Skip to main content

Describing Your Music

Writing about music web banner

Musicians often find themselves in the position of having to write about their music, which can often be quite difficult to manage. You might face the ‘writing about music is like dancing about architecture’ dilemma when trying to write a new bio, some pitch copy about a new project, or even write a funding application. We’ve put together some ideas, processes, and exercises which may help you to find words to describe your music for people.

A first question to consider is:

Who am I writing for?

You could be trying to find words for, e.g.:

  • Audiences - marketing copy to announce/describe a performance
  • Sleeve notes, about a recording
  • Press release, to interest the media in a performance or recording
  • Pitches for programmers
  • General biography for a website, umbrella organisation, or promoter
  • A pitch to a potential collaborator or to network with a peer
  • Social media copy for your followers
  • Funding applications to grant bodies.

What are some of your priorities/tone for this particular style of copy?

Thoughts on tone or priorities for what you want these words to do could vary depending on what you are trying to do, but some possible ones which might come up are:

  • Audiences
    • Less technical language for general audiences. Persuasive enough to buy a ticket or click on a link to hear your music.
  • Sleeve notes
    • May include some more technical elements for music fans. Communicating your process to people who will appreciate it.
  • Press notes
    • Less technical for general press, maybe more specific for critics or some music media. Focusing on the unique story (Unique Selling Point) of your work, persuasive enough to get someone to feature it. Can you imagine what the headline of the article would be?
  • Pitches (to programmers/radio etc)
    • Can include some more specific musical aspects. Geared towards their particular interests. Including practical information where necessary. Focused on why they should programme you rather than anyone else. Immediately interesting enough to catch someone’s attention who may be very busy and receive a great number of pitches.
  • Biography
    • Representing your music in general enough terms for anyone to understand, interesting enough to encourage someone to listen to your music. Representing what makes your music unique.
  • Pitch to a collaborator/Networking with a peer
    • Can be quite specifically musically or technically if needed. Focusing on points of connection.
  • Funding applications
    • Relating to guidelines of the particular grant. Usually illustrating track/record reputation and describing how you/your project fits with the criteria/goals of a particular fund.

What Does My Music Sound Like?

In a lot of cases, your words are aiming to create enough of a sound-picture of your music in someone’s head that they are encouraged to listen to some actual music.

Breaking down music into elements and finding the ways you can describe those can be a useful place to start.

You may need to describe things differently for general audiences or specific industry people. Often this puts your descriptions on a spectrum of technical to metaphorical. The metaphorical end of description gives an entry point to general audiences or anyone who may not have specific musical jargon to get an idea of how your music sounds. It can also help to give even musically fluent people a more tangible sense or audiation of your music, rather than a more intellectualised or technical idea of your music.

You may find it easier to find the specific technical musical words for how your music works.

One option is to find the technical terms which describe your music and work them across the spectrum to find more metaphorical ways of describing it.

I find it useful to keep in mind that according to neuroscientific studies - while musicians use the linguistic centres of their brain to process music - they ‘speak’ music, effectively - non-musicians tend to use the emotional or sensory centres of their brain. While it can be easy as musicians to think that our music ‘speaks for itself’, to a non-musician, it often doesn’t. In some contexts, ‘translating’ your music into a language that a non-musician can understand can be helpful for them in engaging with it.


  • Are the melodic lines in your music more conjunct, disjunct, diatonic, or triadic? To use a metaphor that might be more accessible than that musical language, could you describe more triadic melodies as ‘arching’, conjunct melodies as ‘singing’, or ‘flowing’, disjunct melodies as ‘spiky’.


  • What is your overall instrumentation? Do you mix voices and instruments or instrumental families? Is it choral, wind-based, string-based, no-chords?
  • In metaphor, maybe:
    • Many families of instruments could sound ‘colourful’ or ‘rich’, an instrumentation that is in primarily one family or one register could sound ‘sparse’ or ‘minimalist’ (not meaning minimalist as in the musical school, but more generally).


  • Are the rhythms in your music more swung or more metric; unmetric or sitting on the back of the beat?
    • Music that ‘sits back’ rhythmically can sometimes sound more ‘grooving’, metric music can sound ‘square’ or ‘measured’, unmeasured rhythms can sound ‘flexible’ or ‘expansive’.


  • Is your harmonic language more tonal or atonal, modal or dissonant?
    • For an audience, whole-tone scales can sound ‘open’, harmonies built on dissonances can sound ‘harsh’, modal music often sounds ‘folk-inspired’ to general audiences, extended chords or polytonal music can sound ‘dense’ or ‘close-textured’.


  • Is the texture or part-writing of your music primarily homophonic or monophonic? Polyphonic, contrapuntal, melody & chord-based? Wide in its spread of voices?
    • To general ears, wider spreads of voices can sound open, monophony can sound delicate or chant-like, close polyphony or homophony can sound ‘rich’ or ‘complex’.


  • Do the metres of your music tend to be regular or irregular? Do you primarily make metric or unmetric music? Regular metres can sound ‘steady’ or ‘grounded’, irregular metres can be ‘unpredictable’ or ‘off-balance’. Unmetered music can sound ‘free’ or ‘weightless’.


