Music Terms A - L

This page supplies terms for music — from rondos to rap, rai, ragas, reggae, rhumba, and rock n roll.

Above: a detail from a painting by Edward Burney, called “Amateurs of Tye-Wig Music,” c. 1820, from the Tate Museum, London (photo RYC); below: Freddy Mercury and Elvis Presley (from Wikipedia Commons).

Above: a detail from a painting by Edward Burney, called “Amateurs of Tye-Wig Music,” c. 1820, from the Tate Museum, London (photo RYC); below: Freddy Mercury and Elvis Presley (from Wikipedia Commons).

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In the following list, I borrow from Wikipedia, especially the pages "Glossary of Musical Terminology" and "Glossary of Jazz and Popular Music." I also use terms from "Glossary of Terms Used in African American Music" (I abbreviate this to AAM and in each case supply a link to the source at Indiana University). 

Billy Holiday at the  Downbeat  club, New York, c. February 1947; Beyoncé. Both from Wikimedia Commons.

Billy Holiday at the Downbeat club, New York, c. February 1947; Beyoncé. Both from Wikimedia Commons.

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I've put in bold terms that seem to me most appropriate for a first year English paper. For instance, you could use a cappella or acoustic since these are common terms, yet I wouldn’t suggest that you use a niente since it isn't common. Using fades into silence rather than fades a niente will allow readers unfamiliar with Italian or with technical terms to understand what you're describing without having to resort to a glossary. In cases where you might use the technical term or the English equivalent, I've put both in bold. Many of the terms are Italian (except where indicated by "Port.," "Fr.," etc.). Wikipedia also has a page, "List of Italian Musical Terms Used in English," and you can find a pdf of musical terms here.

A

a cappella - Without instrumental accompaniment

a capriccio - A free and capricious approach to tempo

a niente - To nothing; indicating a diminuendo which fades completely away

a tempo - in time (i.e. the performer should return to the main tempo of the piece, such as after an accelerando or ritardando); also may be found in combination with other terms such as a tempo giusto (in strict time

abafando (Port.) - muffled, muted

abandon or avec (Fr.) - free, unrestrained, passionate

abbandonatamente, con abbandono - free, relaxed

accarezzevole - Expressive and caressing

accelerando (accel.) - accelerating; gradually increasing the tempo

accent - emphasize

acceso - ignited, on fire

accessible - easy to listen to/understand

accuratezza - precision; accuracycon accuratezza: with precision

acid rock - A style of rock music from the late 1960s and early 1970s which emphasized psychedelic imagery, unusual sound effects, and distorted guitar playing.

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Jimi Hendrix and Black Sabbath (Wikimedia Commons)

Jimi Hendrix and Black Sabbath (Wikimedia Commons)

In the following 1967 song by Country Joe & the Fish, there’s a striking contrast between the first part of the song and the acid sounds toward the end.

acoustic - produced by instruments, as opposed to electric or electronic means

adagio - at ease (i.e. play slowly)

affannato, affannoso - anguished

affetto or con affetto - with affect (that is, with emotion)

affrettando - hurrying, pressing onwards

Afrobeat - a music genre which involves the combination of elements of West African musical styles such as fuji music and highlife with American funk and jazz influences, with a focus on chanted vocals, complex intersecting rhythms, and percussion. The term was coined by Nigerian multi-instrumentalist and bandleader Fela Kuti, who is responsible for pioneering and popularizing the style both within and outside Nigeria. It was partially borne out of an attempt to distinguish Fela Kuti's music from the soul music of American artists such as James Brown. Afrobeat is characterized by a fairly large band with many instruments, vocals and a musical structure featuring jazzy, funky horn sections. A riff-based "endless groove" is used, in which a base rhythm of drums, shekere, muted West African-style guitar and melodic bass guitar riffs are repeated throughout the song. Commonly, interlocking melodic riffs and rhythms are introduced one by one, building the groove bit-by-bit and layer-by-layer. The horn section then becomes prominent, introducing other riffs and main melodic themes. The musical style of Fela Kuti is called Afrobeat, a style he largely created, which is a complex fusion of jazz, funk, Ghanaian/Nigerian highlife, psychedelic rock and traditional West African chants and rhythms.

alla marcia - in the style of a march

allegro - cheerful or brisk; but commonly interpreted as lively, fast

alto - high; often refers to a particular range of voice, higher than a tenor but lower than a soprano

apaisé (Fr.) - calmed

aria - self-contained piece for one voice usually with orchestral accompaniment 

armonioso - harmoniously

arpeggio - like a harp (i.e. the notes of the chords are to be played quickly one after another — usually ascending — instead of simultaneously). Arpeggios are frequently used as an accompaniment.

