When working with directors and videographers, one of the most common phrases I hear is “I know what I mean, but I don’t know how to say it.” Communication is key on creative projects and getting the composer and director on the same wavelength is vital. Even if you’re not working with a composer directly, music licensing sites like Killer Tracks uses the same sort of terminology for their key words, so knowing how to articulate what you want will help there too.
So, here’s a list of common music terminology to describe the way music sounds that will help with this communication. I’ll also write what is actually going on with the music so it makes more sense. You’ll notice that a lot of the descriptors are the same ones you’d use for visual art forms, so realize that just about any visual descriptor can translate to an auditory one.
This post is broken into sections:
- The basics (you probably already know many these, but just in case you don’t, here they are)
- Desktop music production terms
- Speed and rhythm
- Character of the sound
– The Basics –
Unison – When all parts of the music are playing the same melody.
Harmony – An instrument or other part of the music plays notes that compliment others rather than playing in unison, and often implies a lack of dissonance.
Pitch – How high or low a note is.
Interval – The space between the pitches of two notes.
Octave – Physically speaking, this is a note that has a frequency double or half of the note it’s being compared to (octave up means half, octave down means double). It will sound like the same note, just higher or lower.
Dissonance – Arguably the opposite of harmony, this is when two or more notes clash with each other. This can be used to create conflict, agitation, or to add character to a more complex chord. Dissonance isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s a tool in the composer’s toolbox.
Key – This is difficult to describe. A given melody or song generally uses a set of notes, not all of them. However, it can change keys mid-song to add drama, exchanging the original set of notes for another (usually higher). Melodies will sound the same, but start on another note.
Scale – All the notes within a key, usually played in sequence, usually numbered 1-7 with the 8th note an octave above the root (1). These numbers, in conjunction with the type of scale used, can be used to define intervals and chords.
Minor key – This means that the song uses a set of notes that lend themselves to a darker tonality, often used in sad, angry, or moody music. Chords can be minor as well, but don’t necessarily mean the entire key is minor. There are a few different types of minor keys, but that’s not important to a non-musician.
Major key – Similar to the the minor key in that it defines the set of notes used. However, this lends itself to brighter, happier music, and is the most common type of key used in popular music.
Other types of keys – Major and minor keys are not the only ones out there. However, the others are not used nearly as much. One good example is the song “Scarborough Fair.” At first listen, one might believe it’s in a minor key, but it’s actually in what’s called “dorian.” Dorian, along with others like mixolydian, pentatonic, etc, are commonly associated with timeless, folk, or even tribal music, due to the prevalence of these keys in those types of music. Pentatonic is specifically known for making something sound oriental.
Chord – A grouping of notes, usually three or more, that creates varying degrees of harmony or dissonance, depending on the notes selected. Chords are often described using the “root” of the chord, as if it was built off of a key, and then adding qualifiers like major or minor, and added or suspended notes. Numbers refer to position on the scale within the key.
Chord progression – A series of chords, often repeated as a sequence. This drives the music forward and gives it character. Too much repetition in the chord progression can make music sound repetitive.
– Desktop Music Production Terms –
DAW – Digital Audio Workstation, this describes a computer with audio editing software like ProTools, Logic, or Ableton Live.
MIDI – This is a standard method that keyboards, DAWs, and other digital instruments communicate note information. MIDI signals can say when to start playing a note (note on), when to stop (note off), how loud to play it (velocity), to gradually make a note louder or softer (expression), and a variety of other things. Once this MIDI signal is fed into a synthesizer, the synthesizer produces a standard audio signal.
Patch – Usually refers to settings on a synthesizer. This term is kind of interchangeable with “instrument,” since it changes the sound used by the synthesizer, especially sample-based ones.
Sequencer – This is a standard feature on most DAWs and some hardware items. This stores MIDI data so it can be played back into a synthesizer. This makes editing and creating music much easier. Sequencers are also commonly used to create placeholder music until a live recording of a musician playing that instrument can be substituted.
