Musical Terminology: Types of Musical Composition

Category: Miscellaneous

Prélude...!!!Creative Commons License photo credit: Denis Collette…!!!

If you have studied or listened to piano pieces, you have probably run into different types of words that are used to describe a piece of music.  Preludes, Nocturnes, and Etudes are just a subset of the many different types of musical composition. In this post, I will discuss the differences between them. Next time you listen to a Prelude, Nocturne, or Etude, see if you can distinguish the elements that make it what it is.


Preludes are characterized by being short and sweet (relatively), with a melodic and/or rhythmic motif that is featured throughout the piece.   This motif will recur throughout the piece, sometimes differing slightly as the music progresses.  A prelude may be played on its own, or as a preface to another piece, usually more complex.


Nocturnes are generally lyrical and tranquil pieces.  The nocturne is known for being expressive above all else. It follows no specific form, but evolves as the music progresses.


You can probably guess this one.  Etude is the french word for study; so a musical etude is just that – a musical study used to perfect a particular technical skill.  Generally etudes are quite difficult, featuring runs of quick notes, and arpeggios.

Those were just three terms that are commonly used to characterize a piece of music.  For some examples of these styles take a look at the works of Chopin. He composed 24 Preludes:  One in each key, major and minor, 27 Etudes, and 21 Nocturnes.

Posted on June 24th, 2009 by sharlene


  1. Norbert C. Piano Says:

    Hi Sharlene,
    Great musical knowledge you’re posting here. I have read 5 lessons so far. It’s good to have music lesson sites like this one.

    Mentioning about Chopin, a virtuoso pianist, his etudes are very good for practice. Some are very fast and quickly changes moods. One of my favorites is Etude op.25 no.11 otherwise known as “Winter Wind.”

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  3. pianogurl4evah Says:

    This is great! I have played piano since I was 5, am now 15 and LOVE chopin!! I was listening to his Etude in C – minor (otherwise known as revolutionary) on my ipod, realized I had a book of Chopin music, and went to look to see if the piece was in it. I discovered that the book was a compilation of his preludes, and that sparked my question: what is the difference between a prelude and an etude!? This answered it perfectly! Thanks so much!

  4. Alice Says:

    Its good to know about all these musical terminology. It helps while playing or even just listening to piano music.

  5. Frank Says:

    Thanks for the lesson. We have an album with 4 records played by Ivan Moravec which also contain Chopin’s 4 Ballades. (Yes, records. Vinyl, long play.) How would you describe the difference between a nocturne and a Ballade? Is a ballade a sort of mini-sonata? It is certainly about twice as long as a nocturne.

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  7. Artifex 28 Says:

    I was 12 when I composed this one. I’ve still no idea how to “categorize” it. Is it a prelude or a nocturne? 🙂

  8. Artifex 28 Says:

    Oh yeah! If possible, reply on Soundcloud!

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