Recitative is easily distinguished from more florid arias, as the rhythms and melodic countours of recitative often approximate to those of normal speech. It is used where dialogue or monologue is sung in between the arias, choruses or other numbers, and is intended to help move the story along quickly.
Recitative often has very simple accompaniment, sometimes nothing more than a continuo (which might be nothing more than a harpsichord) playing occasional chords. The terms recitativo secco and recitativo accompagnato (or recitativo stromentato) are sometimes used to distinguish recitative accompanied only by continuo and recitative accompanied by the orchestra.
The word has sometimes been used in relation to parts of purely instrumental works which resemble vocal recitatives (passages in Ludwig van Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 17 (The Tempest) and Piano Sonata No. 31 are examples).