E.g. a violin can be bowed, allowing a single note to have more changing character than a guitar. On the other hand, a guitar is more polyphonically capable than a violin. Contrast them both with a midi trigger that only plays a single sound, for a set duration. You could say that the guitar and violin have a greater degree of freedom than the midi trigger (more possible sounds can be created), and a debatable comparison between them on how many dimensions are allowed by the instruments. Is there a word for this "degree of freedom"?


3 Answers 3


The word "mudraic" (from "mudra" = gesture) has been used by Indian philosopher P.R. Sarkar to describe how closely the gestures of the musician are connected to the sounds that are ultimately produced.

For example, the violin and similar instruments are highly mudraic, because even slight changes in the movement of arms and hands lead to significant changes in sound. Additionally, this is true for both hands, because any slight change in the left hand changes the pitch and the clarity of sound, while the right arm's movement, speed, angle, etc. all lead to different sounds.

At the opposite extreme, the organ is not a very mudraic instrument, because it is mostly a matter of turning various fixed pitches off and on at given times, with little correlation between your gesture and the sound that is produced.

The Theremin is highly mudraic for sure. The guitar, I'd say, not very much, especially when played with a pick, but a bit more so when strumming, string bending, rasgueado, etc. are employed.

Similarly, the trombone is more mudraic than the saxophone, the accordion is more mudraic than the synth, percussions played with bare hands are more mudraic than percussions played with sticks, and so on.

It should go without saying that the above doesn't imply that mudraic instruments are better or worse, easier or harder, or anything like that. This is just one dimension, out of the many different dimensions where music is created and lives.

There is also some scope for debate, I suppose: for example, how mudraic is drumming? Although any drummer could be cloned by a robot that hits the various elements at the right time in the same spot with the same force, there is no question that drummers must move a lot in very specific ways to obtain their results. My personal analysis is that drumming is highly mudraic with regard to timing, but not mudraic in the context of sound production.

One last observation: in almost every case, to play louder one must move wider, stronger, faster, but because this is true across the board, for virtually every instrument, I would not consider it a differentiating factor. In other words, even if with a given instrument you must e.g. swing your arm wider to produce a louder sound, that alone doesn't make the instrument more mudraic, simply because something analogous is the case with virtually every other instrument as well.

  • 5
    Disagree with the drumming synopsis - various different sounds are produced from one drum or one cymbal due to where and how it's hit.
    – Tim
    Dec 26, 2020 at 10:29
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    @Tim to account for the importance of where a cymbal is hit, I wrote "in the same spot", and to account for how it's hit, I wrote "with the same force". Beyond that, while I'm sure that there be some theoretical differences between e.g. a glancing hit on a cymbal with a stick, vs a perpendicular hit, if the force is the same, I'm pretty sure the sound will also be very much the same. Or am I missing something else here?
    – MMazzon
    Dec 26, 2020 at 13:14
  • There's also which part of the stick, what happens to the stick after the hit, and maybe what stick. I'd say pretty mudraic in all aspects - only my opinion.
    – Tim
    Dec 26, 2020 at 15:27
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    Well, violin isn't that mudraic either if you limit yourself to bow in the same position with same speed and force.
    – ojs
    Dec 26, 2020 at 16:27
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    Mudraic is a good word, but to me it describes something orthogonal to what OP is asking about. For instance, software like csound or max/msp is not (necessarily) controlled by gesture, but still offers a lot of tonal freedom. Drawbars are physically awkward, but organs still allow control over individual harmonics in an amount that other acoustic instruments don't generally offer. I feel like mudraic refers to the former but this question to the latter.
    – johncip
    Dec 27, 2020 at 1:53

I might use either expressiveness or versatility, depending on the context. For instance, electric guitar volume pedals are called "expression pedals" even though they only modify volume.

I don't think you're going to find a term that's more specific to music than those, because things like timbre and polyphony tend to be talked about independently. On a synthesizer, the attributes are called parameters in the abstract, but I think it's fair to say that a synth with more parameters is more expressive.

That said, to my ear, even "expressive" probably doesn't include polyphony. So if someone says that an acoustic piano is expressive, they're probably talking about the dynamic range, rather than the harmonic possibilities. Likewise, a singer with a very wide pitch range isn't necessarily expressive.

"Expressive," then, seems to imply a precise ability to modulate pitch & volume across time. This paper calls it a "deviation from music notation," which I assume excludes expression markings. But note that such deviations, from the POV of an individual note, are called articulations. But no one says that their instruments are "articulate" :p

With that in mind, perhaps degrees of freedom is already the best term. Though I don't think it's at all wrong to use expressiveness here, especially if you signal that you mean expressions beyond what falls under articulation.

Colorfulness is also decently generic, though nonstandard.

  • articulate (transitive verb and adjective). d : "to give shape or expression to (something, such as a theme or concept)." – MW. technique : "a way of carrying out a particular task, especially the execution or performance of an artistic work or a scientific procedure." – G. ... Violins can be played with more technique than a midi trigger and are thus the more articulate instrument.
    – Mazura
    Dec 27, 2020 at 3:47
  • Volume pedals are called volume pedals. Expression pedals are used to manipulate a continuous parameter, typically on another pedal, and volume can be such a parameter. For example, the Korg XVP-20 is a volume*/*expression pedal. As a matter of fact, Hotone's Soul Press is a *3*-in-1 volume*/*expression/wah. Dec 27, 2020 at 21:54
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    @JohnnyApplesauce it'd be nice if everyone stuck to that distinction but the makers of those pedals don't. notice how many of these say "volume/expression" sweetwater.com/c1111--Guitar_Volume_Pedals
    – johncip
    Dec 29, 2020 at 20:07
  • @johncip Ah, but of those 9 volume pedals on the first page, each of them, I checked, are said in their descriptions to double as parameter-controlling expression pedals. Dec 30, 2020 at 0:02

I would say that an instrument has its own set of characteristics.

These include

Range: lowest note to highest note
Methods of playing: e.g. plucking and bowing
Tone palette: Which harmonics are present in a given note and how these can be varied by the player


With regard to Midi I would say that you can vary the parameters; volume, pitch, duration, attack, decay, etc.


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