An Extensive Encyclopedic Music Dictionary

An Extensive
Traditional and Folk Music
Encyclopedic Dictionary

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(Section P3)

pit (UK) a mine.

pitch class all the notes of the same name across all the octaves; for example, all Cs on the piano belong to the same pitch class. This is due to the phenomenon of octave equivalence.

pitch discrimination the ability to distinguish very small differences in pitch. This varies widely with the person tested, the loudness and frequencies of the tones and their duration, and the harmonic makeup. According to "The Psychology of Music", Carl Seashore, 1938, tests showed that subjects selected at random averaged a discrimination of 12 cents, or somewhat over 10% of a semitone, while the better results from the group went down to two cents. Tests on trained musicians showed an average of two cents, with the best results lower than one cent; however, it’s been pointed out that he didn’t give any test conditions. Alexander Wood said in his "Physics of Music" (revised J.M. Bowsher, 1972) that three cents over the range 500 Hz to 4,000 Hz was typical under laboratory conditions. For everyday use, a reasonable general value is 5-10 cents, as stated in "Measured Tones" (see books. See also perfect pitch. The time it takes to recognize a short tone as having definite pitch varies with frequency. Around 440 Hz, it’s about 40 milliseconds, and increases with decreasing frequency to about 90 milliseconds at 128 Hz.

pitch drift (also "pitch slide") the pitch of small instruments, particularly the stringed variety, tends to change with changes of temperature and humidity. New strings also seem to have minds of their own as they settle in. The result is much on-stage tuning (see tuning jokes). Some instrumentalists tune during an intro to have something to do with their hands. This is very annoying, but they apparently aren’t aware that they’re doing it to excess.

Pitch-The pitch of a note is the frequency of its vibrations. The exact pitch of notes has varied over the years and nowadays differs to some extent between continent and continent or even between orchestra and orchestra. Earlier pitches were generally lower, but not necessarily standardised. Perfect pitch is the ability to distinguish the pitch of a note, according to generally accepted nomenclature. Relative pitch is the ability to distinguish the pitch of one note with relation to another, given note. 2. Pitch is how high or low a note sounds, or how high or low a song or tune is set. It’s quantified in cycles per second, or hertz (abbreviation Hz; see frequency). Pitch is our subjective reaction to frequency (see perfect pitch for more on this). See also cent, pitch discrimination. Some performers have perfect pitch, or nearly so, and can start a song bang-on every time without an instrument. Others guess at it and end up having to start over again after some breathy lows or squeaky highs. With instruments, it refers to how high or how low the instrument is set compared to the standard explained below. Instruments can be pitched in whatever way suits the musician, but playing with others requires common ground. The international standard for pitch is to place the A above middle C at 440 hertz. This is the meaning of the A440 that appears on various tuning aids, and is known as "concert pitch". See pitch pipe, tuner. In the past there were various attempts to standardize; for instance, "Philharmonic pitch" was set by the British in 1896 at 439 Hz. A 1938 American book on the psychology of music said that the international standard was A435. Musical dictionaries vary on when the A440 standard was officially accepted, but 1938 (British Standards Inst.), 1939 (ISO), and 1955 (ISO) are dates given, remarkably late in the history of music. There are still said to be areas using other standards. In the 19th century it was often customary to use brass bands in theater productions, and brass bands caused a certain amount of trouble because they favored a slightly higher pitch (one that would carry well outdoors). It was A456, about a quarter-tone higher than A440, and is sometimes called "Salvation Army pitch". Tuning forks and church organs would indicate that centuries ago their standard pitch varied widely, with some organs ranging from 380 (France) to about 500 (Germany); the difference is almost a fourth. A tuning fork said to be Handel’s is at about 423 Hz (G# and a bit); another from London about 1700 was at 454 (about halfway between A and A#). The builders and players of period instruments today sometimes use "baroque pitch", which is 415.3 Hz (G# in today’s system, or one semitone below A440). A pitch of about 430 is often used by period players doing performances of late-18th and early-19th classical music. Note that in some music books written by people unfamiliar with physics, or physicists unfamiliar with music, the note middle C is given as 256 Hz. This was once seriously proposed as a standard ("philosophical pitch") because it would simplify calculations. It’s also called the "physical scale" and is of use to acousticians because the frequencies of C become whole numbers. It has no musical use (middle C in the A440 standard and equal-tempered scale is 261.6 Hz). The frequencies of the notes in our current scale are under equal-tempered scale; for other tuning systems, see temperament.

