Terms of Endearment: The challenges of descriptive language in electroacoustic music




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Peer reviewed



Terms to identify tools, objects and structures are common to all human endeavour. They help us to connect ideas and to articulate purpose and meaning. Many explanatory terms, labels and forms of jargon have flourished for the description of sound materials since the first developments of theory in electroacoustic music. As in all music, they have become central to the very notion of theory itself. We might assume several distinct needs for such terminology in electroacoustic music: Differentiation of sound materials when any kind of sound is potentially at the composer’s disposal ; legitimation of our artistic products and the materials on which it is based within the wider range of musical practices, or : defining a descriptive language that can encourage engagement of a genreal public with a relatively marginal field. In general, electroacoustic music terminology relies on analogy. Both Wishart’s ‘natural sound morphology’ and Smalley’s ‘spectromorphology’, for example, make use of analogy—though with varying specificity of linguistic imagery. Schaeffer expressed the view that resorting to analogy was a kind of ‘failure’ to deal with the sound object in-and-of-itself. Indeed, even by using the term ‘morphology’ we perhaps tend to connect the shaping in time of sound with visual notions of physical outline. While these terms do provide a basis on which discussion and evaluation of a musical experience can take place, they may also be taken to imply how we should focus our listening, or how creative practices should proceed (sometimes eliciting a negative a reaction that over the years I have witnessed in students). Further difficulties can be encountered where terms overlapping with those found in other musical fields are put forward (consider the meanings of ‘modulation’) or when very precise definitions point to other underlying terminological distinctions (consider Schaeffer’s terms ‘transformation’ and ‘transmutation’). The paper concludes that language is an important mechanism for the externalisation of the visceral nature of musical experience, serving engagement between specialists and practitioners, and well as that between practitioners and audiences. However, although terms, analogies and categories serve the intention of identifying and discriminating between the elements and processes of musical structures, there is need for greater critical judgement in reaching a state where terms are sufficiently appreciated, cross-referenced and valorised.



electroacoustic music, musical terminology


Young, J. (2019) Terms of Endearment: The challenges of descriptive language in electroacoustic music. Paper presented at the Noisefloor conference, Staffordshire University, Stoke, UK, 8 May 2019.


Research Institute

Music, Technology and Innovation - Institute for Sonic Creativity (MTI2)