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A Glossary for Music Critics

Here's a handy reference for the aspiring classical music critic who needs to come across like a stodgy, pompous, prissy blowhard. Sprinkle your reviews, interviews, think pieces and columns with these words, and you'll look like a real pro.



alas. Synonym for "unfortunately" that carries the additional messages: (1) the writer personally feels the pain being described; (2) the writer is as old as a Cretaceous fossil.

ardor. This word went out sometime between the Gilded Age and Theodore Roosevelt's first term of office, but classical critics haven't gotten the news yet.

Beethovenian. Unwieldy word that conveys the right patrician note when "Beethovish" or "Beethoven-like" simply won't do (see Scriabinian).

best of times... Paraphrasing the opening lines of "A Tale of Two Cities" in your lead paragraph is one of the two best ways to telegraph the reader that he/she is about to read a piece of terrible prose.

bravura. Interchangeable with "bravado."

burnished. Used to describe overall sound or tone even when there's no furniture in sight.

clarion. 1. Prissy word for "trumpet." 2. Prissy word for "trumpet call" or "horn signal." 3. Prissy word for any loud, resounding sound.

color. A musical quality that has nothing to do with vision.

colorist. Be careful which one you use: a colorist is a musician wielding a wide sonic palette; a colorer is a three-year-old wielding an eight-pack of Crayolas. For "sonic palette," see "color."

composer's intentions. 1. It's a critic's duty to point out when a performer is not being true to the composer's intentions. 2. It's a critic's duty to point out the arrogance of early music specialists' assumptions about the composer's intentions.

d. All the negative words you will ever need begin with this letter (dearth, death, degenerate, deleterious, deprecate, depression, derogate, desperate, despoil, despondent, detract, diffident, dilapidated, disaffected, disappointment, disastrous, discomfit, discomfort, disconsolate, disparage, dissipated, distress, doldrums, dolorous, dour, down, drab, drained, dreary, dull)

devotees. Fans, to the unworthy; a notch below connoisseurs, a notch above followers.

dulcet. The "sweetness" implicit in this word is explicitly intended to apply to music, but you'll never read a pop music critic use it (e.g., "the dulcet strains of Aerosmith").

evince. A word for "display" that would be archaic in any context other than classical music, where it is in frequent use (as in "to evince a rich color palette").

evoke. Can be substituted for "evince" without anyone noticing or knowing the difference.

hackneyed. A word that is popular with critics to describe music that is popular with audiences.

hushed. The word you use when your editor complains about "pianissimo."

intelligent. Used to describe a performance, code word for "unexciting" but not intended to be negative.

jocular. A word for "humorous" that is useful in puns (e.g., "in a jocular vein").

measured. A meaningless adjective (as in "measured musical poetry").

memorable. Complimentary term to describe a concert you won't remember six months from now.

muse. This one seems to be on its way out, fortunately. "The muse" is to classical music critics what "philomel" was to dead Romantic poets.

not unfamiliar. High class way to say "familiar."

nuance. The thing you focus on when a piece of music is overly not unfamiliar.

object MIA. Dropping the object in a simple subject-verb-object sentence gives you the stylish panache of someone who's trying to be cute. Sentences like "The performance dazzled" or "The music touched" that don't acknowledge who or what was "dazzled" and/or "touched" and offer no proof of "dazzlement" or "touch" will make you sound like a bon vivant in Fresno.

one. Moneyed way to say "a person," often intended in the first person (as in "One heard echoes of birds" or "The music made one wistful"). The effect is lost if the word "someone" is substituted.

painterly. A prissy way to drive home the point that there are not enough words in the English language to describe sounds.

palette. See "color." To be used at least four or five times in every story. Do NOT spell as "P-A-L-A-T-E."

plumb. Something a performer does to depths (c.f., see "scale").

rare. Use this one as often as possible. It's most commonly employed [split infinitive alert] to artificially bolster certain special qualities (e.g., "rare intelligence" or "rare grace") or items that are in fairly standard supply such as an excellent performance or an excellent orchestra.

scale. Something a performer does to heights (c.f., see "plumb").

showcased. A common alternative to "displayed" (as a musician in a concert or a monkey at the zoo).

something old... A lead or opening paragraph that describes things that are "new," "old," "blue" and "borrowed" (not necessarily in that order) is the second surefire way to telegraph the reader of the awful prose to follow.

superb. A word to precede "colorist."

supreme. A word to precede "artist" or "boredom."

under the direction of. A longer way to say "conducted by..."

vapid. Its only practical use is on the S.A.T and in classical reviews when a critic can't think of anything good or bad to say about a performance.

venerable. Not to be confused with venereal.





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İ David Bündler, 2001
Last revised: January 13, 2001