The music used in a ballet class is chosen carefully to enable the dancer to perform steps in certain rhythms. The following provides a very basic understanding of the types of music used during class. Exercises at the bar use most all the time signatures. Most center floor combinations are counted in groups of eight. Teachers count by beats and measures depending on the exercise.
The first number denotes the number of beats in the bar of music, the second number the value of each beat.
2/4 time – quick, light feel
Polka – light and bouncy
Gallop – quick
Hornpipe – rhythmical
Habanera – slow graceful
Tango – faster and stronger that Habanera
3/4 time – slow to quick depending on rhythm
Waltz – graceful, light and lyrical
Mazurka – accent on the second beat, rhythmic
Minuet – stately and slower
4/4 time – strong march like
March – steady rhythm
Gavotte – moderately quick
6/8 time – light or flowing
Jig – fast
Tarantella – lively
Barcarolle – gentle
Berceuse – cradle song
Medieval (1100-1400), Music rarely used today in ballet but very much a part of the developing theater of the time.
Renaissance (1400-1600), Madrigal songs and religious themes
Baroque (1600-1750), Composers Johan Sebastian Bach, Antonio Vivaldi, Domenico Scarlatti, Joseph Handel, composers heard frequently at church, balls and masquerades.
Classical (1750-1820), Composers Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven who’s music started to provide the framework for what we call ballet today.
Romantic (1820-1900), All great 19th Century classical ballets such as, Swan Lake, Les Sylphides, Giselle are choreographed to this style of music. Composers of the time are Minkus, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Stauss, Adam, Tchaikovsky, Verdi, Rossini and Puccini.
20th Century (1870 – present). An incredible variety of styles have developed this past century with works from; Smetena, Grieg, Liszt, Bartok, Debussy, Ravel, Satie, Stravinsky. Dance has evolved through popular culture to embraced sambas, tangos, jazz, cinema musical and Broadway.
Adagio – very slow
Accelerando – gradually faster
Andante – rather slow
Allegretto – a little fast
Allegro – fast
A tempo – back to original tempo
Chamber music – Instrumental ensemble music where each player has a separate part to play in the piece
Concerto – A composition for orchestra and a solo instrument
Symphony – A composition in three or four movements for full orchestra
Etude – A short, instrumental composition in which some technical feature is emphasized.
Fantasy – An instrumental composition of free expression
Melody – Tone and rhythms which create an identifiable pattern
Moderator – moderate
Movement – A section or division of a long composition
Nocturne – A piece, usually lyrical, often romantic, melancholy or a reflective mood.
Overture – An introduction to a musical piece, ballet or opera.
Prelude – A short composition usually followed by the major work.
Presto – very fast
Rhythm – “Flow of measured motion”
Ritardando – gradually slower
Rubato – variable tempo
Suite – A number of pieces of music following a particular style.
Theme – The concept behind the musical piece.
Tone – Where sound is located on a musical scale.
Credits and Resources
Our gratitude goes to the following persons from whom extracts of this paper were gleamed.
Cecchetti Council of America – Musical Form Teachers Grades I, II & III
A Concise History of Ballet – Ferdinando Reyna
Ballet for All – Peter Brinson and Clement Crisp
The Dancer’s Heritage – Ivor Guest