Words which describe the tonal qualities of violins and other instruments
by Rhiannon Nachbaur of Award-Winning Fiddleheads Violin Studio
Attempting to describe tone or timbre with mere words is tricky for even the best musicians. Even more difficult with non-players who don't know the instrument or the lingo.
Case in point: My filmscoring teacher in music school told a story of when he was writing a jazzy piano theme for a CBC Television program. The show's producer had been asking for small corrections to the score, finally requesting the music be more "snakey." "What the heck is snakey," my teacher asked, totally perplexed. "You know," said the producer slowly, "sna-a-a-a-key," as if this would help.
This list won't eliminate stupid situations from your musical life, but I hope it will help you better describe the tone you produce, seek or even wish to avoid in an instrument when discussing it with my shop!
Please note this list is not complete and I welcome your additions: email me
With this handy list at your disposal you will be able to order a viola faster than a coffee at your neighbourhood Starbucks. "I'll have a Grande 15" viola with pure tone, some dark on the low end and a sprinkle of sparkle on the side. No whipped cream, thanks, I don't want a fat bottom end."
Oh, and I think I understand what the producer was looking for with "snakey." I think he desired a middle eastern mode such as harmonic or hungarian minor. Somethingl worthy of a scene featuring snake charming or flying carpets. You know, Alladin playing jazz piano.
Twenty years playing the violin and I know what snakey means. That was gobs of money and years of practicing well spent...
Links you may find interesting:
A scientific study at MIT Media Lab- "Words that Describe Timbre: A Study of Auditory Perception Through Language"
Extended Essay by a University of Maryland Phystics Student- Assessment of Violin Timbre: Examination of the Fourier Spectra and Resonance Curves of Medium- and Low- Quality Instruments