List of Musical Techniques and Their Meanings

By Robert Russell
Close-up of woman playing a violin.

The essence of music is based on emotion and feeling. Music is used to evoke mood and express ideas in melodious and tuneful form. As artists, musicians need to develop technical finesse and skill in order to convey their musical ideas or interpretations successfully and professionally. Musical techniques involve scales and chords, the basic building blocks of music, as well as techniques specific to the instrument being played.

Practicing the Scales

Scale practice plays an essential role in a musician’s practice regimen. Western music is based on a diatonic or eight-note scale. Scales are classified as major, minor, dominant seventh scales and diminished. Practicing scales helps improve technique in three ways: it gives musician a thorough knowledge of their instrument, it improves dexterity and speed on the instrument and last, it builds a strong foundation for musical interpretation and improvisation.

Chord Practice

Scales and chords are intimately related. Chords are individual notes played together at once to form a harmonic sound -- and they are constructed from the notes of the scales. Practicing chords deepens a musician’s understanding of harmony. It increases a musician’s nimbleness and dexterity as she moves from one chord to another on the piano, other string and woodwind instruments. Chord practice also offers an excellent ear-training exercise. Finally, practicing chords improves the ability to negotiate chord changes, as well as transpose or modulate to alternative keys.

Specific Techniques

Different musical instruments require different technical expertise. A stringed instrument, for example, has different technical requirements from a percussive or reed instrument. Musicians spend a lot of time with exercises to improve their technical skills on their respective instruments. Singers work on vocal techniques to strengthen and improve the quality of their voices and musical ranges.

Pizzicato and Double Stops

String musicians may choose to bow or pluck the strings. One of the distinguishing characteristics of the double bass or upright bass is jazz that it is usually plucked with the fingers rather than played with a bow. The official term is “pizzicato.” Double stops involve playing two notes at a time. Violinists and guitarists also use double stops. Guitar players in country, jazz, and rock use double stops all the time. Chuck Berry’s guitar style is based on playing two notes at a time.

Vibrato and Tremolo

Vibrato is another important technique that string players utilize. It is a slight fluctuation in pitch that simulates a human voice. Vibrato produces a warmer and more expressive tone. Tremolo is a technical effect produced with rapidly repeating tones that can range from a slow to a fast shimmering sound. The effect is produced with up and down strokes or with a finger combination plucking the same note. Singers emulate these effects with their voice as their instrument.

Dynamics and Muting

Dynamics are an important part of musical expression. Dynamics refers to the loudness or softness of the notes being played. In musical notation, dynamics are marked with the terms crescendo and decrescendo. The former indicates a gradual increase in loudness, and the latter indicates a gradual decrease in loudness. Playing with dynamics helps a musician to be more expressive when interpreting a piece of music. Muting an instrument produces different sonic effects. Guitarists can mute the strings with the palm or the fingers -- string players often put clamps on the bridge.

Etude Compositions

A large part of the classical music canon is musical studies called etudes. Etudes are short compositions devoted to improving specific techniques on particular instruments. Etudes have been written for different instruments including the piano, the violin and the guitar. Etude comes from the Middle French term “estude” or “estudie,” literally meaning to study. Bela Bartok, a 20th century Hungarian composer, wrote a series of 153 etudes for the piano. Using etudes can help a musician master their techniques.

About the Author

Robert Russell began writing online professionally in 2010. He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy and is currently working on a book project exploring the relationship between art, entertainment and culture. He is the guitar player for the nationally touring cajun/zydeco band Creole Stomp. Russell travels with his laptop and writes many of his articles on the road between gigs.