23 March 2018

Writing About Music - Which words NOT to use!


5. Misused words

With the intention of clarity, words have to be used which have clear and universally understood meanings.  Of course, there are occasions where the critic deliberately attempts to obscure a meaning (ie. when being negative) by using words capable of complex layers of meaning and ambiguous interpretation – but such practice should be undertaken very rarely, very carefully and with full understanding of the resultant implications.  The following is a list of words to be avoided in the pursuance of clarity of expression, but which in exceptional circumstances can be used to provide implications which not every reader will recognise.

·         Rendition.  This word is often used as an alternative to “performance”, but it is to be avoided since it has two other meanings neither of which is really appropriate to music criticism.  Firstly, it means the application of an external substance to make something appear superficially attractive or to cover something from view.  Secondly, it means the removing of a person or object under cover so that the removal is not immediately noticed.   As a result, when we write of a “rendition” we could be implying that the performance is false – covering up weaknesses in the music or the performance itself; and we should only use the word if we are fully conscious that this implication is intended.

·         Mesmerising. This word is often used as a substitute for “outstanding” or “brilliant”.  However, its true meaning is “to have someone's attention completely so that they cannot think of anything else”, which is usually to imply that it is a stage half way between consciousness and hypnosis causing the listener to lose all sense of perspective or judgement.  “The cat was mesmerised by the approaching truck and was squashed to death by it”.  If someone is mesmerised, the implication is that they have become temporarily incapacitated mentally and have lost the ability to act and think logically.  If we talk about a mesmerising performance, we could therefore be implying that it appeals only to those without the ability to form their own independent judgement.  Again, do not use this word unless you really want to imply that the performance appealed only to those who lacked independent judgement.

·         Lyrics. These are words designed to be set to music which, in the interest of musical shape, do not themselves make any sense.  There is a difference between lyrics and sung texts, the latter being words which were not originally designed to be set to music, so are intended to make good sense.  Never refer to lyrics when you mean sung texts;  Shakespeare, Byron, Goethe, Hugo, Verlaine, The Bible have never provided lyrics.

·         Tune. Musicians recognise tune as temperament (ie. defining the centre of a pitch). The layman recognises tune as a row of notes which provide a variety of pitches.  The two are actually contradictory.  As the readership of music criticism often comprises musicians and laypeople, never use the word tune in any context.  Instead refer to intonation OR melody.

6. Evolving language

One of the great delights of a living language is the continual subtle changes of meaning in everyday words.  As society changes, so the words change to reflect contemporary life.  The issue with this is, when we are dealing with historic matters, words used in the past can have a totally different meaning to that which they have today.  On top of that, at any given moment in history, some words are undergoing a metamorphosis and will mean different things to people from different backgrounds and of different age groups.  This is a list of evolving words which, while in one meaning are relevant to the critic, in others are not – so we should avoid them.

·         Song Without doubt the most confusing word now connected with music.  All dictionary definitions tell us that a Song MUST involve a singer.  It can be one or more, but the singer is essential.  However, at the start of the 21st century, Steve Jobs used the word “Songlist” as a shorthand for a repository of musical tracks on his Apple digital devices, and the word “Song” has become synonymous with “Music” for those people of the generation which developed their linguistic skills in the 21st century – basically anybody under the age of 20.  We are now faced with a problem that the population is divided between those who see a “Song” as a musical piece which involves the human voice, and those who see it as any piece of music.  Our best bet is to avoid the word “Song” wherever possible, restricting its use simply to reiterate titles.  Do not write “this was a recital of songs”, unless that is the title of the concert – instead write “this was a vocal recital”.

·         Gay Another word whose meaning changed during the lifetime of many still alive today and therefore can cause confusion amongst those who were brought up when it meant something different.  Since the word in its previous meaning was often used to describe music by both commentators and musicians (notably composers), and in its current meaning is often used to describe musicians, we need to avoid it completely.  The change came about towards the end of the 1970s when the so-called permissive society started to accept same-sex relationships; virtually every country in the world had legally banned them up until then.  With the growing enfranchisement of those who were involved in these previously illicit relationships, they began to object to the terminology used to describe what had once been illegal, and they looked around for alternative labels which carried none of the censorial baggage of previous words, such as Homosexual and Lesbian.  Since they celebrated this coming out from illegality and general approbation by making themselves as publicly visible as they could through wearing and showing extremely colourful clothing, the word “Gay” – which up to that point had meant “Happy, Carefree, Exuberant” – seemed appropriate.  Very quickly from around 1970 onwards it became the defining word to indicate those with a preference for same-sex relationships.  However, the word in its previous meaning was widely used right up to then, and this can (and has) led to much confusion.  Avoid the use of the word completely, and when it occurs in a title, sometimes a short explanatory passage is required to interpret the word to those who are unaware of its earlier meaning.

·         Sonata. This is an essentially musical term but one which has changed its meaning significantly over the centuries. 

o   In the 16th century and earlier it simply meant a piece of music for instruments alone (the non-vocal equivalent of Song); music intended for instruments without voices (which was very rare) was invariably described simply as “Sonata”. 

o   During the 17th century, Sonata changed its meaning to refer to music played by two, three or four instruments (in the period before such ensembles fell under the blanket coverage of “chamber”), and was further subdivided into terms such as Sonata da chiesa, Sonata di camera and Trio Sonata, which terms began to imply a certain sequence of movements. 

o   In the 18th century, the meaning changed again, reflecting the growing preference for instrumental music over vocal music – there no longer was a need to have a blanket term for instrumental music since it was then so dominant that the word music came to be associated primarily with instrumental rather than vocal works.  The 18th century meaning was more specific: a work in three or four movements in a pre-determined sequence, for one or two instruments. 
In the 19th century, a further layer of meaning was applied to the word, with the invention of “Sonata Form”, which was a specific musical structure found in most multi-movement instrumental works.  The critic must identify the precise meaning of the word when it is encountered and, if necessary, explain it to the readership

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