Musical Symbols & Terms You Should Know When Sight-Reading

Wish you could have a list of all the musical symbols and terms you should know when sight-reading at the piano? This article is exactly that. You’ll find the most common musical symbols and terms. 


musical signs and terms


Here are musical symbols and terms you should know when sight-reading at the piano. It’s not a comprehensive list but it includes the most common symbols and terms.


Music symbols related to articulation

staccatoStaccatoPlay detached
accentAccentPlay accented
staccatissimoStaccatissimoPlay detached and in a more exaggerated way than normal staccato
strong accentStrong accentPlay with a strong accent
sforzandoSforzandoPlay with a strong and sudden initial attack
tenutoTenuto Hold or sustain note for its full length
slurTwo-note slurLink the two notes together
phrasePhrasePlay notes in one breath, usually legato. A phrase represents a single musical idea.
trillTrillPlay the written note and the pitch above it in quick succession
pedal signPedal markingPress down the sustaining pedal until the line stops or until the next symbol
arpeggio signArpeggio signArpeggiate the notes of the chord by playing them quickly one after the other from the bottom note (unless there is a down arrow, in which case you arpeggiate from the top note)


Musical symbols related to pitch

sharp signSharpRaises the note by a semitone (half step)
flatFlatLowers the note by a semitone (half step)
double sharpDouble sharpRaises the note by 2 semitones (half steps)
double flatDouble flatLowers the note by 2 semitones (half steps)
naturalNaturalCancels previous accidentals. For example, E natural = E.
ottavaOttavaPlay one octave higher
ottava bassaOttava bassaPlay one octave lower


Musical terms related to speed

Italian termMeaning
LargoSlow and broad
AndanteAt a walking pace
ModeratoModerate speed
AllegrettoModerately quick
AllegroQuick, lively
PrestoVery fast
Rallentando or rall.Gradually slower
Ritardando or rit.Held back, gradually slower
Ritenuto or rit./riten.Held back, immediately slower
Accelerando or accel.Gradually accelerate
A tempoBack to the original tempo


Musical terms and symbols related to expression

Italian termSymbolMeaning
CantabileIn a singing style
DolceSweet, gentle
GiocosoCheerful, playful
Ad libitum or ad lib.Optional, as you wish
pp or pianissimopianissimoVery soft
p or pianopianoSoft
mp or mezzo pianomezzo pianoModerately soft
mf or mezzo fortemezzo forteModerately loud
f or forteforteLoud
ff or fortissimofortissimoVery loud
crescendo or cresc.crescendoGradually louder
diminuendo or dim., or descrescendodiminuendoGradually softer


Other Common Musical Symbols

fermataFermata or pauseA pause of unspecified length on a note or rest
repeat signsStart and end repeat signsIndicate the start and end of a repeat respectively
first endingFirst endingIndicates the passage you play the first time through
second endingSecond endingThe second time through, you jump to this section (you skip the first ending)
D.C. al FineDa Capo al FineRepeat from the start until the end. Literally means "from the head to end" in Italian.
dal segnoDal segnoRepeat from this sign. Literally means "from the sign" in Italian.
codaCodaA passage of music that brings the piece to an end. Literally means "tail" in Italian.



Are there any musical symbols or terms that are new to you? Let me know in the comments below!

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    Emmanuelle Fonsny

    Emmanuelle Fonsny, or Manu, is a piano and violin teacher, composer and accompanist based in Sydney, Australia. She is passionate about sharing her love of music and her sight-reading and practice tips to help other pianists become more confident sight-readers.



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