My wife was practicing a tune ("Rose Cottage") on her flute, and I was trying to think of a term to describe it. "Cloying" came to mind, but, double-checking the definition, I see that it means not simply "sweet" and "sentimental", but sickeningly so.

Is there a word which conveys the sense of being sweet and sentimental, perhaps approaching maudlin, but without the negative connotation of "cloying".

If you want a tune to reference ("Rose Cottage" is hard to find on the web), think of the tune for "Danny Boy" (or, as I prefer to call it, "British Bottom").

Update: I apologize for not clearly defining the sort of word I was looking for. This is mainly because I sort of expected an obvious choice to pop out right away, either a common word I'd just overlooked, or an arcane musical term that is traditionally assigned to such music. So I hadn't really thought through the criteria I'd use if no "obvious" term appeared.

The characteristics I hoped to capture were, best as I can express, these two:

  1. A basic "heart-tugging" nature -- not so much in terms of calling up an emotion of sentimentality or passion or "tear jerking", but simply a sort of (alas, indescribable) flutter in your chest. On hearing the tune you tend to stop and listen, and you feel this sort of need to take some deep breaths and let the music calm you.
  2. (Speaking as a non-music person) There seems to be something about the note progression that contributes to this "hear-tugging" effect. The tunes are simple and, to my uneducated ear, completely lacking in any hint of dissonance. But I suspect that it's more than that, that music theory (which includes the "rules" for note progressions) actually has a term for this.

It's worth noting that "A Gift to be Simple", one of the tunes I place in this category, has a much faster (and somewhat more irregular) tempo than the other two, so I don't think tempo is that much of a factor here.

Finally, I should reiterate that I'm speaking here of the TUNE, not any association that lyrics might have, nor any association with a particular instrument (though a flute has the advantage of producing a very "pure" note, avoiding harmonics which would complicate the note progression).

The answer: I guess I must settle for "mesmerizing" as the word best fitting (albeit still poorly) my (admittedly poorly stated) criteria. The suggestion of the Russian "toska" is maybe better, but it's pretty much unknown in English.

I'll give the bounty to Mari-Lou, though, since she had a lot of good input.

Added: I was reminded today that Gustav Holst's Thaxted has some of this same quality, even though it is of a much different style.

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    It might be charming, endearing, cute, or just plain sweet? – Faraz Masroor May 19 '15 at 2:07
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    emotional, soulful ? – ermanen May 19 '15 at 2:48
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    Perhaps nostalgic? – Bookeater May 19 '15 at 3:23
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    Is "Rose Cottage" a romantic uplifting tune, or a tear-jerker? Danny Boy, when sung well, can be incredibly touching. – Mari-Lou A May 30 '15 at 5:33
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    Are you looking for a term that conveys a music's innocence and romantic charm, or its (stereotypical) sentimentality? – Mari-Lou A May 30 '15 at 5:44

17 Answers 17


The words that come to my mind are mesmerizing, emotive, poignant, melodic, inspirational, sublime, and ethereal. There's something almost angelic about the way the song sounds, at least the flute version.

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    poignant is a good one, so +1, though I think it's used more often for stories and scenes and less often for music. I suggest moving below. – stevesliva Jun 3 '15 at 5:32

Wistful comes to my mind when listening to various arrangements of Rose Cottage:

full of yearning or desire tinged with melancholy;
also : inspiring such yearning


The yearning and desire would capture the sweet denotation in cloying, and the tinge of melancholy would capture the sense of maudlin, while avoiding the derogatory disgusting or excessive connotations.

The comparison to Danny Boy, or more precisely the instrumental Londonderry Air, seems quite appropriate. Both tunes have a similar gaelic musical structure, which employs specific melodic phrasings with harmonic interaction to evoke the pensive melancholy of forlorn mourning in balance with the idyllic affection of fond musings. Experiencing these diametric sentiments in musical tandem connects us to the full emotional spectrum of our real-life passion and compassion.

