Piano Terminologies Every Musician Should Know

Posted by Gordon Bolton

Students learning to play the piano must know basic terms before they can follow an instructor’s directions. Children learn their letters before they read words, babies crawl before they walk, and an EMT practices on a dummy before performing CPR on a human. The vocabulary forms the foundation of everything the student does next. What are some terms every piano student should know?


When a person sees the circumflex accent character above a note, this symbol lets them know they need to emphasize that note when playing. You play this note louder than the notes preceding and following it. The circumflex accent character appears as an upside-down V above or below the note the musician needs to emphasize.


Every musical piece features a beat. This beat serves as the backdrop for all notes, regardless of their length. The beat determines the type of music. Sometimes, it is an elegant dance. At other times, the recurring unit of time informs the listener the piece is a march.


When a person plays multiple notes simultaneously, musicians refer to this as a chord. Most chords are major or minor, and both types comprise three tones. The major chord comprises the root, third, and fifth notes of the major scale. In contrast, a minor chord comprises the root, flat third, and fifth notes of the major scale.


Dynamics refers to the volume of the musical piece. However, musicians don’t use terms such as loud and soft when discussing volume. They rely on Italian terms and symbols. Static dynamics let the musician know the volume remains the same throughout the piece. Changing dynamics alert the musician to the fact the volume changes throughout the piece, much as the name suggests.

Eighth Note or Quaver

Musicians play an eighth or quaver note for one-eighth the duration of the whole note. This note appears on the staff as a note with a filled-in oval and stem. A flag positioned on the stem’s right side completes the note, and the flag’s direction depends on where on the staff the note falls.

If the note appears on the upper half of the staff, the flag points upwards. When the note sits below the middle line, the flag points downwards. When the musician is to play multiple eighth notes in a row, the composer connects the notes with a beam, replacing the flag seen with individual notes.

Much like the quaver note, a quaver rest is held for one-eighth the duration of a whole rest. Musicians know they are looking at a quaver rest when they see a filled-in curlicue flag. The flag resembles the note head of an eighth note and sits on a slanted stem’s left side.


When f appears in a musical piece, the musician is to play the music loudly. Anything following the f symbol in the piece should be played at this loud volume. The term forte derives from the Italian word for strong.


If forte means loud, fortissimo means very loud. Composers use the ff symbol in a piece to let musicians know they need to increase the volume. Today, a composer may add as many f symbols after the initial one to show the volume at which they would like the piece to be played.

Half Step

When a piano tells a student to move a half step on the piano, they want the student to move from the key they are on to the very next key. It does not matter if the move is up or down or to a black key or white one. A half step that moves up goes to the right on the piano. When a half step moves down, the student moves to the immediate key to the left of the one they are on.


The melody of a piece is the most recognizable part of the music. To create a melody, the composer brings together several notes. One or two notes don’t make a melody. Pitch isn’t of great importance to the melody. What the composer must do is put together a series of notes that are memorable and easy to predict.


When a musician sees a p in the music they are playing, they know they are to play softly. This dynamic is in direct contrast to forte.


Pianissimo means to play very softly. Look for the symbol pp in a piece to know when the volume should be lowered.

Quarter Note

Play a quarter note for a fourth of the duration of a whole note. Four quarter notes make up a whole note and a musician holds the four quarter notes for the same time they would play a whole note.


The rhythm of a musical piece is the recurring pattern of the music. This grouping of beats consists of unaccented beats centered around beats that are accented.

Sixteenth Note

Musicians hold a sixteenth note for only one-sixteenth of the time they play a whole note. The musician plays the notes rapidly to ensure they fit into this interval.


The tempo of the music determines the mood of the piece. Musicians see this information at the beginning of the piece, which tells them how fast or slow they should play. People often refer to this as the speed of the piece. Musicians measure the tempo in beats per minute. Fast songs have more beats per minute.

Whole Step

Two half steps make up a whole step. Two white keys positioned next to each other on the piano keyboard make up a whole step. Each white key is a half step from the black key adjacent to it.

Individuals should be familiar with these terms before sitting down to learn the piano. Study these terms while waiting for professional piano movers to bring the instrument to the home. With this knowledge, learning to play the piano becomes easier. However, know that these are only some of the many terms a musician will learn throughout their studies. Don’t give up. Knowing how to play this instrument is a skill you will treasure for a lifetime.

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