The sounds instruments make

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Ryan Y. wrote to ask about words for "the sounds instruments make". He points out that in English, "Drums go 'rat-a-tat' and 'bang,' bells go 'ding dong,' and sad trombones go 'wah wah'", but he notes that there are some gaps that he finds surprising:

Few instruments are as popular in the US as the guitar, but I have no idea what sound a guitar makes. There are gaps even for the standard high school band/orchestra instruments. What sound does a violin make? A flute? For that matter, what sound does an orchestra make? A rock group?

Is there a compelling explanation as to why we have words for the sounds of bells, trombones, and tubas, but not guitars? Why do we lack words for the sounds of groups of instruments? Do, say, Italians have a word for the sound a violin makes? Do the French have a word for the sound of a French Horn?

It seems to me that the situation in English instrumental onomatopeia is a bit more diffuse than Ryan suggests. A web search for "went the fiddlers" reveals that fiddlers have often been considered to go "fiddle fiddle dee fiddle dee", or perhaps "tweedle dum, tweedle dee", or maybe "twee tweedle dee tweedle dee",  Similar searches reveal that harpers go "twingle twangle", pipers go "ha-diddle, how-diddle" or perhaps "tootle tootle too", flutes go "toodle-oodle-oo", or maybe "Too-too, too-tum-too, tooty-tum", or just plain "toot toot".

As for guitars, they go "twang", don't they? And theremins go "woo" (perhaps the origin of the term as used for dubious science). Certain kinds of rock bands go "unn-tss unn-tss" or "unce unce". And let's not forget "oom pah pah".

We can also find less obvious things like "Bum-bum-bum went the guitars and tambourine in unison".

Still, I think that Ryan is right, the English inventory of instrument-imitation words is a bit sparse, and rarely includes ways of imitating ensembles.  I'll leave it to commenters to tell us about the situation in other languages.

(I don't think that we've covered this topic before — though there have been some discussions of differences across languages in onomatopeia and ideophones, e.g. "'Ho ho ho', she laughed in a refined feminine way", 7/21/2004; "Hot features", 8/24/2004; "Unh, Ka-BOOM, BZZURKK", 7/21/2004;  "Phonics", 12/30/2006; "Ask Language Log: Sounds and Meanings", 3/9/2008; "Waza waza", 3/20/2008; "Japanese (and Chinese) onomatopeia", 7/21/2008; "Unce", 5/22/2010; "Wait Till You Hear a Weak Pyridaben Carbazole Sound", 6/30/2010.

As for those French and their horns, Wikipedia explains that

When valves were invented [in the 19th century] the French made smaller horns with piston valves and the Germans made larger horns with rotary valves. It is the German horn that is erroneously referred to in the English language (and more commonly in the United States and Canada) as the French horn.


  1. Matt Heath said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 7:08 am

    I'm pretty sure house and/or techno records go "unn-tss unn-tss" or "unce unce" and rock bands don't.

  2. Ian Tindale said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 7:23 am

    I think you’ll find adequate extant documentation that refers to heavy metal guitar solos as going “widdley-widdley” and their self-indulgent perpetrators are often derogatorily passed off as “widdley-widdley merchants” or some such silliness.

  3. neff said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 7:26 am

    Yes, "widdley-widdley" or "weedly-deedly" or "meedly-meedly" or things along those lines (perhaps someone with more free time could search the corpus for the most popular variant).

  4. Jayarava said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 7:35 am

    I have lots of vocal sounds for instruments, but I can't spell any of them! Frank Zappa did say that writing about music is like dancing about architecture.

  5. gnaddrig said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 7:37 am

    @ Ian Tindale & neff: But what do heavy metal bands as a whole sound like? My little sister once described it as [dƷdƷdƷdƷ dƷdƷdƷdƷ] when she was about three years old and wanted me to put on one particular heavy metal tape but didn't know the name of the band and of the style of music.

  6. ?! said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 7:37 am

    The kids here in Australia all seem to say "nyow nyow" with a sort of wah-pedal effect when playing air guitar. Pianos go 'plink'.

  7. Matt Heath said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 7:39 am

    More guitar sounds: "wika waka" for funk rhythm guitar, "jingle-jangle" for Johnny Marr wannabes, "Kerrang!" for big distorted chords.