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    I'm not sure "sweet" is what I'd use for emotions of "yearning" and "desire" in a musical piece. I think of "stirring" to describe music that moves me in that way, but that's me. :-) – Kristina Lopez Jun 2 '15 at 17:31
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    I agree wholeheartedly, @KristinaLopez. The entire set of sweet, syrupy, saccharine, etc. sits against the far wall of the OP's "emotional cottage", while poignant and melancholy sit against the opposite wall. Something has to stretch to reconcile cloying and maudlin! I like both stirring and uplifting as general descriptors. Of course, the major challenge of this question is the broad range of emotional experiences this song could produce among such a diverse community. It seems good to stack up all the reasonable options and let HotLicks make the final choice. – ScotM Jun 2 '15 at 22:21
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    @KristinaLopez, I am not saying anything is right or wrong: the response to a tune is quite subjective. I am just pointing out that OP is contradicting himself: a tune can't be at the same time uplifting/ "soaring" and maudlin/ wistful, What is an uplifting song anyway? Must we find a synonym of "sweet-but-not-maudlin" (surely not "uplifting") or describe his personal emotional response (which is not mine) ? – user119021 Jun 3 '15 at 4:57
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    @KristinaLopez, I can't see how 'jinx' and 'riding a Harley' is relevant to my comment, which (btw) was not addressed to you. I was just pointing out that the thread has gone astray. The OP question asks for a word that means "sweet-but-not-too-sweet", what has "soaring/uplifting/moving/wistful/melancholic" etc. got to do with it? Everyone is describing the impression s/he gets from Rose cottage, what has that got to do with it, or with this site? Are we all musicologists, or what, when a tune can be defined 'uplifting'? Is it the notes or the arrangement or the tempo or the rendition? – user119021 Jun 3 '15 at 14:02
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    @KristinaLopez,"..you don't understand how music can be ascribed descriptive words.." No , not again, the site and the question is about English, words and synonyms. OP changed the question in his comments, shifting the focus from the word 'cloying' to the impressions he/one gets from the tune. Just read the question with more care and see if you have answered that. I just reminded OP of the content of the question, I replied to you when you addressed me, and I do not wish to argue with you. – user119021 Jun 3 '15 at 14:13

The word dulcet might work. It has one meaning that is:

Sweet, especially when describing voice or tones; melodious

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    Worth noting that dulcet is almost always used ironically or humorously. – Tushar Raj May 19 '15 at 13:43
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    @Area51DetectiveFiction, I don't really agree with that. Can you support that statement? – JLG May 19 '15 at 14:07
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    @Area51DetectiveFiction, I don't see how that link supports your opinion. – JLG May 19 '15 at 14:16
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    BrE /ˈdʌlsɪt/ ; NAmE /ˈdʌlsɪt/ (humorous or ironic) – Tushar Raj May 19 '15 at 14:17
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    Dulcet is very commonly used ironically (the classic example, and probably the only context I’d really naturally use the word in normal conversation, being “Oh, I thought I recognised your dulcet tones”, said if you’ve just heard someone shouting their head off at someone else), but it can be used non-ironically, especially with music. “It was a dulcet little tune”, for example, bears no overtones of irony or humour, though it is fairly quaint. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 5 '15 at 22:56

Musical terms used in English.

I might call a slightly sentimental and romantic song, charming or delightful. And if a song is described as being heart-warming, I doubt anyone would associate it with being overly-sweet or cutesy.

It's just come to me, the perfect word.

mellifluous (adjective)
1. sweetly or smoothly flowing; sweet-sounding:
a mellifluous voice; mellifluous tones.

Some examples

  • Mellifluous tunes capture Philemon and Baucis' good-heartedness.

  • Speaking from her Paris flat, 54 years on, Riva's voice is still as mellifluous and as gently mesmerising.

  • As the first rain came down, Midlake brought a more sombre mood with a folk-rock set heavy on songs from The Courage of Others, rich in mellifluous fluting and intricate guitars

Finally, a list of the most appropriate suggestions.

