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(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.

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  • 2
    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. Commented Mar 31, 2017 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
    Commented Apr 1, 2017 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
    Commented Apr 1, 2017 at 2:03
  • @EricO: I suppose "tenor" is right out. Or is it.
    – Ricky
    Commented Apr 1, 2017 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
    Commented Apr 1, 2017 at 17:46

4 Answers 4

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How about "Disposition?"

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/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.

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  • 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
    Commented Apr 8, 2017 at 0:50
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Perhaps Timbre?

http://www.dictionary.com/browse/timbre

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

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  • 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
    Commented Apr 1, 2017 at 2:40
  • See my comment above to @Ricky regarding physical approach.
    – Eric O
    Commented Apr 1, 2017 at 17:47
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One word that you might consider is personality, which is defined as

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

and

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.

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  • 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
    Commented Apr 8, 2017 at 0:48
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peculiarity 2 : a distinguishing characterictic m-w
peculiarity 2. A notable or distinctive feature or characteristic. ahdictionary

peculiar: characteristic of only one person, group, or thing : DISTINCTIVE m-w

I searched for specific nouns, like layout, to see how they were used when describing the acoustic properties and playing of musical instruments. However, each that I tried was too specific and applicable to perhaps just one or two families -- woodwinds, strings, percussion, etc. The only broadly applicable term that kept coming up was peculiar/peculiarity -- used with the meaning of distinctive -- and they appear to cover instrument construction, sound properties, and both general and specialized playing techniques across all instrument families. It may be difficult in some cases to decide how much these two words are being used in their sense of distinctive/characteristic versus odd/strange.

Further zithers in the relevant geographical area can according to their technical peculiarities be divided into two groups, board and through zithers.
Traditional Music Instruments of Tanzania in the National Museum (1988) p.25

...the tromba marina was played with the lower end on the grund and with its own peculiar technique. Origins and Development of Musical Instruments (2007) p.173

The pick is manipulated with a peculiar up and down movement called the tremolo, or trill. This is the most marked peculiarity of mandolin playing, and is exceedingly hard to acquire. It takes at least six months for the most industrious pupil to...
Mandolin Playing for Women (1891) p.8

We will begin with detailed explanations of a few of the manifold qualities and pecularities of the violin Prof. H. Kling's Modern Orchestration and Instrumentation Or, The Art of Instrumentation: Containing Detailed Descriptions of the Character and Peculiarities of All Instruments and Their Practical Employment... (1902) p.3

Hearing and writing for each instrument requires knowledge of its playing technique, its pecularities of iteration and expression, its sound throughout the registers, and its use as a solo instrument and in combination with other instruments. Hearing and Writing Music (2011)

Another peculiarity of this rabāb is that it has a wooden bridge; while most of the stringed instruments have got ivory bridge. The Musical Heritage of Musical Instruments (1990) p.102

The flute has the same peculiarity when its plug is pushed in too deeply or drawn out too far. Violin Technique and Performance in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries (1990) p.243

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