(I asked this question in the music stack exchange at https://music.stackexchange.com/questions/54865/what-word-describes-an-instrument-s-native-character but since I am looking for a word I'll ask here too.)

As a composer of Celtic-style tunes, I usually pick up my mandolin and noodle in a few keys that work well on a mando, like G, D, Am, Bm for example. I almost never play in Eb (=Cm), say, because without resorting to fully-fretted positions it’s not “natural” for a mandolin. The word “affordance,” as used in a user-interface way, has some bearing here: the way a mandolin is physically organized “affords” ease of use in some keys over others. (The affordance of a door handle is obvious: it says “pull me.” A flat plate on a door says “push.”)

Now on a piano the layout, and how I play the instrument, is different from a mandolin. Whereas the mando is organized across four courses of strings arranged in fifths, and the hands have different jobs (picking and fretting), the piano is laid out in a linear array and both hands play notes. The “affordance” is different. It’s much easier to play in Cm (and for me, D on a piano is sort of hard). If I compose a piece on piano and try to play it on mando, I am struck by how I would never have thought of it on a mando.

Pick your instrument - a penny whistle is key-oriented and range-limited, so only certain types of tune easily fall under the fingers. Drums are a whole different kettle (no pun) of fish: you use sticks and much of your body to play.

So here is the question: what word you would use to describe the instrument’s native character? I have used “affordability” here but that only refers to a part of the approach to the instrument. For some reason the word “modality” comes to mind (not in the scales/modes sense) but I have not been able to support that guess.

The word would be used like this: “ Composing Irish tunes on a fiddle is easier than on a harmonium because the [?word?] of the instrument is more appropriate. Almost-candidates include words like: “feel,” “character,” “voice,” “style,” or “capability.”

This question is not just about finding the word. I think the whole concept of different instruments leading to different compositions is intriguing. Comments?

Addendum: the word idiom was suggested on the companion site, which is close.

  • 1
    Hello, Eric. You're perhaps more likely to arrive at a suitable term on the dedicated Music SE; the over-arching terms you suggest are, however, likely to be the only ones available. An adjective approximating 'geared towards' is 'sympathetic [towards]'. But you need to add a suitable definition of say the sense of 'idiom' involved for people here to try to assess whether it can be broadened enough to satisfy your requirements. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 31 '17 at 23:55
  • D on the piano is real simple: only two black keys. Mimi's aria from "La Boheme" is sung in Di. That said, are you looking to describe the instrument's sound or layout and tuning? I mean, the word "endemic" springs to mind, as well as "native," but I get a feeling you want something more specific. – Ricky Apr 1 '17 at 1:51
  • @Ricky F# is simple on a piano - ALL black keys ;) I guess I'm looking for a noun rather than an adjective. "Endemic character" fits, but it feels clumsy. – Eric O Apr 1 '17 at 2:03
  • @EricO: I suppose "tenor" is right out. Or is it. – Ricky Apr 1 '17 at 3:12
  • @Ricky No tenor is not it. I'm thinking more about the physical approach to playing the instrument, and its "easy" affordances. For example, pentatonic scales are easy on a guitar, chromatic scales not so much; perhaps vice-versa on a piano. – Eric O Apr 1 '17 at 17:46

How about "Disposition?"


The tendency of something to act in a certain manner under given circumstances

The word is more flexible than "capability," but more concrete than "character."

A trombone is more disposed to perform a glissando (in some registers) than a guitar, but they're both capable of performing the action in their own way. Many instruments mimic the behavior of other instruments to the best of their ability, but the effect varies depending on their disposition.

"Capability" applies in some cases to musical instruments: For instance, a snare drum is incapable of glissando. But "disposition" allows for distinction between actions where both instruments are capable, but one may be more disposed to the action than another. It's more specific than "character," because it implies a functional strength or weakness in some areas, as opposed to merely a qualitative difference.

  • Disposition is good. It's up there with idiom. I doubt that a word exists for my question, but words like these are close. Thanks – Eric O Apr 8 '17 at 0:50

Perhaps Timbre?


The character or quality of a musical sound or voice as distinct from its pitch and intensity.

  • Most of the distinction between instruments is in the attack but that gets lumped into timbre. For what he was going for, though, "feel" is actually more appropriate than the technical term of art. – lly Apr 1 '17 at 2:40
  • See my comment above to @Ricky regarding physical approach. – Eric O Apr 1 '17 at 17:47

One word that you might consider is personality, which is defined as

a set of distinctive traits and characteristics (Merriam-Webster #3b)


the complex of characteristics that distinguishes an individual or a nation or group (op. cit. #3a)

You have already suggested the word character and several comments at MSE seem to agree that the word you are looking for is of that type.

Another similar word is nature, defined as

the inherent character or basic constitution (Merriam-Webster #1a)

Personality, nature, and character are suggestive of depth and dimensionality that make them suitable to describe a complex musical instrument, while at the same time leaving room for the relatively shallow instruments (a cow bell or wood block, maybe).

Just as in the anthropomorphic sense, personalities can have strengths, weaknesses, and preferences, and an instrument's personality would determine what is "natural" to how it would best be used.

When you say

because without resorting to fully-fretted positions it’s not “natural” for a mandolin.

you would be saying it's not in the nature of the mandolin, or this is not part of or a good fit with the mandolin's personality.

  • Good suggestions, but a bit general. Personality may distinguish one mandolin from another (that one is woody, this one is bell-like), but I'm looking for a word/concept that refers to the instrument's "easiest" or "most natural" tendencies. A mandolin makes it easy for a player to (for example): play in D, chord, play pentatonically, and traverse multiple octaves (because of the tuning in fifths). A whistle "likes" a few simple scales, and makes cuts (mordents) easy. A piano invites block chords and provides a visual landscape. – Eric O Apr 8 '17 at 0:48

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.