  • dolce
  • affettuoso
  • heartwarming
  • mellifluous
  • mesmerising
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Passion might diminish the melancholy and describe the emotional experience more toward the sweetness:

4 a (1) : emotion

5 a : ardent affection : love


With its rich heritage in the suffering of Jesus Christ, the connotation of sadness would still be present in the minds of many:

1 a : the sufferings of Christ between the night of the Last Supper and his death


It also carries a hint of the special intimacy you and your wife enjoy:

5 c : sexual desire


The word you use to modify passion can direct the attention exactly where you want it:

My heart resonates with a fond passion when I listen to you play Rose Cottage on the flute.

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    Actually, "passionate" is sort of what I'm looking for. Except that the term is rather cheapened by it's many associations, and it isn't very strongly associated with music. – Hot Licks Jun 3 '15 at 0:47
  • Unfortunately, the musical association of passion tends toward sexual connotations, but I don't think Rose Cottage will throw you over that cliff ;-) – ScotM Jun 3 '15 at 1:02
  • Passion does not conjure, using the OP's words: "sweet and sentimental", it doesn't have to be sexual either, but passion is nearly always emotional, and allows the interpreter to express great depth of feeling. Now, it seems to me that @HotLicks is no longer looking for a non-derogatory equivalent of cloying, but something that is closer to inspirational, perhaps more strongly related to rapture than sweetness and innocence. If you (hotlicks) have since changed your mind, you should edit your answer accordingly. – Mari-Lou A Jun 4 '15 at 1:42

Twee adjective 1. (Brit) excessively sentimental, sweet, or pretty

It's slangy, but it fits that meaning of being very sentimental, without necessarily going too far.

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    I've always heard twee used (lightly) pejoratively. As in, the woman wore a twee baby doll dress. – cmcf Jun 3 '15 at 2:01
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    Maybe in transitioning to American usage it lost the pejorative. I've always heard it used for things that are very sweet, a bit affected, but not cloying. – Jason M Jun 3 '15 at 17:35
  • that's funny, @Jason-M because I was thinking of its usage in US fashion magazines/blogs, so maybe the fashion industry has kept the light pejorative-- or maybe it just tends to critique everything so it just comes off as pejorative. Hmm... – cmcf Jun 24 '15 at 15:10

The tunes you mention are Moving, in the sense that they affect emotions.

Moving does not have the negative connotations of sappy, sentimental, etc.

It can also cover cases of melodies that are uplifting as well as melancholy.

I no longer play an instrument, but I hearken back to various Italian and English musical terminology which underscored melodies like those you mention, and "with feeling" would seem to be the English instruction. If the melody is moving, well, you play it with feeling. No negative connotations. More specific terms might range from Lacrimoso to Maestoso, but they're all for moving tunes.

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When a sound is sweet, soft but pleasantly rich, full but delicate : not harsh, bright, or irritating

the right word is (W,3):


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Is this the song you are referring to?

There's a great site that explains a lot of terms you can use to talk about music.

In the "Musical Character" section there's a diagram, showing how certain words can be charted to understand musical descriptions. The one I would pick to describe the word you are looking for is 'delicate', 'whispery', or 'gentle'. I might have gone for 'fluid', too, but it's not fast enough in my mind.

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    The second video is the tune. I suppose the first may be it too, but it gets lost in the orchestration. – Hot Licks May 31 '15 at 11:49

My wife was practicing a tune ... on her flute, and I was trying to think of a term to describe it. " ... Is there a word which conveys the sense of being sweet and sentimental, perhaps approaching maudlin,

I heve just realized that my previous post doesn't really address the question, (like all the other answers). You are asking to describe the tune but at the same time you seemed to describe the feelings that are evoked by the instrument: the flute. The sound, that is the timbre "...of a musical instrument may be described with such words as bright, dark, warm, harsh, etc." and the sound of the flute is usually described described as 'not harsh', 'melodious', 'sweet' and its synonyms: 'mellow', mellifluos', 'dulcet':

The American Standards Association definition 12.9 of timbre describes it as "that attribute of sensation in terms of which a listener can judge that two sounds having the same loudness and pitch are dissimilar", adding, "Timbre depends primarily upon the spectrum of the stimulus, but it also depends upon the waveform, the sound pressure, the frequency location of the spectrum, and the temporal characteristics of the stimulus"

Any tune played on a flute acquires a 'soothing', 'sweet', 'soft', 'tender, 'mellow' quality. You must consider also that both the arrangement and the tempo are adapted to the instrument.