pitch pipe a sort of reeded harmonica favored by teachers and singers for finding concert pitch or the key to sing in. They’re also available in the notes for guitars and other instruments, usually in the form of whistles rather than reeded, but have largely been replaced by the electronic tuner. They’re still handy for a cappella singers.

pitch. the predominant frequency in a sound. Note the difference from tonic.

pitch-axis. (set-theory) a pitch or pc that is used as a pivot for turning a set around to create inversions. See also: axis.

pitch-class. (set-theory) all pitches having the same name and their enharmonic equivalents. The pitch-class C consists of all Cs, high and low, as well as all B#s, whereas middle-C is a specific pitch.

pitch-class-number. (set-theory) see pitch-number.

pitch-class-set. (set-theory) a group of pitch-classes.

pitch-number. (set-theory) a number assigned to a pitch-class in a set, in one of two ways: 1. (absolute system) the number of semitones the pc is above C (C=0, C#=1, D=2, etc.), or 2. (relative system) the number of semitones the pc is above a reference pc, the latter of which is normally taken to be the first pc of a prime-set or a prime-form.

pitch-structure. (Howe) (set-theory) the intervallic organization of a pc-set.

Più-Più (Italian: more) is found in directions to performers, as in più forte, louder, or più lento, slower.

pivot-chord. (syn. common-chord) a chord that functions in two different keys and is used to modulate from one key to another.

pizzicato (pron. "peetsy-catto") to play a bowed instrument by plucking the strings directly with the fingers. The sound, especially with violins, is abrupt and penetrating. 2. Pizzicato (Italian: plucked) is a direction to performers on string instruments to pluck the strings. A return to the use of the bow is indicated by the word 'arco', bow. Pizzicato notes on the violin, viola and cello are normally plucked with the index finger of the right hand. The great violinist Paganini, however, introduced the technique of left-hand pizzicato for occasional use, notably in one of the variations of his 24th Caprice, where it produces a very special effect.

plagal see mode.

plagal-cadence. the cadence formula IV I.

Plainchant-Plainchant is the traditional monodic chant of the Catholic and Eastern Christian liturgies. In Western Europe plainchant was largely but not completly standardised under Pope Gregory the Great at the end of the sixth century. This form of chant is free in rhythm, following the words of the liturgical texts, and is modal, using the scales of the eight church modes. In its long history it has undergone various reforms, revisions and attempts at restoration. 2. painchant synonymous with Gregorian chant, plainsong.

plainsong the traditional melodies of the western Christian church. They’re unadorned and devoid of contrapuntal elements. "Plainchant" is synonymous with Gregorian chant. Plainsong generally had no accompaniment, although sometimes an organ was used. Harmonies were simple, usually parallels. For a plain subject, it can get complicated.

planing. chords moving in parallel-motion.

planxty 1. In the Irish tradition, a tune composed in honor of a patron (they knew where their bread was buttered). A typical name would be "Planxty O’Donnell". The word is said to have originated with Carolan, Turlough. 2. A trend-setting Irish traditional group.

player piano a piano with a mechanism that could self-operate by means of perforated, pre-recorded piano rolls. Some models used more durable punched metal disks, but the paper rolls were more popular. They were made obsolete by the phonograph, but remain the only way we can get to hear the playing of musicians like Joplin, Scott, who never made audio recordings. They’re sometimes known as the pianola, although this term, which was originally a trade name, means any type of self-playing piano.

