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“What do you mean, ‘choppy’?” Using Informal Adjectives to Describe Sound

Recently a respected colleague teaching English to music conservatory students described a scenario: A student reported that his orchestra conductor used the adjective “choppy” during a rehearsal to describe the sound. The student was not familiar with this word, nor its (usually) negative connotation.

Most likely, the student is familiar with a more formal musical term such as non-legato to describe such a sound. But non-legato doesn’t necessarily have the same connotation as “choppy.” And to complicate matters further, in another situation, it might be that the score requires a separated, non-legato sound for a certain effect; in other words, “choppy” might be the composer’s choice.

It got me thinking about other informal adjectives we might use in English to describe sound. I am sharing some ideas here. It’s always going to be an unfinished list, as we encounter terms and their various connotations. See how many you’ve heard or used! Message me on my website for terms you’d like to add!

In addition to these examples of formal musical vocabulary to describe:

  • tempo (i.e. presto, largo, fermata)

  • texture (i.e. polyphonic, heterophonic)

  • timbre/tone (i.e. brassy, reedy)

  • rhythm/articulation (i.e. polyrhythmic, marcato, pizzicato)

  • harmony (i.e. 12 tone, major, minor)

  • melody (i.e. tonal, atonal, stepwise)

  • expression (i.e. crescendo, rubato)

Here are some additional adjectives to describe sound:

Tone/sound quality:

  • abrupt: sudden, unexpected

  • airy/breathy/thin: having a light quality

  • angular: moving in irregular patterns; an angular melody often uses large, non- step-wise intervals

  • brassy: sounding like a brass musical instrument; (or with a negative connotation: harsh and loud)

  • choppy: detached, accented, causing an uneven musical line (usually a negative connotation) too much accent or emphasis on individual notes and/or too much space between notes, destroying the musical line. Opposite of legato

  • dramatic: theatrical

  • edgy: having an intense or sharp quality

  • energetic: animated, lively

  • ethereal/transcendent: extremely delicate, light and other-worldly

  • full/rich/dark: a large, round, deep sound

  • hammered: (marcato – accented)

  • heavy (pesante): labored; thick, full in sound

  • lifeless/pale: having no energy, limp

  • light: having a thin, airy or agile quality

  • lively: energetic, animated

  • loud/strong (forte)

  • percussive: accented

  • ringing: clear and resonant

  • round: a full, deep, resonant sound

  • shrill: a high pitched, harsh sound (mostly negative connotation unless requested in the score)

  • silky/ smooth/fluid/mellifluous (sweet and smooth)

  • soulful: expressing, deep and often sorrowful emotion

  • turbulent/stormy: having a loud, boisterous, unsteady or violent quality

  • vibrant: lively, vigorous, bright, resonating, created as a result of vibration


  • flat: under the pitch

  • sharp: above the pitch

  • pitchy: inconsistent in pitch (negative connotation)

  • out of tune: pitches are not sounding at the proper frequencies (negative connotation)

Tempo/ Rhythm:

  • early/rushing: ahead of the beat; faster than the beat

  • late/dragging/lagging: behind the beat; slower than the beat

  • in the pocket: on the beat, on time (positive connotation)

  • subdivided (“feel the subdivision”): For example, when playing quarter notes, feel the eighth notes to propel the music forward

  • measured: consistent, predictable, steady

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