Talking Tone is Harder than it Sounds

March 10, 2010, 12:01 AM ·

Discussing words which describe the tonal qualities of violins and other instruments

by Rhiannon Nachbaur of

Attempting to describe tone with mere words is tricky for even the best musicians. Even more difficult with non-players who don't know the instrument or the lingo.

Case in point: My filmscoring teacher in music school was writing a score for a tv program for CBC years back. The show's producer had been asking for small corrections to the score, finally requesting the music be more "snakey."

"What the hell is snakey," my teacher asked.

"You know," said the producer slowly, "sna-a-a-a-key," as if this would help.

This list won't eliminate stupid situations from your musical life, but I hope it will help you better describe the tone you produce, seek or wish to avoid in an instrument when discussing it with me!

Dark (or Bright)
Even (or Uneven)
Fat (or Thin)
Focussed (or Unfocussed)
Heavy (or Light)
Grating or Gritty
Flat (or sharp, not to be confused with pitch)
Dry (or Splashy)
Full (or Hollow)
Soft (or Hard)

And now, Snakey...

Please note this list is not complete and I welcome your additions: email me

With this handy list at your disposal you will be able to order a viola faster than a coffee at your neighbourhood Starbucks. "I'll have a Grande 15" viola with pure tone, some dark on the low end and a sprinkle of sparkle on the side. No whipped cream, thanks, I don't want a fat bottom end."

Oh, and I think I understand what the producer was looking for with "snakey." I think he was looking for a middle eastern, harmonic or hungarian minor feel worthy of a scene featuring snake charming or flying carpets. You know, Alladin meets Riverdance! 

20 years playing the violin and I know what snakey means. That was gobs of money and years of practicing well spent...


March 10, 2010 at 02:11 PM ·

Hi! My coffee is Italian style (corto or ristretto, or capuccino) that I make in my old fashion La Pavoni Italian Cafeteria...  and you are lucky, I am a viola maker! Ciao!

March 13, 2010 at 04:32 PM ·

 What about "scrubby"?  That's more something to avoid than something you want, obviously.  But I had always thought it meant too much bow pressure . . . turns out it can also mean too much bow length.

March 14, 2010 at 08:22 AM ·

Welcome back, Rhiannon.  It's good to hear from you again.

An adjective I use frequently with my students is "smooth."  I also like "bouncey."

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