  • Does your piece fit into any identifiable forms or can you identify an idea of its form? Is it a through-composed work or strophic verses with different words over the same music? Does it roughly fit any classical forms like a sonata or dance form? Are there verses interspersed with solos?
    • Metaphorically, these different types of forms can sound ‘large-scale’, ‘over-arching’, can give a strong ‘developmental’ sense, or if composed of smaller elements can sound like ‘miniatures’ or ‘vignettes’.


  • Often related to instrumentation, but also tessitura and types of technique, does your music lean bass-heavy or treble-heavy? Is it orchestral in its palette or more minimalist? Do instruments or voices use extended techniques for sounds that aren’t typical of them?
    • Metaphorically, different sound palettes can come across as ‘light’ (usually in the treble, or with instruments like voices or woodwinds), or ‘dark’ in the bass area, often with strings or brass. Music in a more homogenous range of instruments and tessitura can sound ‘transparent’, or using a wide range can sound ‘rich’ or ‘colourful’.


  • Your influences or artists who you sound like can also help to give someone an aural image of your work that’s clear enough to encourage them to listen, particularly if you have an idea of their taste in music.


  • A classic one is ‘It’s ARTIST A meets ARTIST B, with a touch of ARTIST C’.
    • The rule of 3 is a common one in writing, meaning that a sentence like this that mentions 3 artists or elements can tend to sound better than one that mentions e.g. 2 or 4.
    • Some people can find this type of expression a touch overused, but again, it can be a quick way to give an aural image of your work.
    • You use the sound of artists you’re fairly sure the person will have an automatic aural image of to help in creating an aural idea of your work - creating enough interest to get them listening.


  • If it’s difficult to find artists you think you sound like generally, it can be helpful to identify particular aspects of your work that exist in your influences or work that you sound like.
  • Something like: ‘It’s the MELODIC WRITING of ‘Artist A’ meeting the HARMONIC WORLD of ‘Artist B’, with the SOUND PALETTE of ‘Artist C’.


  • Can you think of a different universe where the sound that makes up your music would have occurred?
  • ‘Imagine if ‘Artist A’ met ‘Artist B’ in a CONTEXT.
    • E.g. ‘Imagine if Jacob Collier and Miles Davis were jamming at a traditional Irish session.

Compositional Process

Can the way in which you create your music or the aspects that you bring to it offer a way of talking about your music?

Musical Apects

  • Is it melody-driven or harmony-driven?
  • Does it take tunes from or inspired by X tradition, or harmonies inspired by X tradition?
  • Does it use the instrumentation or structures of X tradition?

Text/Programmatic aspects

  • Does your music involve sung texts? Are they texts from a particular place or are they inspired by any particular style of writing or lyrics? Does your music take any inspiration from stories, texts, experiences, other pieces of art?
  • E.g., Music might be based on the poetry of WRITER, taking inspiration from the legends of COUNTRY/AREA, inspired by principles of X, bringing together threads of X and Y, reflecting on SUBJECT MATTER.


  • If making music in ensemble, how does this collaboration work or influence your music?
  • E.g. varied tunes written by each band member filtered through STYLE, collective improvisations driven by each member in term, MELODIC STYLE from X band member, backed up with TEXTURE ELEMENT from Y band member, LYRICS from X band member, treated with X HARMONIC STYLE from Y band member.


  • What kind of atmosphere does your music create? This can be a particularly powerful element for talking to audiences, who often associate music with a feeling/emotion. How can you describe that atmosphere in words?

Other senses

  • Thinking about other senses can sometimes provide useful metaphor for giving an idea of atmosphere in your music.
  • Think about touch (tactile words), smell, sight, sensation.
  • If your music was something that you could physically touch, what would it feel like?
    • E.g. Silky, wafting, feathery, smokey, heady, perfumed, hypnotic, velvety, sink-your-fingers-into-it, breezy.


  • Does your music suggest a particular scene/visual? Would it be associated with any style of films or stories?
    • E.g.Brings you to a smokey old school jazz club, transports you to an isolated coastline, vibes of a sun-drenched beach party, sense of a runaway train, in the shadows of a dense forest, traces of sun filtering through the branches.

Mental state

  • Do people say that your music brings them into particular state of mind or evokes certain feelings?
    • E.g. Thoughtful, meditative, hypnotic, disorienting, trippy, nostalgic, bubbly, get-up-and-dance, grungy, wild, introverted, extroverted, joyous.

What is my music trying to do?

  • Are there certain goals or things you’re trying to achieve in this music? Is there an endpoint that you are satisfied with for some reason?
    • Is your music built on concepts?
      • Is your music exploring or building on particular schools of thought/style - minimalism, neo-classicalism, free improvisation, particular elements of music theories?
      • Does it take concepts or theories from other disciplines - literary devices, principles from science or the natural world?
  • Ways of working
    • Does your music stem from working/creating in a particular way? Is it collaborative, do you work within processes like chance/aleatoric music, is it exploratory of existing music/ideas or experimental ‘what ifs’?
  • Themes
    • Does your music tend around certain themes or stories in its material? Does it dwell on things such as the environment, ownership, identity, nature, family, love, loss, friendship, happiness, or a million other things?
  • What would you like your audience to experience?
    • In the ideal gig, or with the ideal recording, what would you like an audience to experience from your music? Why do you share it with an audience instead of keeping it to yourself?
    • Do you think of things like connection, catharsis? Do you enjoy getting people to experience a concept, telling particular stories, bringing histories/myths to life, expressing universal feelings or sensations?