B

back-beat - beats 2 and 4 in 4/4 time, particularly when they are strongly accented. A term more used in rock 'n roll.

backspinning (AAM) - a DJ technique in which the record is spun on the needle in the opposite direction. 

beat juggling (AAM) - creating a new rhythmical composition by using two records and manipulating the arrangement of the elements (drum sounds, headnotes, etc.). 

bass - the lowest of the standard four voice ranges (bass, tenor, alto, soprano); the lowest melodic line in a musical composition, often thought of as defining and supporting the harmony; in an orchestral context, the term usually refers to the double bass.

basso continuo - continuous bass (i.e. a bass accompaniment part played continuously throughout a piece by a chordal instrument

bhangra - an upbeat popular music associated with the Punjab and the Punjabi diaspora in Europe and North America. The roots of modern bhangra music date back to at least the mid 20th century in the Punjab region of the Indian subcontinent. An early pop music and modern recording artist/group of this type of music in the UK was Bhujhangy Group, founded by brothers Balbir Singh Khanpur and Dalbir Singh Khanpur in Birmingham in 1967. A modern and commercial form of Bhangra music was said to rise in Britain in the 1970s by Punjabi immigrants who took their native folk music and began experimenting by altering it using instruments from their host country. The new genre quickly became popular in Britain replacing Punjabi folk singers due to it being heavily influenced in Britain by the infusion of rock music and a need to move away from the simple and repetitive Punjabi folk music.

bird's eye - a slang term for fermata, which instructs the performer to hold a note or chord as long as they wish

black metal - an extreme sub-genre of heavy metal music. Common traits include fast tempos, a shrieking vocal style, heavily distorted guitars played with tremolo picking, raw (lo-fi) recording, unconventional song structures, and an emphasis on atmosphere. Artists often appear in corpse paint and adopt pseudonyms. Initially a synonym for "Satanic metal", black metal is intentionally separate from mainstream culture and this dissociation is often reciprocated, due to the actions and ideologies regularly associated with the genre. Many artists express extreme anti-Christian and misanthropic views, advocating various forms of Satanism or ethnic paganism. 

Bollywood songs, more formally known as Hindi film songs or filmi songs, are songs featured in Bollywood films. Derived from the song-and-dance routine in Western film circles, Bollywood songs, along with dance, are a characteristic motif of Hindi cinema which gives it enduring popular appeal, cultural value and context. Hindi film songs form a predominant component of Indian pop music, and derive their inspiration from both classical and modern sources. Hindi film songs are now firmly embedded in North India's popular culture and routinely encountered in North India in marketplaces, shops, during bus and train journeys and numerous other situations. Though Hindi films routinely contain many songs and some dance routines, they are not musicals in the Western theatrical sense; the music-song-dance aspect is an integral feature of the genre akin to plot, dialogue and other parameters. Linguistically, Bollywood songs tend to use a colloquial dialect of Hindi-Urdu, or Hindustani, mutually intelligible to both Hindi and Urdu speakers, while modern Bollywood songs also increasingly incorporate elements of Hinglish. Urdu poetry has had a particularly strong impact on Bollywood songs, where the lyrics draw heavily from Urdu poetry and the ghazal tradition. In addition, Punjabi is also occasionally used for Bollywood songs.

