5 Musical Terms Every Filmmaker Needs to Know

As a video professional, you’ve probably experienced an inherent disconnect communicating your vision to a music composer at some point in your career. While you don’t need to be schooled in the intricacies of music theory, there are some musical terms that will make a world of difference when sharing your vision with your composer.


The term instrumentation describes how and when instruments are used in a piece of music. Instruments are grouped into like categories, or families, from which composers choose from. Just like a chef can combine wet, dry, spicy, savory, bitter, and sweet ingredients together to create a dish, composers utilize instrument families in a similar fashion. While it’s not incredibly important to know specific differences between an oboe and a bassoon, it is important to be familiar with the families of strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion, guitars, synths, keyboards, etc. Composers write music specifically for these groups to create the aural landscape of their composition. A great start to understanding instrumentation is Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. Just like a chef may use a specific spice or herb to make a signature flavor, composers look for a particular instrument combination to give their music a signature sound. In listening to all the musical combinations in the link above, you can hear how similar musical material constructed with different instruments provides many different colors and flavors of interpretation.

Rhythm and Tempo

Tempo and Rhythm are two terms that, while related, are easily confused. Tempo is the speed of music. Think of it like a speedometer on a car. When driving at a consistent speed, you are traveling a specific distance over time. For example, driving at 60 mph for an hour would allow you to travel 60 miles. Similarly, if the tempo of a piece of music is 60 beats-per-minute (bpm), you would have 60 beats in one minute.

Rhythm, on the other hand, is the uniting and dividing of beats and arranging them into patterns. Imagine tapping out ten seconds in a row. Now tap ten seconds again, but skip every third tap. This empty space is know as a “rest.” You’ve just created a new rhythmic pattern, all the while “staying in time” with the original tempo of one tap per second.

Melody and Harmony

Melody and Harmony are another set of related, but confusing terms. Melody is the “singable” aspect of a piece of music. It can be carried by a single instrument or a group of instruments that play the same sequential string of notes. A melody is often referred to as the horizontal relationship of notes. Terms like rises, falls, leaps, steps, pauses, starts, and stops, helps describe what a melody is doing.

Harmony provides the musical context for the melody. It is the vertical relationship of notes in a piece of music. Harmony can change the feeling you get from a melody, either clashing with or supporting it. Successful harmony makes a melody more interesting, helping to break up any monotony, as well as informing the listener if a piece is ending or developing into something else.


Be mindful of how you use the word “dynamics,” as this term has a wide range of uses. It is used to describe how loud or soft something is at a moment in time, but can also be used to describe the the change in volume (loudness and softness). To distinguish between these two uses of the same word, we use italian terms than are less flexible in their meaning. Piano, mezzo-piano, mezzo-forte, and forte all describe, from soft to loud, a volume at a moment in time. Piano, while also an instrument, means to play softly. Mezzo (pronounced [ˈmetsō]) means medium, while forte [fȯr-’tay] means loud. For example piano would be a whisper, mezzo-piano would be a hushed voice, mezzo-forte would be normal talking voice, forte would be shouting. A crescendo is when music gets louder over time, while decrescendo is when music gets softer.


A chord is a set of notes heard simultaneously that enforce the harmony. Chords are expressed in qualitative terms such as major, minor, diminished, etc. Unless you can distinguish between qualities of chords, avoid using “major” and “minor” when talking with a composer. Instead favor language such as “harmony” when evaluating the composer’s score.

Using These Terms (and others)

As filmmakers, we need to use proper terms to convey our ideas, and the communication between director and composer/musician is no exception. Using the terms above properly is a great start to communicating your musical goals to a composer. As a general rule of thumb, speak in broader terms if you aren’t familiar with the musical definitions, and don’t be afraid to ask for clarification.

Written by: Sam Estes | Founder of Amper Music | A.I. Music Composer

Supported by: Drew Silverstein and Michael Hobe

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