Music Thesaurus

About the Thesaurus

What is this music thesaurus?

This music thesaurus was conceived as a resource for composers looking for a precise musical term for expression or tempo. If you know what you want to say but you don't know the correct or commonly used Italian term, it's very time consuming to scan the dictionary for the word. You can use the Music Thesaurus to focus on a general meaning, such as fast or sad, and view a list of terms that convey that meaning.

The Music Thesaurus includes common musical terms as well as pretty obscure terms that appear in music dictionaries but that I've never seen in a piece of music. If you use some of the other more obscure terms in the music you are writing or arranging, musicians might not get the message if they don't know the terms and don't bother to look them up. On the other hand, many Italian terms are so similar to English that their meaning is easy to guess.

This is not a dictionary with all variations of a word and complete definitions for all terms. However, you can find definitions for particular terms by using the index pages.

The thesaurus is oriented to English speakers -- all the categories, general meanings, and definitions are in English.

How is the thesaurus is organized?

Terms are divided into the main categories of tempo and expression. The category pages define the general meanings used in the main category.

For expressive terms, the category page lists 40+ general meanings, grouped by expression type (mood, emotion, style). You can also look up the general meanings in the English index. The general meaning is an English word that is a synonym for all the terms in the group. The musical terms express that meaning with different nuances.

For tempo terms, the category page lists general meanings for absolute speed (fast, slow) and relative speed or type of change (gradual, immediate, slower, faster, steady, free).

The general meanings are linked to individual pages that list musical terms and meanings for that group. Terms in blue identify common terms that are familiar to musicians.

There are also index pages for tempo and expression. These pages list all the musical terms in alphabetical order. You can use these like a dictionary to find the general meanings page that includes a particular term.

Examples of using the thesaurus:

To find a term that means gaily:

  1. Choose expression categories or english index; 2. Scan the general meanings in the emotion group; 3. Try happy and find the terms gaiamente and gaio.

To find out what terms mean fast::

  1. Choose tempo categories; 2. Choose fast and examine the terms in Italian, French, and German.

To find out what chiaramente means:

  1. Choose expression foreign terms (it's probably an expression term); 2. Click C and look for chiaramente in the list; 3. Choose it and go to the page of terms for clear.

To find out what pomposamente means:

  1. Choose expression foreign terms; 2. Click P and look for pomposamente in the list; 3. Find pomposo and, figuring that pomposamente is a variation, choose pomposo and go to the page of terms for grand.


All musicians should have a good dictionary and I recommend using this thesaurus with a dictionary. Many terms here have additional forms and variations and additional nuances of meaning.

To develop this thesaurus, I used:

Pronouncing Pocket-Manual of Musical Terms edited by Dr. Theodore Baker, published by G. Schirmer, copyright 1947

Harper Collins Diction of Music by Christine Ammer, 2nd edition published by Harper Collins, 1987

Provided by

This thesaurus was made by Pamela Marshall and is provided by Spindrift Music Company, which also publishes Pamela Marshall's music.

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Updated April 2001. Reformatted July 2015.