Playford John Playford (1623-1686) started the important Playford music publishing house in 17th-century London. The house had an enormous collection of traditional and contemporary dance tunes, and these were published in 1650 (some editions are from 1651) as the famous "Playford Dancing Master", still in use today - see country dancing. He was the first to publish Purcell, Henry. See Internet folk for a Web address where you can find the Dancing Master online.

playing by ear it’s probably safe to say that the great majority of folkies play by ear, even if they know a lot of music theory. Even those with proper training can usually improvise as required. Some people think this is an inborn gift, and apparently this is true of some musicians, but most learned how to do it by playing and singing and learning lots of songs. Unfortunately, they all seem to have done it on an intuitive level - good explanations of how it works are few. Folk music is not just random notes (though some of it sounds like it), but a series of building blocks, such as short pieces of melody and the accompanying chord progression. After learning enough songs, a pattern emerges, and the performer can predict what chord will come next (folk is not like classical in inventiveness - most chord progressions are pretty basic). A few more songs and some instrument practice, and it becomes possible to play along with a tune, even though it’s new to the performer. A few more yet and the performer can fake it.

plectrum a flatpick. The term is never used in folk, except perhaps for humorous effect.

plectrum banjo a 4-string banjo somewhat like the tenor banjo, but with a longer neck (like a 5-string without the 5th string). Tunings include D G B E (like the top four strings on a guitar) and C G B D.

ploo (Scot., n. or v.) plow.

poaching songs there are many of these from the UK in the 18th and 19th centuries, and some of them make poaching out to be something of a spree ( Lincolnshire Poacher). Others, however, are more realistic ("The Poacher’s Fate" or "The Moon Shone Bright"). Much farmland had been closed off by the owners for the more lucrative venture of sheepraising, and the poachers killing the landlord’s game or livestock were often looking at their only source of food. According to the old songs, the gamekeepers had the right to shoot to kill, and they often did. The penalty for poaching was often hanging or transportation (see transports).

pock (UK, also "poke") bag.

Poco-Poco (Italian: little) is found in directions to performers, as in poco allegro, although un poco allegro, a little fast, would be more accurate. Poco, in fact, is commonly used meaning un poco, a little.

pointillism. short bursts of instrumental tone colour.

Polacca-Polacca, Polish, appears often in the phrase Alla polacca, in the Polish manner, as in the last movement of the first Brandenburg Concerto of Johann Sebastian Bach.

polarization. opposites forming the most important structural pillars in the texture; e.g., soprano and bass or solo and tutti.

pole (UK measure) 5.5 yards (aka "rod" or "perch").

Polka-The polka, a Bohemian dance, became one of the most popular ball-room dances of the 19th century, its title a possible reference to Poland. It is used by Smetana in his Czech opera The Bartered Bride and elsewhere and in William Walton's jeu d'esprit Façade. 2 polka a round dance in quick double time.

Polly lots of Pollys in traditional song. In fact, women are almost always Polly or Nancy. See also Willy. The consistent use of these names is a marker.

Polonaise-The polonaise is a Polish dance in triple metre. Although the title is found in French Suite No. 6 of Johann Sebastian Bach and elsewhere in the earlier 18th century, the form is best known from the piano pieces written by Chopin a hundred years later, works that elevated the original dance to a higher level, while capturing the current spirit of Polish nationalism.

poly-. (prefix) more than one simultaneously.

polychord. more than one triadic-chord sounding at once.

polymeter two different time signatures in the same work. Distinct from polyrhythm, which has different rhythmic effects under one time signature.

polymeter. more than one meter at once.

polymodality. more than one modality at once.

polyphonic (noun form "polyphony") this type of music has multiple parts - a parallel or non-parallel harmony, or separate melodies that move independently. Its opposite is monophonic. Polyphony is really divided into melodies with supporting harmony ( homophonic), and separate melodies (like a classical fugue). Independence of melodies is rarely encountered in folk music - you might say that a guitarist’s lead lines are polyphonic, but in general they move in step with the tune’s chord progression and are probably best thought of as decoration to the main melody. Round singing, common in folk, has the independent polyphonic door open a crack. The quodlibet, which is two different songs going at once, is a sort of polyphony. See also round.

polyphony see polyphonic.

