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I am looking for a word that describes audio that does not contain words.

For instance:

  • John William's piece Duel of the Fates would be this, since they are just vocables for their musical effect, similar to the way any other instrument is used in that context.

  • A recording of machine gun fire would be this, since there is no linguistic meaning.

  • A song where someone is singing would not be this, because there are words with actual meaning.

  • A book recording would not be this.

Speaking in Tongues by the Talking Heads, and the main theme of Close Encounters of the Third Kind are sort of borderline, I'm really not sure which side they would fall on.

Does anyone know of a word or phrase that would describe this category of sound?

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Welcome to ELU! The main theme of Close Encounters of the Third Kind would be considered electronic music and the theme would be a melody. Regarding the recording of machine gun fire - can you include a sentence where that word/phrase is represented by XX's so we get an idea of what context you need to use that expression? – Kristina Lopez Jan 11 '13 at 23:34
@KristinaLopez I want to use the word or phrase to associate particular components of a film with particular rhetorical appeals. "The director's use of pathos is mostly found in the xxx pieces of the film," or some such. A narrator describing something really doesn't have at all the same sort of emotional effect as either of some song, or of the sounds from an intense battle. – AJMansfield Jan 11 '13 at 23:48
I am almost sure there's a (closely) related question on ELU. – Kris Jan 12 '13 at 5:55
Have these sounds some structure, e. g. harmony, melody? – Darius Miliauskas Mar 13 '15 at 8:16
up vote 5 down vote accepted

If you are talking about music, I suggest instrumental. Compositions with non-lexical inclusions (such as "la la la") or occasional words are considered instrumental too, according to Wikipedia.

If you want to include non-musical sound as well, such as the machine gun recording that you mention, then I suggest non-lexical.

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@Jim: Fair enough; answer edited. – CesarGon Jan 12 '13 at 1:55

Would the word noise work? It's a versatile word that might be appropriate in this context.

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It would be quite harsh on John Williams to say that "Duel of the Fates" is noise, don't you think? – CesarGon Jan 12 '13 at 20:28
@CesarGon: Perhaps so, but it would certainly work for machine gun fire, and many other sounds that seem to be described by the O.P.'s question. – J.R. Jan 13 '13 at 3:57

You could make a distinction between speech sounds and non-speech sounds, and between linguistic and non-linguistic speech sound.

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As alluded to on this site, "Duel of the Fates" is a choral piece not without meaning: "The composition, which lasts four minutes and fourteen seconds, contains lyrical Sanskrit chants translated from the Celtic epic Cad Goddeu."

Also music related is scat singing, which: "In vocal jazz, scat singing is vocal improvisation with wordless vocables, nonsense syllables or without words at all. Scat singing gives singers the ability to sing improvised melodies and rhythms, to create the equivalent of an instrumental solo using their voice."

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Babbling. Children usually use the sounds without the meaning. They just babble.

Babble - to make speech sounds that do not make sense to the hearer

They also grunt, chuckle, whimper, gurgle, and coo (repeating the same sounds frequently) in response to voices.

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