Sample-based synthesizer – Sometimes referred to simply as a “sampler” or “sound library,” this is a synthesizer that takes the MIDI note information and plays back recordings of real instruments or other sampled audio at the desired pitch. Lower-end samplers simply change the playback speed of the sample to get different pitches while higher-end ones have separate recorded samples for each individual note. Depending on the quality of the patch and the skill of the composer, these can sound very lifelike.
Articulations – A feature of high-end samplers, this loads multiple sets of sounds for the same instrument, usually for more expressive ones like woodwinds, brass, and strings. These patches will often have programmed “key switches” where a note outside of the instrument’s range can tell the sampler to change to another articulation on-the-fly. For instance, the first note of a melody could have a sharp attack, and then a key switch could be used to change to a more flowing articulation for the rest of the melody. This effectively allows digital instruments to have a more authentic sound.
ADSR – Attack, decay, sustain, release. Also called an envelope, this is how a synthesizer regulates volume and other parameters over time. Specifically referencing volume, attack is the rate at which the synthesizer increases in volume after the note-on signal is received. Once it’s reached full volume, decay defines the rate at which it will go down in volume until it hits the sustain level. Sustain is the volume where it will stay until the note-off signal is received, and release is how fast the volume will drop once the note-off signal is received. There are many creative applications for ADSR, and some synthesizers allow for even more complex envelopes.
Dry/Wet/Mix – This refers to an audio signal pre- and post-processing. A dry signal is the audio before it’s been run through a filter or plug-in. The wet signal is the audio after it’s gone through the filter or plug-in. Many filters have a “mix” setting, where you can adjust the ratio of dry-to-wet signal that leaves the filter.
The final mix – Often times referred to as just “the mix,” this refers to the audio output from a DAW once all the instruments, filters, patches, plug-ins, etc. are all mixed together.
Common audio filters:
EQ – Equalizer, this allows adjustments in volume to individual frequency ranges for an instrument or the whole song.
Delay – Basically, echo. This filter takes the audio, delays it, and then mixes it back in. Setting can change the amount of delay, number of echoes, and the strength of the echoes.
Reverb – This creates a sense of space in music. This simulates how sound scatters and reflects in a room or other enclosed space. This is NOT echo, although it can have elements of it. More sophisticated reverb plug-ins can simulate specific real-life spaces.
Compression – This is a filter that reduces loud volume areas of an audio signal by a given amount. It can help make the overall volume of a recording louder, or make creative effects in the music. A more severe version of this is a “Limiter” which simply does not allow volumes louder than a given value to playback above that value.
– Speed and Rhythm –
Measure – Sometimes referred to as a “bar,” this is a main building block of music. It is a group of notes that defines a short musical idea. A melody or groove is usually a combination of 4-8 measures repeated, but there’s usually a feeling of segmentation where the measures start and end.
Time signature – This defines the number of beats in a measure. Think of this as the “main beat” or pulse of the music. Techno music usually puts bass hits on each of these main beats, and “Fear the Reaper” used cowbell for those beats. In other music, it’s less obvious, but musicians will feel the beat regardless (especially classically trained ones who practiced with metronomes). A time signature is usually written as a fraction with the top number meaning the number of beats, and the bottom meaning the length of note being counted (the bottom number is really only important to the musician though). Time signatures with top numbers divisible by four tend to feel strong and driving. Time signatures divisible by three tend to feel flowing. Odd time signatures like 7/8, 5/4, etc, tend to feel off-kilter or sinister. This is because our brains naturally want to group beats into groups of three or four, so the added (or subtracted) beat throws us off. Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five,” Gustav Holst’s “Mars,” and Saruman’s theme from Lord of the Rings are all examples of 5/4 time signatures.
Tempo – This tells you how fast the beats in the time signature are. It’s important to realize that this only refers to those main beats, NOT the ones that may come in-between.
Rhythm – This refers to the temporal placement of notes in a defined group.
“Straight” rhythm – A rhythm that stays with the main beat or time signature, either playing all or most of the beats. Also refers to a beat that is not swung (see below).
