Monday, September 10, 2012

The Importance of Earnest Musical Vocabulary

Note: this post is loosely based on an article I wrote in the 2nd and 3rd editions of the BYU Honors department’s Why Write?

Writing about music: a square peg in a round hole?

Even if you have a lot of experience talking about literature, art, and film, writing about music can be particularly challenging. Music may be the most abstract of all the arts. Sometimes writing about music can be like forcing a square peg into a round hole. How do you translate into words something that you experience solely through carefully organized silence and vibrations, with no counterpart in the tangible world?

Many people writing about music take one of three paths:

  1. Concentrate solely on the context or the lyrics. People who are more used to talking about books or art might do this. It can be dangerous, as concentrating on lyrics or context at the expense of the music can lead to very wrong characterizations of the music. After all, just to mention one example, music has its own way of being sarcastic or ironic. And so much of a song’s message just isn’t apparent in the lyrics or context.
  2. The lazy route—simply giving qualitative judgments about the music: “it’s great!” or “it’s horrible” or “my girlfriend likes it.” While it’s okay to give these judgments, it’s much better to give some concrete musical reasons why you like it or not.
  3. The comparative path—people try to get off the hook by simply saying this music is like this other music. While this is preferable to the other two paths, it still does not mention exactly how the music is similar or how either music is behaving.
Try listening to or reading music reviews sometime. It’s amazing how many seasoned music reviewers or commentators take one of these three paths and simply avoid describing the music. Doesn’t it bother you? It bothers me.

A Better Way

The solution is cultivating musical vocabulary. Over the years, musicians have built up a vocabulary to conceptualize abstract musical objects. A useful tool for remembering the basic building blocks of music is the acronym SHMRF (kind of like Smurf, but with a lisp and without the vowel). Each letter stands for one of music’s five basic elements: Sound, Harmony, Melody, Rhythm, and Form. I’m going to throw out some quick music term definitions here, so hold onto your hats if you are new to this! Sound has several parts to it, including texture (how many distinct musical lines are sounding at one time), dynamics (how loud or soft the music is), and media (what type of instruments or voices are being used). Harmony refers to the vertical sonorities in the music, or how notes are stacked on top of each other. These stacked notes are called chords, and harmonic language hinges on how these chords relate to each other. Melody refers to horizontal sonorities in the music, or a string of related music notes occurring over time. Rhythm is the music’s durational pattern; Beethoven’s short-short-short-long in his Fifth Symphony is a famous example of a rhythm which drives a piece. Form refers to the larger structures in music, or how different melodies or sections of the music are related to each other (such as if they repeat or not). 

Usually in each piece some elements are more important than others. For example, some music has a lot of rhythm and very little melody, or lots of harmony but very little dynamics. Of the five, sound and rhythm are the easiest ones to write about, and you can say plenty about those things without needing to talk about the more esoteric elements such as form and harmony.

Back to where we started—writing. This music vocabulary is our tool for conveying what the music actually sounds like or makes it interesting. No need to re-invent the wheel when there’s this useful vocabulary ready to be used. Not using this vocabulary really limits what you can say about what you hear.

Problems with New Vocabulary

There’s a problem, though. We know about music-specific vocabulary, but what about the people who are reading our stuff? Do they know? Well, the answer usually is no, so that means that good writers also need to educate their readers what the new words mean. Although some people don’t like Lemony Snicket’s snide way of defining words, he’s a really good example of someone who uses vocabulary that works and then making sure his readers understand (if you haven’t, you should all read the A Series of Unfortunate Events).

The Vocabulary Box

You may have noticed a “featured vocabulary” box on the right side of this blog. I hope you find it useful. Musical vocabulary, it turns out, is really hard to define in just words, but I’ll try my best. I’ll keep adding music definitions to build a pretty good music glossary.

Next Week

Next week, I’ll be discussing how we use vocabulary once we know have it under our belt, so stay tuned! Tell your friends!


  1. I can't stand watching American Idol because none of the judges have any musical vocabulary at all. They just use lazy qualitative platitudes like "I just wasn't feeling it" or pseudo-terms like "Your performance was pitchy." They should take a lesson from The Sing Off's Ben Folds - he actually uses music terminology when giving feedback, making him far more useful and interesting than the Idol judges, but he says it in a way that is not too esoteric for the uninitiated watchers at home.

  2. Good example, and three cheers for Ben Folds! Hip Hip...

  3. Philosophers like to think that they use vocabulary precisely, and computer scientists sometimes pull it off. Guy Steele once gave a talk in which he uses the structure of the talk to demonstrate. It begins curiously:

    "I think you know what a man is. A woman is more or less like a man, but not of the same sex. (This may seem like a strange thing for me to start with, but soon you will see why.) Next, I shall say that a person is a woman or a man (young or old)."

    After several minutes, he is finally ready to explain why:

    "For this talk, I chose to take as my primitives all the words of one syllable, and no more, from the language I use for most of my speech each day, which is called English. My firm rule for this talk is that if I need to use a word of two or more syllables, I must first define it. I can do this by defining one word at a time—and I have done so—or I can give a rule by which a new word can be made from some other known word, so that many new words can be defined at once—and I have done this as well."

    He points out that when making a programming language, you pick the primitives and that the choices will affect the kinds of programs that people write. You can watch the talk here or read it here

    In normal, natural conversation people use words in regular though somewhat vague ways, we talk back and forth and hopefully come to an understanding. However, sometimes its helpful to use words technically, precisely, with explicit, specific definitions. Mose confusing bit is that we often repurpose regular words for use as technical ones. I imagine this is one reason why most people aren't careful when talking about music: music is familiar, the words are familiar, but a technical connection may not be.

  4. Linguistically there are two techniques for improving your lexical strength (vocabulary) :

    Active learning and Passive learning

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    Vocabulary is an abstract skill due to reasons like reading habits, family background, schooling, culture etc. The conventional methods are very generic and are made of masses. They do not allow personalized learning to an individual’s current vocabulary.

    2. Active learning: Active learning methodology has become a preferred way to change the traditional teacher oriented classroom into the newer student oriented approach to learning. In active learning, acquisition of new words is done with conscious and great efforts.

    Usually active vocabulary building is quite rigorous and boring due to its monotonous nature.

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    Vocabmonk uses an artificial intelligence algorithm to track individual’s learning/quiz data and mashed up that data to recommend personalized quizzes to students, based on their current vocabulary size.

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