Describing Music and Musicians – Let’s push the vocabulary boundary

By Barry Kempton

I was reading over the past weekend about our first guest artist for the 2014-15 International Artist Series, Nathan Gunn.  The commentator wrote of a “rich and creamy” baritone voice.  Having listened to him on various recordings, I don’t have any argument with that description.  He will sing at the Ordway on September 30th, less than three months from now.

“Rich and creamy” are wonderfully expressive and immediately fill the mind with a particular notion.  Not only food- and taste-related language, but other words related to the five senses serve us well when describing a piece of music or musician’s performance.  It seems to me that the least evocative vocabulary might be those words reserved for the sense of hearing.  Describing music as loud or soft is pretty unimaginative, but there are some great onomatopoeic examples I’ve included below.

Descriptions that evoke the other senses – taste, touch, even smell and vision – can be wonderfully expressive for a musical experience.  Here are a few adjectives and phrases which I think would work well for music.


Taste:  spicy, chocolatey, astringent, sweet

Touch:  velvet-like, jagged, lumpy, malleable, gentle

Smell: pungent, balmy, fresh, like a garden in spring-time

Hearing:  ear-piercing, thunder-like, purring, sputtering, buzzing

Vision:  shapely, glistening, opaque, radiant


Which classical artists come to mind and how would you describe them?  Please share with us.  Let’s just agree to avoid “nice”, “exciting” and “unique”.