Here are two songs from the 1987 film Kudrat Ka Kanoon:

bossa nova - a style of Brazilian music, which was developed and popularized in the 1950s and 1960s and is today one of the best-known Brazilian music styles abroad. The phrase bossa nova means literally "new trend" or "new wave." A lyrical fusion of samba and jazz, bossa nova acquired a large following in the 1960s, initially among young musicians and college students.

break - transitional passage in which a soloist plays unaccompanied.

bridge - 1. transitional passage connecting two sections of a composition 2. Part of a violin family or guitar/lute

brillante - brilliantly, with sparkle. Play in a showy and spirited style.

broken chord = a chord in which the notes are not all played at once, but rather one after the other (i.e. an arpeggio)

C

cabaletta - the concluding, rapid, audience-rousing section of an aria

cadence - the point at which a melodic phrase "comes to rest" or resolves. A cadence often occurs on the "tonic" note (supported by the tonic chord—the "home chord" of the key). A cadence can also occur on other notes over the "tonic" chord, or over another chord such as the "dominant chord" (the chord built on the fifth scale degree). One of the features of Classical music is that cadences are often elided; that is, instead of coming to rest at the cadence, a new musical line commences at exactly the same time of the cadence. This helps to create a forward momentum in the music

calando - falling away, or lowering (i.e. getting slower and quieter; ritardando along with diminuendo)

call and response - a way of writing a song in which after a singer sings a line, other singers (e.g. backup singers or band members) respond with a line that completes the thought. Call and response singing was originally part of African-American work songs, and it subsequently became an important part of the blues.

canon or kanon (Ger.) - a theme that is repeated and imitated and built upon by other instruments with a time delay, creating a layered effect; see Pachelbel's Canon.

cantabile or cantando - in a singing style. In instrumental music, a style of playing that imitates the way the human voice might express the music, with a measured tempo and flexible, legato.

caesura (Lat.) - break, stop; (i.e. a complete break in sound) (sometimes nicknamed "railroad tracks" in reference to their appearance)

Chinese lute (pipa) - a four-stringed Chinese musical instrument, belonging to the plucked category of instruments. Sometimes called the Chinese lute, the instrument has a pear-shaped wooden body with a varying number of frets ranging from 12 to 26. Another Chinese four-string plucked lute is the liuqin, which looks like a smaller version of the pipa. The pear-shaped instrument may have existed in China as early as the Han dynasty, and although historically the term pipa was once used to refer to a variety of plucked chordophones, its usage since the Song dynasty refers exclusively to the pear-shaped instrument. The pipa is one of the most popular Chinese instruments and has been played for almost two thousand years in China. Several related instruments in East and Southeast Asia are derived from the pipa; these include the Japanese biwa, the Vietnamese đàn tỳ bà, and the Korean bipa

Chinese zither (zheng or guzheng) - a Chinese plucked string instrument with a more than 2,500-year history. The modern guzheng commonly has 21 strings, is 64 inches (1.6 m) long, and is tuned in a major pentatonic scale. It has a large, resonant soundboard made from Paulownia. Other components are often made from other woods for structural or decorative reasons. Guzheng players often wear fingerpicks made from materials such as plastic, resin, tortoiseshell, or ivory on one or both hands. The guzheng has gone through many changes during its long history. The oldest specimen yet discovered held 13 strings and was dated to around 500 BCE, possibly during the Warring States period (475–221 BCE). The guzheng became prominent during the Qin dynasty (221–206 BCE). By the Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE) the guzheng may have been the most commonly played instrument in China.

choral symphony - a musical composition for orchestra, choir, and sometimes solo vocalists that, in its internal workings and overall musical architecture, adheres broadly to symphonic musical form. The term "choral symphony" in this context was coined by Hector Berlioz when he described his Roméo et Juliette as such in his five-paragraph introduction to that work. The direct antecedent for the choral symphony is Ludwig van Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Beethoven's Ninth incorporates part of the Ode an die Freude ("Ode to Joy"), a poem by Friedrich Schiller, with text sung by soloists and chorus in the last movement. It is the first example of a major composer's use of the human voice on the same level as instruments in a symphony.

The following clip of “Ode to Joy” is from the 2006 fictional version of Beethoven’s life, Copying Beethoven. The choral part starts 5 minutes in.

chord - a group of three or more notes that, when played simultaneously, can form a harmonic structure that can support a melody or a solo line.

chorus - the refrain of a song which is repeated a number of times, in alternation with verses and other sections (e.g. a guitar solo). In contrast to the verses of a song, the chorus tends to be simpler and more memorable, and it often uses more repetition of lyrics (e.g. "She loves you yeah, yeah, yeah..."). The term "chorus" may also be a synonym for "choir"—a group of singers; or it may refer to a chorus effect—the sound created when a voice or instrumental tone is doubled by other pitches which are not exactly the same, which creates a rich, shimmering sound.

