Words at Play

8 Words with Secret Meanings Only the Musician-Types Know

We hope we don't get in trouble for telling


words from music smite

Music-related meaning : to strike or pluck (something, such as the strings of a harp) to produce musical sound

If you thought smiting was all about violence, sometimes as perpetrated by angels, we have got some news for you.

While the word's most common meanings are "to strike sharply or heavily especially with the hand or with something held in the hand" and "to kill or severely injure by striking in such a way," and while the Bible does indeed include some accounts of angels smiting some unfortunate folks, the word smite can also be used when the thing being hit is a musical instrument, and when the way it's being hit isn't angry or mean. In fact, in musical smiting you don't even have to hit the thing: smite a harp or violin, and you might actually be plucking its strings.

This meaning of smite is too obscure for the Merriam-Webster.com dictionary, but Merriam-Webster Unabridged includes it, with the label "archaic" informing us that the use is no longer common.

Just because the use is outdated doesn’t mean you can't use it of course—as Upton Sinclair knew:

[Tamoszius Kuszleika] … taps authoritatively upon the side of his violin, then tucks it carefully under his chin, then waves his bow in an elaborate flourish, and finally smites the sounding strings and closes his eyes, and floats away in spirit upon the wings of a dreamy waltz.
The Jungle, 1904

words from music nuance

Music-related meaning : a subtle expressive variation in a musical performance (as in tempo, dynamic intensity, or timbre) that is not indicated in the score

Nuance isn't just about subtle distinctions and variations, though that is indeed what the word most often refers to. Since the late 19th century, the word has also referred in musical contexts to the parts of the music that the composer leaves up to the musician (or the conductor). Opera singers know all about it:

When the Met asked me to do it, my first reaction was no, because I'd done it in the best circumstances—with original instruments, in the little jewel-box theaters where you could hear so many wonderful nuances. Then I thought, don't be such a snob. With this music, first of all, you just don't say no. I also thought, it hasn't been done in New York for a long time, and these people deserve to hear this music.
— Jennifer Larmore, quoted in Opera News, April 1999

words from music tirade

Music-related meaning : a baroque musical ornament consisting of a rapid run connecting two melody notes

The musical tirade (which is pronounced \tih-RAHD) is vastly preferable to the more common kind of tirade, which is, of course, basically just a long and very angry speech. (This dictionary defines it specifically as "a protracted speech usually marked by intemperate, vituperative, or harshly censorious language.") The musical tirade is a little musical embellishment: it's a quick musical scale inserted between two notes of the melody. So nice! Not vituperative, and over so quickly! While Thurston Dart apparently felt that musical tirades could be overdone, we would love to see a few of them replace the other kind:

... the harpsichord part has the proper signs for ornaments where the violin part has only crosses. Muffat's suggestions for them may be summarized thus: (i) … (v) rapid scales to show vehemence; their French name is tirades, and like tirades they should be rare….
— Thurston Dart, The Interpretation of Music, (1954) 1973

words from music ax

Music-related meaning : any of several musical instruments (such as a guitar or a saxophone)

It's labeled "slang" in this dictionary, but ax has been musician-speak (especially jazz musician-speak) since at least the mid-20th century. The authoritative Green's Dictionary of Slang reports that the use was first applied by black jazz musicians to the saxophone because that instrument supposedly resembles an ax. The term later broadened in meaning and came to be applied to other instruments, especially the guitar:

From Buddy Holly to Jimi Hendrix, countless guitarists have relied on the Fender ax for their sound.
— Bob Cannon, Entertainment Weekly, 5 Apr. 1991

words from music gamut

Music-related meaning : the whole series of recognized musical notes

While the word gamut is most often used to mean "an entire range or series," that use is metaphorical: the word's original meaning was literal and musical. It referred (and still refers) to the full range of musical pitches in a system of music. Even that meaning, though, constitutes a straying from the word's roots: gamut comes from a Middle English word for the lowest note on the musical scale developed by an 11th century musical theorist.

A character in Walter Scott's Ivanhoe knew what was up when it came to gamuts, and we believe him:

"Tra-lira-la," said he, whistling the notes; "nay, I know my gamut as well as another."
— Walter Scott, Ivanhoe, 1819

words from music anticipation

Music-related meaning : the early sounding of one or more tones of a succeeding chord to form a temporary dissonance

Oh, it's all well and good to speak of anticipation being something that makes you decide to pack an umbrella or look forward to an upcoming event with a positive feeling, but musicians have something else entirely in mind.

Since the early 19th century, anticipation is, for musicians, about a temporary dissonance that is introduced before a chord change. The word is contrasted with a music-related sense of suspension, which is defined as "the holding over of one or more musical tones of a chord into the following chord producing a momentary discord and suspending the concord which the ear expects," and specifically "such a dissonance which resolves downward":

Whereas in a suspension a note is retained longer than expected and then resolved, an anticipation involves sounding a note of the ensuing harmony earlier than expected—that is, before the point at which that harmony is actually reached.
— Kent Kennan, Counterpoint, (1959) 1987

words from music bridge

Music-related meaning : a passage linking two sections of a composition

Musicians, it turns out, have also usurped the word bridge—or at least they've gone and adapted it to their own purposes. In this case, many non-musicians have caught on and are also familiar with the application of bridge to a part in a song that links two other parts.

Bridge has another music-related meaning as well: it refers to the part on a stringed musical instrument that raises the strings.

Then, just when the song is about to settle for being simply effective, it shifts satisfyingly into an unexpected bridge section. (Never underestimate a bridge.)
— Sasha Frere-Jones, The New Yorker, 28 June 2004

words from music woodshed

Music-related meaning : to practice on a musical instrument

The noun woodshed is common enough for those familiar with wood stoves: it's where you store your firewood. But in the music world, woodshed is a verb and it's about practicing. The literal noun use is more than two centuries old, but the musical verb is a child of 20th century. The two are, of course, most likely connected: it's assumed that practicing came to be called "woodshedding" because the practicing commonly happened out in the woodshed—where the rest of a dwelling's inhabitants would be spared the sour notes.

The acoustic guitar is a personal instrument. It's a great starting place and anytime you've got a guitar around, you can start writing, improvising, woodshedding or anything. It's great to sit down with an acoustic, nothing's as warm. It's natural. People love it. There's magic to the guitar.
— Fred Carter, quoted in an ad in Bluegrass Unlimited, November 1983




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