(Caveat: this may be more appropriate in the English Stack Exchange, but I’m a musician and it has to do with instruments, so I put it here.)

As a composer of Celtic-style tunes, I usually pick up my mandolin and noodle in a few keys that work well on a mando, like G, D, Am, Bm for example. I almost never play in Eb (=Cm), say, because without resorting to fully-fretted positions it’s not “natural” for a mandolin. The word “affordance,” as used in a user-interface way, has some bearing here: the way a mandolin is physically organized “affords” ease of use in some keys over others. (The affordance of a door handle is obvious: it says “pull me.” A flat plate on a door says “push.”)

Now on a piano the layout, and how I play the instrument, is different from a mandolin. Whereas the mando is organized across four courses of strings arranged in fifths, and the hands have different jobs (picking and fretting), the piano is laid out in a linear array and both hands play notes. The “affordance” is different. It’s much easier to play in Cm (and for me, D on a piano is sort of hard). If I compose a piece on piano and try to play it on mando, I am struck by how I would never have thought of it on a mando.

Pick your instrument - a penny whistle is key-oriented and range-limited, so only certain types of tune easily fall under the fingers. Drums are a whole different kettle (no pun) of fish: you use sticks and much of your body to play.

So here is the question: what word you would use to describe the instrument’s native character? I have used “affordability” here but that only refers to a part of the approach to the instrument. For some reason the word “modality” comes to mind (not in the scales/modes sense) but I have not been able to support that guess.

The word would be used like this: “ Composing Irish tunes on a fiddle is easier than on a harmonium because the [?word?] of the instrument is more appropriate. Almost-candidates include words like: “feel,” “character,” “voice,” “style,” or “capability.”

This question is not just about finding the word. I think the whole concept of different instruments leading to different compositions is intriguing. Comments?

  • 1
    This is rather difficult, since a true artist on any of those instruments will be able to play anything well. However, I think I understand what you're trying to get at: the native idiom of an instrument, similar to some truisms like "strings love sharps, winds love flats, drums don't care..." or "that tune just falls under the fingers on violin, not so much on flute".
    – Thomas N
    Mar 31, 2017 at 19:31
  • FTR, I think harmonium can work excellent in Celtic music... Ceud Failt Air Gach Gleann or Duthaigh 'icAoidh by Kathleen MacInnes are great examples. (Not sure if it's actually an accordion on the record, but certainly could be harmonium.) But of course it's just accompaniment there, the tune wouldn't work well. Mar 31, 2017 at 21:14
  • @leftaroundabout haha I should have thought of melodeon and extrapolated to harmonium, but I don't play either one
    – Eric O
    Mar 31, 2017 at 22:45
  • What about personality? Apr 1, 2017 at 0:47
  • @ToddWilcox yes personality is part of it, but not the umbrella word I hope to find, rather an attribute
    – Eric O
    Apr 1, 2017 at 17:41

7 Answers 7


Composing Irish tunes on a fiddle is easier than on a harmonium because they are more idiomatic to that instrument.

  1. (music) Parts or pieces which are written both within the natural physical limitations of the instrument and human body and, less so or less often, the styles of playing used on specific instruments.
  • Of all the replies here, I think the word "idiom" comes closest. Although it doesn't quite nail it, the sense of uniqueness is suggested. I'd like the notion of affordance to be included though.
    – Eric O
    Aug 1, 2023 at 7:54

How about the instrument's habitus? "Habitus" works as a cohesive expression for a collection of idiomatic features. It feels more specific to the particular instrument than its "sphere" would.


An instrument's gamut would be a nice description. Unfortunately "gamut" has a musical meaning overshadowing the figurative meaning. "ambit" is similarly hobbled. How about its "domain"?

  • Welcome to Music Stack Exchange. The site welcomes answers and questions from new members, and especially those that are cogent, easy to understand, and appropriate to the site, as yours is. Again, welcome.
    – L3B
    Mar 31, 2017 at 22:17
  • @user38137 Im familiar with gamut in digital photography, but that word refers to the range of possibilities. I'm looking for what describes the instrument's natural inclination. A dog generally barks, although its gamut includes whining and groaning and growling.
    – Eric O
    Mar 31, 2017 at 22:49

"Tone Color" is one phrase ("Klangfarbe" in German). "Timbre" is another. Sometimes the word "Character" is used. I'm not familiar with a special word; sometimes one just says "sound" as in "the sound of the piano." I checked a couple of orchestration books and they tend to describe things like the range and timbre separately rather than using a single word.

  • 2
    It is much more than just the sound. It includes how the instrument is played, and especially its "native" favourite places.
    – Eric O
    Mar 31, 2017 at 19:59

The word that springs most quickly to my mind is the word "character." However, since you used that word in your question, such an answer is considered a no-no!

I like the examples you give, and the suggestions you provide toward possible answers. I do think you should also post the same question on a language site, as a linguist might have better insights into what words would be best in this situation.

Until I can think of a possibly better one, I'll go with leftaroundabout's 'idiomatic.' I've heard it used in that context by professional music commentators, though I'll admit I've heard it used more often the other way around-- that is, a particular piece of music is idiomatic for the piano. Etc.


Perhaps you have two questions here. There are the physical aspects of the instrument, associated with how the sounds are produced, and then there are the characteristics of the instrument, its range and adaptability etc.

Regarding the physical aspects then there are existing classifications. Look up "Hornbostel-Sachs" on Wikipedia.

In respect of the instruments characteristics it gets trickier. I think @leftroundabout gave a good suggestion of idiomatic. I think that "character" might also be a good one.

Interesting question.

  • I know about the H-S instrument classification system (idiophones, aerophones, etc) but I'm looking for a generic instrument's "personal" offerings, if you will. As a composer, what does a flute offer that I can't get on a fiddle? A didjeridoo over a gong? Each instrument offers an "easy" way to play it (not necessarily the most complex or satisfying...)
    – Eric O
    Apr 1, 2017 at 17:39

Timbre: "the character or quality of a musical sound or voice as distinct from its pitch and intensity."

  • 1
    Another contributor already mentioned timbre, but that's only part of what the original poster is looking for.
    – PiedPiper
    Jul 29, 2023 at 19:29
  • Also, if you're going to quote definitions you should say where you're quoting them from. Jul 29, 2023 at 22:50
  • 1
    I’m more interested in how an instrument is played, not what it sounds like.
    – Eric O
    Jul 30, 2023 at 21:04

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