Sunday, May 13, 2012

When is singing jargon not singing jargon?

Jargon is a useful shorthand for people in the know. But for those outside our world, it can be confusing or even meaningless.

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We might think we’re being clear, but how can we be sure that everyone understands what we’re trying to get across?

what is jargon exactly?

Jargon can be described as:

“the language, especially the vocabulary, peculiar to a particular trade, profession, or group.”

So within the musical world, for example, instead of explaining everything from scratch each time, we use a vocabulary of words and phrases that summarise certain musical concepts. For example: octave, chest voice, parallel fifths.

But jargon can also mean:

“unintelligible or meaningless talk or writing; any talk or writing that one does not understand.”

Outside the musical world, the concepts that we use regularly can be meaningless.

Our job is to decide which common terms are widely understood, and which should be used only in certain contexts.

the kind of jargon I use

Recently I wrote about whether the term ‘world music’ actually means anything. I use the phrase regularly to describe a particular type of music, but I realise that most people in the street don’t really understand what it means.

A friend of mine has been trying out several rival ‘open-access’, ‘everyone welcome’, ‘no experience necessary’ singing groups and discovered that what they do is fundamentally different from the kinds of group that I run.

Yet we use very similar language. Maybe we’re using the same words to describe different things.

I say that what I do is ‘unaccompanied harmony singing’. I hesitate to use the word ‘acappella’ as that has come to mean rather more than just ‘singing without musical accompaniment’ (see Why I don’t like a cappella).

Somebody thought that ‘unaccompanied singing’ was when you sing solo, i.e. on your own without anybody to accompany you.

Another person thought ‘harmony singing’ is when all the voices are “in harmony with one another”, i.e. singing in unison.

Some people can’t understand how I teach songs without having a piano in the room. It just makes no sense to them.

Even if someone does recognise the term ‘harmony singing’, their point of reference might be boy bands like Take That or Boyzone who use backing bands as well as voices.

few shared points of reference

We live in a world where broadcast media no longer rule (i.e. we don’t have a single terrestrial TV channel and most people don’t read a daily national newspaper). This means that there are very few things that we all share (e.g. the Morecambe and Wise Christmas show). Any two individuals will have very few shared points of reference.

If I’m trying to attract new people to the kind of singing that I do, I have to use words and phrases that are easily and clearly understood. It’s no good referring to Corsican singing or Bulgarian women’s choirs or the South African Isicathamiya singing style.

I have to use simple, clear language and not assume that my audience has the same points of reference.

Yet at the same time I don’t want to alienate or patronise those people who do understand such references.

A tricky balance to strike!

mind your language!

So whether we’re saying larynx, acappella, minor third, diaphragm, soprano or polyphony, we can’t assume that everyone knows what we’re talking about. These words my mean different things in different contexts.

My ears prick up when I hear the phrase ‘world harmony’ only to be disappointed when I realise they’re talking about world peace and not singing together!

Do you find yourself using words and phrases that are misunderstood outside the musical world? How do you strike the balance between clear simplicity and patronising alienation? Do you think hard about the assumptions you make with the language you use?

Do leave a comment and share your experience. I’d love to know what you do!


Chris Rowbury's website:

Chris Rowbury


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