Polyphony-Polyphony is the writing of music in many parts or in more than one part, with reference in particular to contrapuntal practices. Monody or monophony are possible opposites. 2.two or more melodic lines simultaneously.

polyrhythm using distinctive rhythms at the same time to create effects, but with the same time signature. If the rhythms are different enough to warrant multiple time signatures, the term is polymeter.

polytonality. more than one tonality at once.

Ponticello-to play near the bridge (sur ponticello) resulting in a squeaky tone.

Poole, Charlie (1892-1931) Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers began recording their old-timey music in the early 20s. Many of their songs have been reissued on LPs, and they remain one of the greatest influences on the younger musicians who love the music. One of their songs remains famous far outside old-timey: "Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down".

Poor Old Horse one of many popular shanties, with the words: "They say, old man, that your horse will die,And we say so, and we hope so..." The "horse" is said to be a sailor’s debt to the shipping company. After the voyage, the recently-paid sailor discharges the debt and his horse is said to be dead, or so the story goes from Frank Shay, author of "An American Sailor’s Treasury", and from Sandburg, Carl and Hugill, Stan. There is also an English country song by the same name which is actually about a horse.

popping p’s when a vocalist says or sings a word beginning with a plosive like "b" or "p", there is a puff of breath that hits the microphone and produces a loud pop. Since experience with microphones eliminates this after a while, it tends to be the mark of the stage or studio neophyte, not that the old pros aren’t guilty now and then. Some relief from the effect can be had by using a foam cover on the microphone, or a mechanical screen; these diffuse the puff of air. See also windsock.

portamento a glide from one note to an adjacent one. On synthesizers, it means that the instrument begins a note slightly below pitch and glides up to it.

Portamento-Gliding from one note to the other.

Porterhouse, Tedham see Blind Boy Grunt.

Post Horn-The post horn is a relatively simple kind of horn once played by postilions as a signal of the departure, arrival or approach of a coach. Mozart made brief use of the instrument in his Post Horn Serenade, and its sound was imitated by various composers, including Johann Sebastian Bach in his harpsichord Capriccio on the Departure of His Beloved Brother, which includes a Postilion Aria and a fugue on the sound of the post horn.

Posthumous-published after author's death.

Postlude-A postlude is played at the end of a piece and indicates, in particular, the additional piano phrases that may appear at the end of a song, after the singer has stopped. The word is more widely used to describe the closing section of a work or to indicate a piece of music to be played as the conclusion of some ceremony, the opposite of a prelude.

potluck folkie get-togethers often feature a potluck dinner in which each guest brings a dish. This is not to be confused with the popular usage of "take potluck" - the cooking is extraordinarily good, with a huge variety of foods from many ethnic sources.

pound in the old and new British systems, a unit of money equal to (at present) about $2US; also known as "pound sterling". There was formerly a pound coin called the sovereign. A pound is 20 shillings. See also bob, quid.

pow (UK) head.

PP&M see Peter, Paul & Mary.

Prelude-A prelude (= Latin: praeludium, praeambulum; French: prélude; German: Vorspiel) is a movement or section of a work that comes before another movement or section of a work, although the word also has been used for short independent pieces that may stand alone, or even for more extended works, such as Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune.

prepared-piano. a piano in which the sound has been altered by the placement of various objects in or on the strings or action.

presenting (UK), to toast someone, holding the glass towards them.