10 Words to Describe Music

Musical Parameters

10 words to describe musicMusic can be very inconceivable and hard to describe thanks to its almost magical nature. Especially, when you need someone to translate ideas, emotions and messages into music it is quite difficult to communicate your internal musical concepts in a way that someone understands them sufficiently enough to come close to your ideals. For example, you are a film creator and want a composer to create the most fitting and beautiful music that forms a symbiosis with the deeper meaning of the images. How can you steer the composer towards the musical ideal you perceive internally? Or imagine, you are in a band, wrote the perfect song and now need to instruct your drummer, bass player and guitar player about how they should accompany you. What words do you use to make your message clear?

If you are stuck in a comparable situation then you came to the right place. The following article explains how you can describe music using the 10 most common musical parameters: Rhythm, tempo, harmony, melody, instrumentation, dynamic, texture, genre, form and temperature. If you use this 10 words to describe music you are much more capable of talking about it while actually expressing yourself clearly and understandably.

Each musical parameter stands for a category through which music can be described. Thinking in categories has many advantages. It is proven that categorical thinking stimulates memorization. Categories also function as boundaries for your thinking which make focussing easier.

Each presented category contains a variety of words that can be used in its context. For example, “this tune has a warm temperature”(category 9), or “speaking over dynamic, this song has a smooth fade-out” (category 6) or to show off, “the music I am thinking of resembles a baroque fugue with polyphonic texture and complex harmonic structure” (category 3,7,8,9). This list by no means claims completeness but it is a good starting point when learning to describe music.

1 Rhythm

Rhythm is essential for musical feel. Don’t underestimate it and learn to describe rhythm by the use of the following adjectives and nouns.

  • Off-beat – on-beat
  • 4-to-the-floor
  • Strong/weak beat
  • Sloppy – tide
  • Simple – complex
  • High/low density
  • Quantized
  • 4/4 meter, 3/4 Meter
  • Syncopated
  • Regular – irregular

2 Tempo

Tempo is easy to comprehend because it is measurable. Beats-per-minute tell you exactly how fast a song is whereas classical trained musicians are used to work with tempo indications like, “moderato” or “adagio” which leave more room for interpretation.

  • Beats per minute (bpm)
  • Tempo rubato (free)
  • Speed-up – slow-down
  • Fast (Upbeat)

3 Harmony

To take it a little further than saying music is either happy or sad, try to express yourself by saying it is harmonic, tonal, atonal, or has a complex harmonic structure.

  • Harmonic – disharmonic
  • Consonant – dissonant
  • Major – minor
  • Tonal – atonal
  • Simple – complex
  • Monotonic – rich

4 Melody

There are many words to describe melody but this are the ones I use the most. Composing a catchy singable melody is what I am striving for.

  • Simple – complex
  • Staccato – legato
  • Small/big intervals
  • Singable
  • Catchy
  • Improvised
  • Happy – sad
  • Uplifting

5 Instrumentation

There are two levels of describing instrumentation: instrument groups (like orchestra, ensemble or choir) and single instruments (like hobo, guitar or synth). Google for more instruments and instrument groups to enhance your vocabulary even further.

  • Orchestra
  • Solo
  • Jazz Band
  • Rock Band
  • Ensemble
  • Double bass
  • Violin
  • Hobo
  • Electric guitar
  • Piano
  • Percussion

6 Dynamic

In music, dynamic is the difference in loudness. An orchestra has a high dynamic range whereas dance music most of the time has not.

  • Crescendo – decrescendo
  • Velocity
  • Loudness
  • Soft, quite, muted – loud, intense, powerful
  • Pianissimo – piano – forte – fortissimo
  • Consistent – explosive
  • High/low dynamic range
  • Fade-in – Fade-out

7 Texture

This musical parameter might sound a little vague in the beginning but once you understand it, it is very useful to describe music. Search some YouTube videos about polyphony and monophony to get a better grasp of texture.

  • Monophonic (one melody, solo)
  • Homophonic (one main melody)
  • Polyphonic (many simultaneous melodies, counterpoint)
  • Polyphonic (many simultaneous melodies, counterpoint)
  • Heterophonic (chaos-unrelated melodies)
  • Dense, full, thick, fat – light, open, spare, thin
  • Simple – complex

8 Genre

Ah, genres … There are millions of them. Genres are a common way to describe music but they are only useful, when both parties know what musical elements genre is known for.

  • Classical: Baroque, Romantic, Classic …
  • Avant-garde: Experimental, Free Jazz, Musique Concrète …
  • Contemporary: Jazz, Rock, Dance, Soul …
  • Popular music – Underground music
  • Film music

9 Form

Yes, there is more to musical form than just the song! In the classical era a good form was an important factor for a good composition. In our times there are less agreed-upon musical forms but yet underneath the surface form still plays a big role, precisely because it is less rigid.

  • Structure: A – A’ – B – A, 12-bar blues, repetition, chorus, verse, intro, bridge, middle eight, instrumental
  • Musical form: Symphony, requiem, fugue, song …

10 Temperature

Temperature is probably the most vague musical parameter but in my eyes it is the most interesting. Play around with the words and try to come up with your own adjectives to describe the timbre of songs you are listening to.

  • Timbre
  • Sound color
  • Warm – cold
  • Noisy – clear
  • Overtones, harmonics
  • Acoustic – electronic
  • Low – mid – high frequencies
  • Dark, mellow, muddy – light, pure, bright, clean, vibrant
  • Harsh, rough, shrill, piercing – dull, muffled, boring

Those were the 10 most common words to describe music or better said 10 musical parameters. Try to expand your vocabulary beyond the words I listed here and become skillful at describing music. Also, download this article in PDF format so that you can print it out and whenever needed. If you have any suggestions or questions leave a comment below and I will get back to you.

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