Finding Words from Somewhere Else

  • Rather than finding all the words yourself for your music, it can be helpful to look for other people’s words about your music, or about their music or art, and see if anything resonates for you.
    • Your music
      • Look through your reviews, social media comments, try to note down things people say at gigs that might be useful, or just ask a few friends to listen to some music and give you a few points of what it sounds like to them.
  • Inspiration from other people’s art
    • You can try reading reviews of other people’s music and see if ways that critics use to describe sounds resonate for any of your music.
    • Equally, if there are any artists whose music sounds like yours or whose copy you like, can you find elements that would work in describing yours?
      • E.g. from a review “She works deftly with a rich palette, orchestrating independence and clarity in the rhythm section against granular blends with messa di voce dynamics in the front line. The piece progresses seamlessly from one feel and texture to the next, starting with pointillistic bursts over a trumpet drone.”
      • From a review, this is written by a critic with a musically educated audience probably in mind. It uses a mix of musical terms, e.g. ‘Clarity in rhythm’, ‘Messa di voce dynamics’, with references to visual art ‘works deftly with a rich palette’, ‘pointillistic bursts’.
      • ‘Progresses seamlessly from one texture to the next’ is a type of ‘moving metaphor which is often used in talking about music. Research done in the context of music education suggests that practitioners often use ‘motor-affective’ metaphor in talking about music, e.g. words that describe a particular feeling or quality of movement, over straightforward adjectives. E.g. using ‘bouncy’ or ‘dancing’ instead of ‘fast’ or ‘happy’. Sybil S. Barten has more on ‘motor-affective’ metaphor in music.
  • Inspiration from other artforms
    • Visual artists often are more used to describing their works than musicians. Looking around galleries or artists’ websites, are there any words that resonate with you? Any styles of expressing their art that you find might fit with yours?
E.g. from a visual artist
“When I resonate with an image, I attempt to encapsulate its essence through drawing, print and mixed media paintings. The work is visceral, with knitted lines and distressed surfaces. I like to explore traditional mediums and the dichotomy of my urban and rural upbringing. At times I amplify my findings with new media techniques. The pieces develop further when all references are put away.

Artworks are enriched by back-stories, field trips and investigations into the meaning of people and place. With copperplate etchings, there is an element of surprise that I enjoy. As I develop my processes I draw more and more from memory and imagination.”
    • The example above discusses both concept and process of the work, a journey through how a work is created. It shares both physical details and ways the artist thinks about their work.

Ideas for Starting

  • A few ideas if you find it difficult to write about music or would like to get more comfortable with writing/talking about your music.
    1. Try writing about someone else’s music. Pick a piece you like, or something you’ve never heard before and see what sticks out.
    2. Read music writing. Try something from a genre or work you’re not familiar with so that you don’t have too many ideas about it. If you listen to the piece, do the words fit, or would you choose different ones?
    3. Write about your music from a long time ago. Can you listen to an old piece with fresh ears, as if it’s something by a stranger and find words that fit? Do those words still work for you or have things changed a lot?
    4. Read writing from other artforms - see what artists or critics write about visual art, literature, dance, or theatre and if any of it resonates.
    5. Rewrite a review. Pick a review of your own or someone else’s music and rephrase it to create a new description of the work.
    6. Brainstorm words. Listen to a piece and just scribble down any words or phrases that come to mind, the first things off the top of your head. This can also be a good one to do with friends, see if you come up with different or similar words and how well they resonate.
    7. Use AI as a starting point. Get ChatGPT or one of those to write a bio or pitch based on a few keywords about your music. See if there’s anything you could use or it’s all total nonsense that gives you an idea of what NOT to write.
    8. Start with the easiest one. Some things are always going to be hard to find words for. Rather than leaving it entirely until you have a funding application due tomorrow or a PR company hammering on your door, find something that works for you to get going.

BOTTOM LINE - Whatever works for your music, works for your music.

  • This is your music, and no way of describing music is absolute. Much like the weirdness of a perfume ad, which tries to use visuals to communicate a smell, we’re using the wrong medium to get across music. Like the perfume ad, we can use a lot of different ways to get enough of a sense across to our audience that they go to try the actual medium.
  • The exercises above are ways that we sometimes find useful to talk about music, and you can use elements or riffs on these to help you to write about your music, or you might find something else that works for your music.

We’re interested to hear - are there things that you’ve found helpful in describing yours or other people’s music? Are there any writers about music that you really like and consider emulating?

Drop us a line by email or a message on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook and let us know.

Don’t miss out!

Subscribe to the IMC newsletter to keep up with the latest in Irish Jazz.

Sign up

Help us hold that note

Help support artists, and make the musical world in Ireland a richer place.