Glossary of Rehearsal Terms, Phrases, and Concepts

By George Yefchak

Like any other hobby or profession, orchestral music comes with its own unique vocabulary. Here are some terms which might be unknown or confusing to some players. This list does not include terms unique to particular instruments, nor does it try to define basic terms used in reading music. Rather, the intent is to define words which are commonly used in rehearsals and which might be unfamiliar to those who haven't played in a group or with a conductor.

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A phrase such as "4 after A" refers to a particular measure in the music — it suggests we count to the 4th bar past the measure displaying rehearsal mark A. But sometimes there can confusion about whether the measure with the rehearsal mark is counted as "1" or not. Musicians actually use two different counting methods, whether they're conscious of it or not, depending how big the number of measures is. For small numbers (e.g. < 3) , the first measure is usually not counted; but for larger numbers it is. The figure below illustrates these counting methods, as well as an alternate form that is considered more clear.
Measure number example
Three forms for describing measure position relative to a rehearsal mark: For small numbers of measures (e.g. 1 or 2), the measure of the rehearsal mark is counted as zero. For larger numbers (e.g., 4 or more) the first measure is counted as one. This can lead to confusion for intermediate spans, as shown above. To avoid confusion, one can use the alternate form (e.g. "3rd bar of...") which corresponds to the large-number form but is considered less confusing.
Often a melody or theme begins part-way through the measure. Sometimes the entire piece starts this way. Rather than showing rests at the beginning of the first measure in this case, the rests are omitted and the notes which comprise the partial measure are called "pickup" notes. If more than one note appears before the first full measure, the set of these notes together is called the "pickup."
Often in rehearsal it is common to start playing a section of the music "with the pickup" rather than on the first beat of a particular measure.
Some conductors use the term "upbeat" instead of "pickup"— thus, start "at the upbeat to ___" rather than "at the pickup to ___."
Example showing a pickup beat
A pickup beat (the two opening C eighth notes) at the beginning of Happy Birthday
Sometimes when there are one or more repeated sections (see this Wikipedia article) in the music, the conductor may elect to skip the repeat(s). "Skipping the repeats" means to play the repeated section or sections just once, rather than twice (or whatever the indicated number is). The phrase "repeats are good" means that these sections are to be repeated, as printed.
The beginning of the piece, or the beginning of the movement. Used in phrases such as "lets take it from the top."
Typically the conductor will give one or two preparatory beats before the music begins. The phrase "bar for nothing" (or "measure for nothing") indicates the conductor will show one entire measure before the music starts. (The preparatory measure may include a pickup.)
The first beat of a measure (beat 1).
The last beat of a measure (e.g., in a 3/4 measure the upbeat is beat 3).
The conductor's beats usually correspond to the beat pattern printed in the music. For example, music in 4/4 time will usually be conducted with four beats per measure, and each beat will represent a quarter note. Music in 3/4 time (sometimes called "waltz time") can be conducted in two ways, however — "in 3" with three beats per measure, again where each beat represents a quarter note, or "in 1" where each beat represents a dotted half note and hence an entire measure.
It's fairly common for conductors to switch from beating "in 3" to "in 1" or vice versa, depending on the tempo or other factors. This is often done without telling the players, since it's usually easy to see which beat pattern is being used.
Treatment of three written beats as one combined beat is central to the concept of "compound time." See this Wikipedia article for more information on compound time and other advanced aspects of time signatures.

Listen (In 3)  Listen (In 1)

Example illustrating waltz-time counting "in 3" and "in 1"
Daisy Bell (the "bicycle built for two" song) counted in 3 and in 1, as well as in subdivided 1.
Similarly to the in 3/4 "in 1" example discussed above, sometimes 4/4 measures are conducted "in 2" rather than "in 4", and sometimes cut time (2/2) measures are conducted "in 4" rather than "in 2." These exceptions are somewhat less common than the 3 vs. 1 case, so the conductor is more likely to tell the players if a different beat pattern is being used.