chromatic scale - a sequence of all twelve notes in an octave, played in a row (either ascending or descending). Fragments of the chromatic scale are used in many styles of popular music, but more extensive use of chromatic scale tends to occur in jazz, fusion, and the more experimental genres of rock.

clean - in reference to the sound of an electric guitar, Fender Rhodes electric piano, or other electric or electronic instrument, or to a recording of a singer or instrument or to an entire mix, "clean" means that the sound is undistorted and not muddy. For an electric instrument, the opposite of a "clean" tone is an overdriven, "clipped" (see "clipping"), or "dirty" sound.

clipping - a synonym for distortion. With vocals, mic'd acoustic instruments, Front of House mixes, and monitor mixes, clipping is almost always deemed to be undesirable, and it is minimized by reducing gain levels, using compression devices, adding "pads" (attenuation circuits), etc. With electric guitars, electric basses, Hammond organs, electric piano, and other electric instruments, performers often purposefully add clipping to the signal by boosting the gain or using an overdrive pedal.

coda - a tail (i.e. a closing section appended to a movement). Also called a "tag" or "outro".

contralto - lowest female singing voice type

counterpoint (contrapuntal) - the relationship between voices that are harmonically interdependent (polyphony) yet independent in rhythm and contour.

cover or cover tune - when a band plays a song that has been composed and recorded by another band, this is called a "cover tune"; also used as a verb (e.g. "to cover" a song by a certain band)

crescendo - growing; (i.e. progressively louder).

Jacques Brel’s “Dans le Port d’Amsterdam” (1964) goes from slow nostalgia to decadent frenzy in three minutes:

crunch - used to describe a specific type of highly distorted, mid-boosted electric guitar tone used in heavy metal and thrash metal music, typically by the rhythm guitarist. When played with palm muting, it creates a characteristic heavy rhythmic sound.

D

dancehall music (AAM) - a Jamaican dance and music with a hard driving beat played through heavy bass speakers

decelerando - slowing down; decelerating; opposite of accelerando (same as ritardando or rallentando)

declamando - solemn, expressive, impassioned

delicatamente or delicato - delicately

détaché (Fr.) - act of playing notes separately

devoto - religiously

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dissonante - dissonant

dolce - sweetly

dolente, doloroso - sorrowfully, plaintively

downtempo - a slow, moody, or decreased tempo or played or done in such a tempo. It also refers to a genre of electronic music based on this.

drone - bass note or chord performed continuously throughout a composition

dry - a signal that has no reverb effect, or more generally, a signal that has not been processed with any effects unit. Vocals are almost always recorded "dry", and then the reverb or other effects are added in post-production. Electric guitars and electric keyboards are often, but not always recorded with their effects (distortion, chorus, etc.) already added.

E

eco - "echo"; an effect in which a group of notes is repeated, usually more softly, and perhaps at a different octave, to create an echo effect

encore (Fr.) - again (i.e. perform the relevant passage once more); a performer returning to the stage to perform an unlisted piece

erhu - a two-stringed bowed musical instrument, more specifically a spike fiddle, which may also be called a Southern Fiddle, and sometimes known in the Western world as the Chinese violin or a Chinese two-stringed fiddle. It is used as a solo instrument as well as in small ensembles and large orchestras. It is the most popular of the huqin family of traditional bowed string instruments used by various ethnic groups of China. A very versatile instrument, the erhu is used in both traditional and contemporary music arrangements, such as in pop, rock and jazz.

F

fall - jazz term describing a note of definite pitch sliding downwards to another note of definite pitch.

falsetto - vocal register above the normal voice; male voice above usual bass or tenor range (see article)

fantasia - a piece not adhering to any strict musical form. Can also be used in con fantasia: with imagination

feedback - the resonance loop created when a microphone or guitar pickup is placed close to a highly amplified speaker, often creating a howling or screeching sound. In most cases, musicians and sound engineers seek to avoid feedback with microphones and acoustic instruments; with electric guitar, especially in heavy metal and shred guitar playing it may be done on purpose.

fermata - finished, closed (i.e. a rest or note is to be held for a duration that is at the discretion of the performer or conductor) (sometimes called bird's eye); a fermata at the end of a first or intermediate movement or section is usually moderately prolonged, but the final fermata of a symphony may be prolonged for longer than the note's value, typically twice its printed length or more for dramatic effect.

