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Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Talking about music

Aileen asks, "Is it just my limited experience, or is there really a paucity of sound-related terms in English?"

I'm intrigued by her question! Do she mean for describing a single sound event? I don't speak any of my second languages well enough to give a comparison answer, but here are some technical terms in English:

timbre, tuning, tone, rhythm, tempo, loud, soft, dry, resonant, rich, rough, pure, metallic, high, low, nasal, tremolo, trill, vibrato, dissonant, consonant, atonal

If you are talking about a single sound event, most words would talk about the sound quality, so some of the above wouldn't apply, as they refer to to multiple sound events. So you would likely want to talk about duration, amplitude, timbre and pitch. Amplitude is straight forward enough. And pitch is usually described in terms of high and low. timbre, the quality of the sound, is where you get the most words

Scientifically, any sound can be described by a finite number of sine waves. Specify their amplitude, pitch and phase and how they change over time. Timbre is strongly linked to how these sine waves are related to each other. A pure sound is one with few, harmonically related sine tones.

Harmonically related means that the frequencies of the sines are related by whole number ratios that are relatively simple. If you add the numerator and the denominator together, the smaller the sum is, the more pure the timbre. When talking about sounds this way, the lowest sine wave is often called the fundamental, and the higher ones are called overtones. (Many musical sounds have overtones that are just simple multiples of the fundamental.)

When the component sine waves of a sound are close to each other - specifically, so close that they fall within the critical band, you get roughness. (think of an instrument tuning, the sound is first rough, and then there's a beating sound which gradually slows until they're in tune.)

A rich sound is one with a more harmonically related overtones. If you get a whole lot of overtones (I think specifically odd ones), the sound is nasal.

Overtones that don't have simple relationships with each other are called enharmonic. Enharmonic sounds are often described as metallic, especially if they have a lot of low or mid range frequency content and few highs and a bit of duration to them.

Noises, like twigs break, things clicking, etc, have more high frequency content, and are strong enharmonic and also very short. Sustained sounds with lots and lots of enharmonic content are called noise. Mathematically, noise can be described as the sum of an infinite number of sine waves - over an infinite amount of time, of course. Very short noise, as mentioned, is usually called "clicking."

Vibrato is where the pitch moved up and down around a central pitch, where the deviation is too small to be perceived as moving to another note. A glissando is when it goes from one pitch to another, where the source and destination are perceived as separate notes. A trill is a sound that moved quickly between two pitches which are perceived as separate notes. A tremolo is a fast variation in amplitude, again with a specific amplitude center. Becoming louder is crescendoing or fading in. Becoming softer is decrescendoing or fading out.

Some timbrel terms describe the environment (whether "real" or "electronic") in which a sound event occurred. A cathedral has a really long decay. If you clap your hands, the echo can go on for several seconds. a sound recorded in that environment would be described as resonant. Similarly, a sound recorded in a room with no echo would be described as dry.

There are a lot of other ways in which people describe sounds, but these are often metaphorical, describing the means of production, or comparing it to another sound. for instance a "booming" sound, is a low sound like, well, a boom. Vocal sounds are made with the voice. Screeching sounds. String sounds. Etc. some words are onomatopoetic. Crackle. Crunch. Crack. Clunk. Thunk. Boom. Whoosh. Sploosh. Splat. Vroom.

We have the most terms to talk about musical sounds, but the sounds most essential to survival are the non musical ones. A breaking twig does not have harmonically related overtones or sustained duration, but it might mean a predator is about to get you. It might not be a coincidence that so many of our onomatopoetic sounds describe these kinds of noises. Important sounds that communicate practical information.

Ok, a lot of the technical terms that I've named are actually italian, but are also part of the musical esperanto in that they've been adopted almost everywhere. (Crescendo in actual esperanto would be malsilentigxo.) I haven't done much in other languages but dabble and listen to news podcasts, but if there's one language that seems to never suffer from a paucity of terminology, it's English.

I will concede, though, that English is not the best language for expression emotions, except for anger, which it, alas, excels at.

In unrelated news, tomorrow my dog goes to a kennel and in the afternoon/evening, I go to London. the day after, I fly to New York, where I still don't know where I'll be staying. Which I'm trying not to think too much about.

2 comments:

Graham C said...

Well done. I think that different domains have different words used to describe sound and timbre, like the difference between engineering terms for the different spectral bands versus timbre discriptions from an orchestration book.

Perfecto Herrera, a professor at MTG, has given me some references on descriptions of timbre, including a glossary of engineering / popular hifi terms from Stereophile:

http://www.stereophile.com/reference/50/

Interesting, how we can invent vocabularies for such varying phenomena.

Aileen said...

By way of thanks to both of you: Sounding words