This is a guest post by Don Lee. If you want to write for Daily Writing Tips check the guidelines here.
When I write about classical music for a general audience, I try to reassure readers, if only implicitly, that they don’t have to understand specialized music terms in order to enjoy the music itself.
Where writers are concerned, I expect more.
Although I’m glad to see writers borrow expressions that can resonate beyond classical music, a misunderstanding can lead to writing that’s slightly out of tune.
Among the music terms that can be especially troublesome is crescendo. For example, take this metaphorical use in a recent wire service story:
Klug, meanwhile, is making his third Olympics—a string that began when snowboarding was introduced in 1998 and reached its crescendo on a sunsplashed day in Park City, Utah, eight years ago.
Here’s the problem: a crescendo is not a destination; it’s the process of getting there. It does not mean “loud”; a crescendo marks a passage that is “growing louder.” A musician (or snowboarder) reaching a crescendo is only at the beginning of the climb to the top.
It’s trickier to explain misunderstandings of another troublesome term, orchestrate. In the original sense, orchestration is the act–by composer or arranger–of assigning the multiple lines in a composition to the various instruments of the orchestra. This design gives a piece its sonic “color.”
More often we see orchestrate used in a metaphorical sense, as expressed in the secondary definition from The American Heritage Dictionary:
To arrange or control the elements of, as to achieve a desired overall effect: orchestrated a successful political campaign.
When you’re looking for a word that packs more potency than “coordinate,” “orchestrate” can be an effective choice. But be careful not to add too much baggage.
President Obama[‘s]… allies are moaning about ‘orchestrated’ protests at health care town halls that target Democratic lawmakers back home for summer break.
Here, “orchestration” becomes a synonym for “artifice”; the act begins to sound slightly devious. Those town hall protests didn’t grow spontaneously out of grass roots outrage; they were (gasp) orchestrated!
In the following headlines, all found on the web, the practice becomes downright conspiratorial:
Did the USA Orchestrate the Mammoth Asian Tsunami?
Did the Illuminati Orchestrate 9/11?
Did Barney Frank Orchestrate the Bank Meltdown?
Did British Intelligence Orchestrate Princess Diana’s Death?
Did Britney Spears’ Manager Orchestrate Breakdown?
Now imagine a headline like this:
Did Saint-Saëns Orchestrate “Carnival of the Animals” Intending Double Basses to Evoke Lumbering Elephants?
You bet he did—as you probably can tell even if you don’t know the piece. No hidden agenda there. While it’s not as easy to notice the orchestrator’s hand in most other compositions, that doesn’t make the effort deceitful. Yet somehow the conspiracy theorists (and their co-conspirators) have distorted the term to the point where “orchestration” sounds like the work of a conniving puppet master, rather than an artful alignment of varying elements.
Poet Sidney Lanier famously described music as “love in search of a word.” When writers are at their best, words can return the favor.
Don Lee, an independent media producer, editor and consultant, is former executive producer of the public radio music program Performance Today.