filtering (AAM) - sifting high end and mid-range sounds (they are not removed, but are compressed) and boosting up the bass. 

flamenco - a professionalized art-form based on the various folkloric music traditions of southern Spain in the autonomous communities of Andalusia, Extremadura and Murcia. In a wider sense, it refers to these musical traditions and more modern musical styles which have themselves been deeply influenced by and become blurred with the development of flamenco over the past two centuries. It includes cante (singing), toque (guitar playing), baile (dance), jaleo (vocalizations and chorus clapping), palmas (handclapping) and pitos (finger snapping). The oldest record of flamenco dates to 1774 in the book Las Cartas Marruecas by José Cadalso. Flamenco has been influenced by and associated with the Romani people in Spain; however, its origin and style are uniquely Andalusian.

flat - a symbol (♭) that lowers the pitch of a note by a semitone. The term may also be used as an adjective to describe a situation where a singer or musician is performing a note in which the intonation is an eighth or a quarter of a semitone too low.

fortississimo (fff) - as loud as possible

freddo - Cold(ly); hence depressive, unemotional

fugue (Fr.), fuga (Latin and Italian) - Literally "flight"; hence a complex and highly regimented contrapuntal [counterpoint] form in music. A short theme (the subject) is introduced in one voice (or part) alone, then in others, with imitation and characteristic development as the piece progresses.

funk (AAM) - a musical genre characterized by group singing, complex polyrythmic structures, percussive instrumental and vocal timbres and featured horn section. James Brown and Sly Stone were the godfathers of funk.

G

gamalan - is the traditional ensemble music of Java and Bali in Indonesia, made up predominantly of percussive instruments. The most common instruments used are metallophones played by mallets and a set of hand-played drums called kendhang which register the beat. Other instruments include xylophones, bamboo flutes, a bowed instrument called a rebab, and even vocalists called sindhen. The gamelan predates the Hindu-Buddhist culture that dominated Indonesia in its earliest records and thus represents an indigenous art form. In contrast to the heavy Indian influence in other art forms, the only obvious Indian influence in gamelan music is in the Javanese style of singing, and in the themes of the Wayang kulit (shadow puppet plays).

The earliest image of a musical ensemble is found on the bas-relief of 8th century Buddhist monument of Borobudur, Central Java. The Borobudur's musicians play lute-like stringed instruments, kendang drums, suling flutes, small cymbals and bells. Some of these musical instruments are indeed included in a complete gamelan orchestra. Musical instruments such as the bamboo flute, bells, drums in various sizes, lute, and bowed and plucked string instruments were identified in this image. However it lacks metallophones and xylophones. Nevertheless, the image of this musical ensemble is suggested to be the ancient form of the gamelan.

Borobudur relief showing musicians, photo by Gunawan Kartapranata (Wikimedia Commons)

Borobudur relief showing musicians, photo by Gunawan Kartapranata (Wikimedia Commons)

gangsta (AAM) - a style of hip hop distinguished by a raw edgy, raucous sound and gritty tales about urban life. The lyrics were an accurate reflection of reality; other times, they were exaggerated comic book stories. The most commercially successful form of hip-hop in the late '80s and early '90s that caused considerable controversy. 

ghazal - a form of amatory poem or ode, originating in Arabic poetry. A ghazal may be understood as a poetic expression of both the pain of loss or separation and the beauty of love in spite of that pain. A ghazal commonly consists of between five and fifteen couplets, which are independent, but are linked – abstractly, in their theme; and more strictly in their poetic form.The ghazal is one of the most widespread and popular poetic forms, especially across the Middle East and South Asia. In India, Jagjit Singh popularizes ghazals and ghazal singing among scores of music lovers. Readings or musical renditions of Ghazals are well attended in these countries, even by the laity. In a similar manner to Haiku, the Ghazal is gaining popularity among western poetry readers. 

gospel (or gospel music) is a genre of Christian music. Gospel music usually has dominant vocals (often with strong use of harmony) with Christian lyrics. Gospel music can be traced to the early 17th century, with roots in the black oral tradition. Hymns and sacred songs were often repeated in a call and response fashion. Most of the churches relied on hand clapping and foot stomping as rhythmic accompaniment. Most of the singing was done a cappella. The advent of radio in the 1920s greatly increased the audience for gospel music. Following World War II, gospel music moved into major auditoriums, and gospel music concerts became quite elaborate.