You rightly compare 'Rose cottage' to Danny Boy since they are similar, but it is more appropriate to consider the latter, since we can't help thinking of the lyrics when we listen to the notes.

In the wiki article you can notice how the 'feeling' changes when the tune is played on a piano or sung by an operatic contralto, you'll probably agree that there's nothing 'sweet', 'mellow', 'dulcet', 'cloying', 'maudlin' etc here

You can also compare your emotional response to the rendering by Martin McCormack, by The Irish tenors or by Caitlin Heaney, and read one comment here saying : "*..it's probably the saddest song ever written"

Lastly, you can find a lot of interesting details on the song here and may click on the link :"...I've now added a MIDI version of Bunting's arrangement, for people who would like to hear the original tune." , and listen to what is probably the most original version of the ballad.

Now, if you want to describe the tune (or the song) itself (and not the quality of the instrument), if you want to find a single word that cann best summarize its effect on the listener, i would suggest: "it's a heart-clutching tune"

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  • I think perhaps an adjective you missed is "soaring". The note progressions give one a sense of being lifted into the air. I think it's that sense I've been trying to capture. – Hot Licks Jun 1 '15 at 10:59
  • @HotLicks, you should specifty once and for all if you are referring to to tune or anything else, as I explained. Each element requires a different adjective and each particular rendition of the same element evokes a different feeling (and maybe defferent in each listener). There is nothing 'soaring' or 'sweet' in Bunting's arrangement, etc., you must have missed the point of my post. – user119052 Jun 1 '15 at 12:05
  • I am speaking of the nature of the tune. It is, of course, hard to separate it from the specific instrumentation (and, in the case of "Danny Boy" the lyrics), but I'm looking for a word for the intrinsic "hear tug" of the notes (which is, alas, largely absent in that Bunting piece). – Hot Licks Jun 1 '15 at 12:47
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    @HotLicks, the notes (with your 'intrinsic hear tug' ) are just 'moving' or as I said: 'heart-clutching' or 'wrenching/-rending/ etc.." every instrument (flute, harp, guitar, piano etc.) adds its peculiar emotive touch/flavour/taste, and every arrangement/ singer adds another unique 'tug' to the tune. You cannot possible find a word which is appropriate for all of them. The Bunting arrangement is the most true to a folk ballad, that should be your starting point. You might claim a sort of 'uplifting' effect in the Irish tenors' performance, but that is a long way from The Derry Aire – user119052 Jun 1 '15 at 14:07
  • I've listened to the MIDI rendition of the popular score, and it is much different from the Bunting version. My reference is the popular version. – Hot Licks Jun 1 '15 at 17:13

Another possibility is saccharine, although it too has some negative connotations:

too sweet or sentimental; sweet or sentimental in a way that does not seem sincere or genuine

That's certainly the impression I get from hearing "Danny Boy."

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  • That's getting closer. But you're right -- it has a negative connotation. – Hot Licks May 30 '15 at 1:58

Although you've replaced "Danny Boy"/("British Bottom"?)/"The Londonderry Aire" with "A Gift to be Simple" as a tune of reference in a comment, I'll stubbornly stick with "Danny Boy," a heartstring-tugging song. A real heartstring-tugger, borderline heart-clincher for sappy old me.