Listen (In 4)  Listen (In 2)

Example illustrating common-time counting "in 4" and "in 2"
Ode to Joy (from Beethoven's 9th symphony) counted in 4 and in 2.
In very slow music, especially in early classical works, 4/4 time is often conducted in a subdivided four. By convention, the term "in 8" is used to indicate this. So "in 8" really means "in a subdivided 4," and even music actually written in 8/8 time is conducted in subdivided 4.
Since "in 8" does not indicate an eight-beat conducting pattern, the term is inconsistent relative to "in 3" etc. as described above.

Listen (In 8)Example illustrating counting "in 8" which is really "subdivided 4."

Opening measures of Handel's Messiah (first movement) in 8, which is actually just subdivided 4.
In very fast music, sometimes entire measures are conducted in one beat. This is sort-of an extension of counting in 1 as described above, but a beat pattern is conducted to group several measures together.

Listen

The Sorcerer's Apprentice conducted in groups of 3. Each measure is counted as one beat, and three measures together are counted as a larger measure of three beats.
To assist in counting rhythms both players and conductors often divide the beats into smaller but equal divisions, hence the term "subdivide." The commonly used syllables for subdivision are shown below.

Eighth notes — "1 and"
Listen

"1 and" subdivision of eighth notes
a. I Got Plenty O' Nothin', counted in subdivided eighth notes ("1 and").


Eighth note triplets — "1 and a"

Listen

"1 and a" subdivision of eigth note triplets
b. After a Dream (Faure), counted in subdivided eighth note triplets ("1 and a").


Sixteenth notes — "1 e and a"

Listen 

"1 e and a" subdivision of sixteenth notes
c. Theme from "Deep Space Nine," counted in subdivided sixteenth notes ("1 e and a").
In rehearsal, the phrase "dots on the notes" generally refers to staccato dots, not to the duration-increasing dot of, for example, a dotted quarter note. (Compare to line.)
Sometimes, especially in early classical works, it's common to play so-called "dotted rhythms" (e.g. dotted quarter note followed by eighth note, or dotted eighth followed by a sixteenth note) as if they were double-dotted (e.g. double-dotted quarter followed by sixteenth, or double-dotted eighth followed by a thirty-second note). For example, the passage shown in the upper part of this figure is usually played as if it were written in the lower form:

ListenExample illustrating counting "in 8" which is really "subdivided 4."

Listen

In rehearsal, "lines on the notes" refers to tenuto lines, that is, an indication to stress or lengthen the notes. (Compare to dot.)
In rehearsal, "nothing" typically means to play as softly as possible. Typically used in a phrase such as "Strings mezzoforte, then nothing at Letter A."

Most of these are self-explanatory, but "winds" is often used in two different ways:

Trumpets, ("French") horns, trombones, and tuba. Also includes size variants within these families (e.g. piccolo trumpet, bass trombone, etc.).
Violins, violas, cellos, and basses. Note that violins are typically divided into the "first violin" and "second violin" sections.
Flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons. Also includes size variants within these families (e.g., piccolo, English horn, bass clarinet, etc.).
All instruments which normally make their sound when struck. Categories includes drums (snare, bass, etc.) as well as timpani, melodic percussion (glockenspiel, xylophone, marimba, etc.) and a wide variety of others (cymbals, triangle, claves, etc.).
Generally refers to a combination of the woodwind and brass sections of the orchestra. But, confusingly, the term sometimes is used as a shortcut for "woodwinds," thus not including the brass instruments (typically in the phrase "winds and brass").
Typically flutes, oboes, and clarinets
Typically violins (I and II) and violas
Typically cellos and basses
First violins
Second violins
French horns
Italian word meaning "attack"
An indication at the end of a movement (either printed in the music or from the conductor) that the following movement begins immediately or with only a very short pause.
Refers to absolute pitch as named without regard to transposition. For example, an instrument "in A" sounds the pitch concert A when playing a written C. See this tutorial on transposition for more information.
Italian word meaning "all" or "together"
In rehearsal, it can mean either:
1. a direction for everyone to play (perhaps after some time had been spent rehearsing a few instruments alone), or
2. a section of the piece where everyone (or nearly everyone) plays together— for example, the point at which the whole orchestra plays again after a cadenza.