gospel hip-hop (AAM) - the fusion of contemporary gospel and hip-hop elements. Integrates gospel lyrics and Christian religious themes with hip-hop lyrical rhymes and beats to create inspirational songs of faith. Artists include - "Nu Nation" and "DC Talk"

gospel style (AAM) - improvised and melismatic vocal style characterized by a strained, full-throated sound, often pushed to guttural shrieks and rasps suited to the extremes of emotional-laden lyrics. Vocal timbres extend from lyrical to percussive and syncopated polyrhythms are accentuated with heavy, often hand-clapped accents on beats 2 and 4. 

gliss or glissando - a continuous sliding from one pitch to another (a true glissando), or an incidental scale executed while moving from one melodic note to another (an effective glissando). 

grace note - an extra note added as an embellishment and not essential to the harmony or melody.

guerriero - war-like, militarily

guzheng (see Chinese zither)

H-I-L

hardcore (AAM) - a style of hip-hop marked by confrontation and aggression, whether in the lyrical subject matter, the hard, driving beats, braying sampling and production, or any combination thereof. The musical style of hardcore hip-hop is aggressive, polytextured, polyrhythmic, and polysonic. Hardcore rap is tough, streetwise, and intense. Hardcore comprises conscious or nationalist hip-hop style as well as gangsta and x-rated. 

harmony vocals or harmony parts - backup singing which supports the main melody

hip-hop (AAM) - competitive cultural expressions of urban youth, consisting of graffiti artists, mobile deejays, breakers (breakdancers, b-boys, b-girls), and MC's (later known as rappers). Hip-hop provided both entertainment for inner-city youth and a new forum for competitive, non-violent gang warfare.

Glossary of Hip Hp Terms - Hip-Hop/Slang Dictionary - Common Terms in Rap.

This video on Kanye West provides some terms and analysis.

hook - a motif that is used in popular music to make a song appealing and to "catch the ear of the listener".

horn - in a jazz, blues, or R&B context, the term "horn" refers generically to any brass instrument (e.g. saxophone, trumpet, etc.).

horn section - in a jazz, blues, or R&B context, this refers to a small group of brass players who accompany an ensemble by playing soft "pads" and punctuating the melodic line with "punches" (sudden interjections).

imperioso - imperiously

impetuoso - impetuously

incalzando - getting faster and louder

lacrimoso or lagrimoso - tearfully (i.e. sadly)

laissez vibrer, l.v. (Fr.) - French for lasciare suonare ("let vibrate").

larghissimo - very slowly; slower than largo

largo - broadly (i.e. slowly)

lasciare suonare - "let ring", meaning allow the sound to continue, do not damp; used frequently in harp or guitar music, occasionally in piano or percussion

leggiero -  lightly, delicately 

lontano - from a distance; distantly

lyrics - words that make up a song usually consisting of verses and choruses. The writer of lyrics is a lyricist. The words to an extended musical composition such as an opera are, however, usually known as a "libretto" and their writer, as a "librettist". The meaning of lyrics can either be explicit or implicit. Some lyrics are abstract, almost unintelligible, and, in such cases, their explication emphasizes form, articulation, meter, and symmetry of expression. Rappers can also create lyrics (often with a variation of rhyming words) that are meant to be spoken rhythmically rather than sung."Lyric" derives via Latin lyricus from the Greek λυρικός (lyrikós), the adjectival form of lyre. It first appeared in English in the mid-16th century in reference, to the Earl of Surrey's translations of Petrarch and to his own sonnets. Greek lyric poetry had been defined by the manner in which it was sung accompanied by the lyre or cithara, as opposed to the chanted formal epics or the more passionate elegies accompanied by the flute. The differences between poem and song may become less meaningful where verse is set to music, to the point that any distinction becomes untenable. This is perhaps recognised in the way popular songs have lyrics.

Lyres — from Ur (Mesopotamia), 2500 B.C. and from Greece, 5th C. B.C. (Wikimedia Commons)

Lyres — from Ur (Mesopotamia), 2500 B.C. and from Greece, 5th C. B.C. (Wikimedia Commons)

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