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I think of songs like "Danny Boy" and "Auld Lang Syne" as being full of "Sentimentality". Combine the pleasing melody with the emotionally evocative lyrics and you end up with a song that stirs emotions and gains fans. Throw in a bagpipe or two and you get a song that, like this version from "The High Kings" - "The Parting Glass" becomes a bona fide tear-jerker.

From Merriam-Webster Online:

Sentimentality: 1: the quality or state of being sentimental especially to excess or in affectation

While that seems to border on the negative, consider the examples, also from MW-O:

1: the sentimentality of Romantic poetry

2: the sentimentality of the story of star-crossed lovers only made it even more popular with moviegoers

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  • I listened to that piece and only heard a hint of the attribute of which I speak. Of course I was ignoring the lyrics -- just listening to the tune. – Hot Licks Jun 1 '15 at 18:35
  • Right, and iconic tunes like Rose Cottage and Danny Boy don't even need the lyrics to produce the sentimentality because they're so well known and beloved. – Kristina Lopez Jun 1 '15 at 18:44
  • Well, Rose Cottage, to my knowledge, does not have lyrics. And it's not very well known at all. – Hot Licks Jun 1 '15 at 23:13
  • ...and Danny Boy wouldn't necessarily be thought of so endearingly without the lyrics so maybe Danny Boy isn't the best comparison with Rose Cottage which is a contemporary composition that seems to be meant to have the sentimentality of old, well-known Gaelic melodies. – Kristina Lopez Jun 2 '15 at 2:00
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    @HotLicks, "Sigh. I guess most here are not hearing the same thing I'm hearing." Sure, I, for one, don't feel uplifted by Rose cottage nor do I think it is sweet or moving: actually, i think is a dull, uninspiring tune. The point I am making is that readers are supposed to find a word that fits a definition and not to try to interpret your emotional response, which you yourself seem unable to decipher. – user119021 Jun 3 '15 at 7:19

"Is there a word which conveys the sense of being sweet and sentimental... but without the negative connotation of 'cloying'."

I'm late to the party, but I nominate:


1.1. Rich and sweet in taste or smell:

  1. (Of a person’s words or tone of voice) soothing, soft, and intended to please:

Jacques sighed, his anger melting away as her voice came across the line in honeyed tones...

Cloyed is overly sweet, honeyed is sweet wothout negative connotations. It also has the figurative sense as required.

Also note the entry from vocabulary.com

enter image description here

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The mournful note of the pipes is sure to produce a pining for the Isles.

One pines for something or someone one misses deeply and wishes to have or hold again.

Wikipedia describes pining as:

"A nostalgic yearning for something that may no longer exist, melancholic, fatalist overtone that the object of longing may never return."


The beauty of the song produced a deep keening in his heart.

Keening, (etymology to cry or weep) is particularly Celtic, and perhaps therefore suited to a song like Danny Boy. Wikipedia describes it as:

"...a form of vocal lament associated with mourning that is traditional in Ireland, Scotland, and other cultures. In some cultures it is customary for women to wail or keen at funerals."

Sometimes a loan word from a foreign language best captures the sense:


The quality I believe you describe is particularly appreciated and treasured in Japan. Natsukashii is the word associated with it. It has connotations of reminiscence, homesickness and yearning. A gendre of Japanese music especially focused on this emotion is enka and is highly popular in karaoke bars. (The tears, the sake!)


The Russians also know this kind of sorrow and have a word for it: Toska. Nabokov described it:

No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody or something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.


In Portuguese, a sense of longing is conveyed by the word saudade.

Thank you for your beautiful question and lovely trip down memory lane.

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  • "Toska" seems close, in a technical sense. Alas, it lacks any emotive power in English. – Hot Licks Jun 5 '15 at 22:50

Is the word you seek, by any chance, a diminutive or compatriot of perfervid ?

Perfervid : intense and impassioned.

I apologize for the lack of a more musical term.

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  • That may be close, but is perhaps a bit too intense. Fervid may be better. – Hot Licks Feb 18 '16 at 14:12

If asked to describe Danny Boy, I would use the word melancholy, as an adjective.

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