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Topic: The Ambiguity of Musical Adjectives

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  1. #1

    The Ambiguity of Musical Adjectives

    So over the years I've picked up several different musical adjectives. Just as soon as I thought I knew what they meant someone at a music store would use the same term to mean something completely different. I recently had a conversation with a friend about this exact issue and so I figured I would throw out a few terms and see what the Garritan community has to say on the subject. They are:

    Bright

    Dark

    Warm

    Fat

    Thin


    This is all I can think of right now but there are several more secular musical adjectives that are interpreted differently depending on who you talk to. Feel free to add to the list of ambiguous musical terms.

  2. #2

    Re: The Ambiguity of Musical Adjectives

    Quote Originally Posted by Dane Grant View Post
    So over the years I've picked up several different musical adjectives. Just as soon as I thought I knew what they meant someone at a music store would use the same term to mean something completely different. I recently had a conversation with a friend about this exact issue and so I figured I would throw out a few terms and see what the Garritan community has to say on the subject. They are:

    Bright

    Dark

    Warm

    Fat

    Thin


    This is all I can think of right now but there are several more secular musical adjectives that are interpreted differently depending on who you talk to. Feel free to add to the list of ambiguous musical terms.
    I think it mostly depends on context.

    For example these terms are often used when talking with brass players about the quality of someone's sound. I bet you could poll 3 different trumpet players and get 3 different adjectives to describe Adolph "Bud" Herseth's sound. One might say it's warm, one might say it's dark while another might say it's fat. These would likely be based on that player's collective impression of his work as a trumpet player which would in turn be based on their musical bias (some might like the bombastic orchestral stuff while another might like more intimate solo work, etc.).

    So I guess what I'm saying is it does come down to context and personal bias.
    Steve Winkler GPO4 JAAB3 Finale 2012 Reaper Windows 7 Pro 64-bit VSL SE+

  3. #3

    Re: The Ambiguity of Musical Adjectives

    hehe, yeah, single word descriptors can be so vague, even when the person using them is trying to be specific. As Swinkler says, it's the rest of the verbiage used, the context of how the descriptor is used, and the personal sensibilities of the speaker that makes the words mean anything. Definitely no universally true definitions of "Warm" "Cool" "Dark" etc.

    --Language--go figure--It's amazing we ever manage to communicate clearly!

    Randy

  4. #4

    Re: The Ambiguity of Musical Adjectives

    Bright: the tendency for a given sound to be biased towards treble... (high-end) (tweeter)
    "man those speakers are bright"

    Dark: This term is usually not used to describe the overall fidelity of sound from the perspective of frequency response, but rather the mood of the sound... "that dark soundtrack really fits the scene of the funeral".

    Warm: since the given sound we are talking about could be any kind of sound... this term "warm"
    would mean that the sound is not harsh or offensive to the ear, but rather pleasing, almost comforting. "man that Neumann microphone really makes the vocal sound warm"

    Fat: the tendency for a given sound to be biased heavily towards low frequencies. (low-end) (subwoofer)
    "man that kick drum is really fat"

    Thin: this term is usually used to describe that a particular sound is missing it's mid to low frequencies. "the vocalist sounds thin because he/she is too far from the microphone"

    As with everything in life, it's all about balance.

    too much of any particular thing is usually not good.
    An even balance makes everything shine equally in the same light.

    my opinions of course,,, you will never catch me using these terms within twenty miles of a Guitar Center
    Dan

  5. #5
    Senior Member Silh's Avatar
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    Re: The Ambiguity of Musical Adjectives

    I think I pretty much agree with the generalizations, though obviously these are not definitive terms; 'dark' does tend to mean less of high frequencies to me ... probably mainly from discussions with my sister on flutes and her dislike of the 'brighter' tones from certain makes of flutes :P
    -- Matt Wong

  6. #6

    Re: The Ambiguity of Musical Adjectives

    Thanks for the glossary DPDAN. You hit the nail on the head too. Guitar Center is where I hear the most ambiguity with regards to musical adjectives.

    I was at a music store a few years back and this salesman told me that a particular acoustic guitar had a real dark sound. I didn't want to ask him what that meant because he seemed like the type of guy that wouldn't know. I had the same experience with a Guitar Center salesman when inquiring about a pair of monitors. He insisted "They are definitely brighter sounding". A piano performance major friend of mine (love this guy to death but a total idiot) told me that E flat was a good key because it was much brighter than the other major scales. I always thought "bright" referred to the clarity of the sound. I was left wondering what the heck a pair of monitors and E flat had in common and why both of them were the opposite of that acoustic guitar.

    Having owned a stratocaster and a les paul and being a man I was well aware of what "thin" and "fat" meant. But then again, I've gotten some pretty fat, "bassy" tones out of my strat and pretty thin treble tones of my les paul.

    Thanks again for clearing up some of the ambiguity. I was on the verge of making up my own musical adjectives. "That flute sounds very cold", or "Those cellos sound very yellow".

  7. #7

    Re: The Ambiguity of Musical Adjectives

    But over here in the UK 'fat' now also refers to a bit of music you find particularly exciting, as in,'Man, those are some fat tunes.' It started out as 'phat' but it's no longer so cool to spell it like that.

    Ambiguity gets even worse when you start talking about the terms at the top of scores, in Italian, Latin, French, etc. Over the years many terms have accrued a list of meanings that have nothing to do with what the words mean to a native speaker. For instance, most music theory books in the UK will say that Allegro means 'fast.' Actually in Italian I believe it means cheerful, but the fact that most Baroque music went for cheerful by being quick caused it to gradually become an indication of tempo rather than mood. The list of similar 'bastardisations' is so long, I'm absolutely amazed that we ever manage any level of consistency between performances.
    David

  8. #8

    Re: The Ambiguity of Musical Adjectives

    Quote Originally Posted by Pingu View Post
    I'm absolutely amazed that we ever manage any level of consistency between performances.
    yep ....................

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