a piece of music with “f cl bn ob” on the top, would you know that it means? Whether you’re a “br” or a “ww,” it’s important to know what instruments are needed for a particular composition. Read through a list of instrument abbreviations, divided by section.

Orchestral Instrument Abbreviations

An orchestra is only as good as its weakest player. Don’t let that player be you! Clear up misunderstandings about common abbreviations for orchestral instruments. 

  • afl - Alto flute

  • bcl - Bass clarinet

  • bfl - Bass flute

  • bn - Bassoon

  • bob - Bass oboe

  • br - Brass instruments

  • bstcl - Basset clarinet

  • bsthn - Basset horn

  • bug - Bugle

  • cbcl - Contrabass clarinet

  • cbn - Contrabassoon

  • cl - Clarinet

  • crt - Cornet

  • eh - English horn

  • euph - Euphonium

  • fda - Flute d’amore (tenor flute)

  • fgh - Flugelhorn

  • fl - Flute

  • hn - Horn

  • ob - Oboe

  • oda - Oboe d’amore

  • orch - Orchestra

  • pan - Pan flute

  • pic or picc - Piccolo

  • rec - Recorder

  • sax - Saxophone

  • stpt - Slide trumpet

  • tsx - Tenor saxophone

  • tba - Tuba

  • tbn - Trombone

  • tpt - Trumpet

  • ww - Woodwinds

String Instrument Abbreviations

Whether you prefer the sweet strains of a violin or the bold blast of an electric guitar, there’s no mistaking the importance of string instruments. Keep them straight with these handy abbreviations.

  • bgtr - Bass guitar

  • bjo - Banjo

  • db - Double bass

  • dulc - Dulcimer

  • egtr - Electric guitar

  • gui - Guitar

  • hp - Harp

  • hpd - Harpsichord

  • mand - Mandolin

  • sit - Sitar

  • str - String instruments

  • uke - Ukulele

  • va - Viola

  • vc - Cello

  • vda - Viola d’amore

  • vn - Violin

Percussion Abbreviations

The percussion section is the backbone of any orchestra – and they play more than drums! Check out these abbreviations that represent instruments in the percussion section.

  • bell - Bell

  • Ch - Chimes

  • DS - Drum set

  • gl - Glockenspiel

  • mar - Marimba

  • perc - Percussion

  • pk or timp - Timpani

  • vib - Vibraphone

  • xyl - Xylophone

Piano and Keyboard Abbreviations

Beginning piano students and experienced pianists could both use a refresher on common piano terms. Here are some abbreviations that you may see on a sheet of piano music.

  • clvd - Clavichord

  • epf - Electric piano

  • kbd - Keyboard

  • LH - Left hand

  • pf - Piano

  • pf3h - Piano three hands

  • pf4h - Piano four hands

  • pf5h - Piano five hands

  • pf6h - Piano six hands

  • pflh - Piano left hand

  • pfped - Pedal piano

  • pfrh - Piano right hand

  • prep pf - Prepared piano

  • org - Organ

  • RH - Right hand

  • syn - Synthesizer

Other Instrumental Abbreviations

Would you rather join an “accdn qnt” or a “bag ens"? Read through these instrumental and orchestral abbreviations to clear up any misunderstandings.

  • accdn - Accordion

  • amp - Amplified

  • arp - Arpeggione

  • bag - Bagpipe

  • conc - Concertina

  • cond. - Conductor

  • el-ac - Electro-acoustic

  • elec - Electric

  • ens - Ensemble

  • ghca - Glass harmonica

  • hca - Harmonica

  • qnt - Quintet

  • qt - Quartet

  • vuv - Vuvuzela

Choral Abbreviations

The human voice is the most beautiful instrument of all. Learn your way around a choral composition with these easy-to-remember choral abbreviations.

  • A or alt. - Alto

  • a-s - All-sung

  • bar - Baritone

  • bass - Bass

  • bbar - Bass baritone

  • C - Contralto

  • cch - Children’s chorus

  • ch - Mixed chorus

  • cv - Child’s voice

  • eq - Equal voices

  • fch - Female chorus

  • lib - Libretto

  • mch - Male chorus

  • mez - Mezzo-soprano

  • nar - Narrator

  • pfmr - Performer

  • sop - Soprano

  • ten - Tenor

  • Tr - Treble

  • uch - Unison chorus

  • v - Solo voice

  • vv - Multiple solo voices

Musical Composition Abbreviations

When you first see a piece of music, there may be several unfamiliar abbreviations on the cover page. Learn how to interpret abbreviations that describe a composition’s publication, parts, and verses. Note that most of these abbreviations have periods to differentiate them from other musical terms.

  • acc. - Accompanied or Accompaniment

  • arr. - Arranged

  • avail. - Available

  • bk. - Book

  • bks. - Books

  • ca. - Circa (around a certain date)

  • ch. or chap. - Chapter

  • comp. - Composer or composed by

  • conc. - Concerto

  • ded. - Dedication or dedicated to

  • edn - Edition

  • fl. - Flourit (“flourished” dates; when a composer or musician was most active)

  • illus. - Illustrations

  • int - Intermezzo

  • GrS - Graphic score (non-musical notation)

  • f - Following page

  • ff - Following pages

  • fs - Full score

  • n.d. - No date of publication

  • no. - Number (work number in a series)

  • nos. - Numbers (work numbers in a series)

  • n.p. - No date of publication

  • n.pub. - No publisher

  • obl. - Opéra-ballet

  • op. - Opus

  • opp. - Opera

  • orchd - Orchestrated by

  • pt. - part

  • pubd - Published

  • reorchd - Reorchestrated

  • repr. - Reprinted

  • trans. - Translated by

  • TT - Total playing time of a musical composition

  • unorchd. - Unorchestrated

  • unpubd. - Unpublished

  • v. - Verse

  • vv. - Verses

  • vs. - Vocal Score

More Musical Resources

Once you’re done with music practice, take a moment to listen to different types of recorded music. Check out a resource that explains how to describe your favorite music. It features musical theory fundamentals and several ways to write about a beautiful, moving, or remarkable piece of music.

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