Swing rhythm – Every other note of the main beat is delayed slightly for feel. Swing is used in jazz, hip hop (sometimes), and other genres.
Syncopation – When a rhythm deviates from the time signature or other established rhythm in a complimentary way. This is particularly popular in latin music.
Subdivision – This is when there are notes being played at a faster rate than the tempo at various fractions of it so it stays in sync. Subdivision is most common in faster, higher frequency instruments, like high-hats on a drum set, or violins in an orchestra. Adding subdivision can make music seem faster or more intense without changing tempo.
Arpeggio – While not exactly referring to speed or rhythm, it belongs with subdivision due to its usage. Arpeggios are when a chord is played in sequence rather than all at once. The arpeggio can rise, fall, or mix the notes up completely, but it always plays a repeating pattern of notes derived from a chord.
– Volume –
Crescendo – Gradually rise in volume.
Decrescendo – Gradually fade in volume.
Sforzando – The note is briefly loud, then immediately soft, often building into a crescendo after.
Velocity versus Volume – This applies when using digital instruments. Volume is pretty self-explanitory, but refers specifically to how loud the sound is in the final mix. Velocity refers to the volume the MIDI signal is telling the digital instrument to play. High quality digital instruments will change in character as they get louder or softer, the same way a physical instrument does. This can be important when talking to your composer if you want something quieter or louder, and you do or do not want the character of the sound to change.
– Character of Sound –
Transients – A sine wave is capable of playing sound at a specific frequency. However, if you pluck a string, it won’t just vibrate the full length of the string, but will also vibrate in fractions of its length, creating additional frequencies above its “fundamental.” All instruments generally play more than one specific frequency based on the shape and method of producing sound, and this is what gives music its character. These additional frequencies are called transients. Modifying these transients using EQ can drastically change the character of an instrument, as well as how it’s perceived in the final mix.
Timbre – This describes the overall character of a sound. It’s an esoteric term like “bokeh” that people know what it means but is hard to describe. Physically speaking, this usually refers to the amount and placement of transients in a sound.
Warm – This describes sound rich in lower frequencies and strong harmony. Cellos, french horns, and the lower end of a piano played softly usually can be described as “warm.” A sound can become warmer by reducing higher frequency transients.
Cold – This generally describes sound with strong higher frequencies or very little mid-range frequencies. There can also be less harmony and more dissonance. The upper range of a piano, violins, trumpets, and metal mallet instruments can be described as “cold.” A sound can become colder by increasing higher frequency transients. A sound with transients that are too loud in the 4kHz range can be described as “shrill” and is unsettling to the listener.
Tonal – This refers to an instrument that has a well-defined pitch and harmonizes well.
Atonal – This refers to instruments that don’t have defined pitches, even if they can produce higher and lower frequencies. Most percussion falls into this category, but things like heavily distorted guitar can also breech this category. This can also refer to music that doesn’t follow a set key.
Crisp/Sharp – Usually refers to a sound that has a fast attack (refer back to ADSR in the Desktop Music Production Terms section) and often has strong upper-frequency transients. Humans are most sensitive to frequencies around 4kHz, which happens to be where sibilance happens (the part of the voice that makes speech intelligible). So, sharp/crisp sounds are often strong around that specific range.
Soft – When not referring to volume, this refers to a sound with a slow attack and release.
Staccato – Notes are short and separated, and often crisp for emphasis.
Legato – Notes are long and connected.
Flowing – Derivative of legato, this generally also means the melody takes advantage of the connectedness, rising and falling in both volume and pitch.
Bright – Lots of higher frequencies, similar to cold, but with more harmony. Usually means a major key or chord too. The notes of chords are often spread-out throughout the ranges of instruments rather than tightly clustered.
Dark – More lower frequencies with minor or dissonant chords. Notes are more clustered together.
Energetic – High tempo with or without subdivision (usually only subdivided once or twice).
Relaxed – Slower tempo, often swung. Subdivision can be heavy (making for rapid notes) as long as the main beat is slow.