Saturday, February 01, 2014


“Phaw, please, it's tempi, not temPOS.” 
In which the blogger once again addresses the voices in his head berating him for minor breaches of correctness in the application of musical terminology. 

You may have noticed that, writing on the blog, I just add an s when pluralizing certain musical terms, like tempo and ostinato— I say tempos and ostinatos. Speaking proper Italian, and using conservatory terminology, the correct plurals are of course tempi and ostinati. But I'm a drummer, and I'm writing this in America, and to people like me, that sounds a little snooty. Like, outside of the classical music world, we don't say flautist, or pianist with the emphasis on the first syllable, if we can help it. Throwing those into everyday musical conversation sounds a little affected, and puts others in the awkward position of having to decide whether to follow your lead in sounding kind of pompous. It's a little rude, even if correct. You can usually slide tempos in there without the same ripple of discomfort.

In using musical terms, we're not actually lapsing into Italian. The word tempo actually has become a slightly exotic English synonym for speed; and in English, when you want to make two or more of something, you slap an s on the end of it. Since at least the Battle of Hastings we've been freely slapping s-s on the end of foreign nouns and calling them English; it's only Americans' feelings of cultural inferiority that cause us to be defensive about that. It's the same thing that motivates us to miserably, cluelessly sit through operas presented in a foreign language, and read subtitles on films, while Europeans are happily listening to Don Giovanni translated into Flemish, The Godfather dubbed into French, and the quintessentially German Inspector Derrick dubbed into everything:

At one point in the history of music, the major practitioners all spoke Italian, and they weren't trying to be fancy about the words they chose for their terminology. They were using mostly straightforward, even terse, descriptive words in the native language of most of the expert musicians— or at least a language in which most of them would be fluent, the way computer people worldwide are with English today. Today, musicians come from everywhere, and few of us speak Italian, and to us those words sound a little mysterious and high-flown. But really, when you see a piu forte on the page— and you know you're in the serious repertoire when you see a piu; they don't put those in for just anybody— all it means is more loud. Fortississimo (indicated by an fff) basically means louderer. It's not a real Italian word. If we think for a moment about where the fff marking comes from, it may as well be LLL for loud loud loud. That's the kind of primitive-ass use of language we are actually dealing with, here.

And with the word drummer— which a lot of American youngsters struggle with when they are first getting serious, calling themselves “percussionists” instead— the European example again is instructive. Mainly: the sexy, dynamic-sounding French batteur is even more primitive than our word drummer— it means hitter. Not even a reference to an instrument— it could just as well describe someone working in a slaughterhouse. Talk about a step backwards in our self-conception as artists. 

Anyhow, when we say tempos, or ostinatos, or whatever, we're not speaking pidgin Italian, we're correctly using an adopted English word according to English rules. I'll admit that, being musical jargon, these words are in a little bit of a gray area— most non-musicians kind of know what tempo means, but they rarely have reason to pluralize it; and ostinato isn't used at all outside of music— so the normal rules that also make le week-end a correct French word, may have to be used with caution. You do want to be careful how many liberties you take with technically-correct terminology— you can easily sound like you don't know what you're talking about.

And for the record, I do insist on watching foreign films with subtitles, and put Todd Bishop: batteur on posters whenever I have the opportunity. And I never, ever, say timpanis

1 comment:

Adam Osmianski said...

Brilliant post, Todd. Informative and hilarious.