  8. Aaron Toivo said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 7:58 am

    For pianos let us not forget the phrase "a tinkle on the ivories". 1860 googlehits.

  9. Twitter Trackbacks for Language Log » The sounds instruments make [] on said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 8:05 am

    […] Language Log » The sounds instruments make – view page – cached Ryan Y. wrote to ask about words for "the sounds instruments make". He points out that in English, "Drums go 'rat-a-tat' and 'bang,' bells go 'ding dong,' and sad trombones go 'wah wah'", but he notes that there are some gaps that he finds surprising: Tweets about this link […]

  10. Peter Harvey said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 8:10 am

    When I played the French horn in Britain my instrument had three piston valves. There was a version of the instrument that had a rotary switch to alternate between two sets of piston valves. I have never heard of a German horn.

  11. Szwagier said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 8:15 am

    According to Zappa, again, pop guitars go "Reen-toon-teen-toon-teen-toon Tee-nu-nee-nu-nee"

  12. Dougal Stanton said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 8:18 am

    I think gnaddrig hits it spot on with heavy metal: it's an endless variation of dƷ's.

  13. Dougal Stanton said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 8:20 am

    Aaron, "tickling the ivories" has a much bigger google result list.

  14. Acilius said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 8:23 am

    I'm always curious about the ways onomatopoetic expressions can drift. So, "warble" is a pretty straightforward onomatopoeia for a particular kind of singing. The ukulele has some of the same properties that distinguish that kind of singing, and ukuleleists do in fact refer to their instrument's sound as a "warble." But it's hardly an onomatopoeia anymore in that extended use.

  15. Jerzy said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 8:32 am

    For some reason my first instinct was "It's obvious that there'd be more standard instrumental onomatopeia for percussion — ding dong, clang, bum-bum-bum, rat-a-tat, etc. — than for other instruments."
    But I can't quite express why that makes sense in my head. Maybe it just seems easy to make general percussive sounds with your mouth, while it's harder to accurately imitate the tone of a flute (and make it sound distinct from imitating a clarinet or trumpet or whatever)… And there's no way to vocalize the same sound quality as a plucked string instrument. But that's all blatant hypothesizing.

    Also, I would guess that the trombone's wah-wah sound is a special case. I thought I've read somewhere that trombonists who came up with that were trying to imitate a mocking human voice (which may be why we have a word for it but not for a general trombone sound). I thought it began with Kid Ory, but it looks like perhaps King Oliver (on cornet) came up with it and even named a song "WaWaWa":

  16. Errant Tiger said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 8:39 am

    More guitar sounds, from the liner notes to Big Black's Songs About Fucking:

    guitar grrr
    guitar skinng

  17. Trimegistus said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 8:40 am

    Electric guitars go "blang" or "blaaangggg," according to comic strips.

  18. gnaddrig said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 8:48 am

    I remember reading a comment about a recording of some chamber music where the harpsichord was described as sounding a bit like one of those old mechanical sewing machines. Maybe this is not completely off topic, although it is not an onomatopoeia, of course.

  19. George said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 8:58 am

    We have authoritative evidence from Judy Garland and "The Trolley Song" that bells go ding, ding, ding.

    String instruments could be like heart strings and go thump, thump, thump or stop, stop, stop (or maybe the latter is a wish not a sound).

  20. Kobey S said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 8:58 am

    Relevant Homestar Runner reference:

    meedley meedley meedley meedley MEEEE!

  21. Scott said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 9:09 am

    Traditionally guitars went 'twang', but I think a more appropriate word for distorted guitar chords is "chrng".

    Bass guitars go 'thumm' (where the 'th' is almost like a 'd').

    Led Zeppelin go to California with an aching in their hearts.

  22. Kathleen said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 9:13 am

    Bagpipes skirl. (Ah, the skirl of the pipes!) This is an odd one, because I've seen it print many times, and it never seems to refer to anything other than bagpipes. But I've played the pipes for more than twenty years, and I can assure you that pipers don't ever seem to use the word. They don't hate the word or avoid it . . . but it never seems to come up.

  23. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 9:22 am

    'Skirl' has been used at least once for something other than bagpipes, but only as a joke:

    'To the skirl of pipes vibrating in the boiler room below,
    I sing a pot pourri of all the songs I used to know,
    And the water thunders in and gurgles down the overflow,
    In the bath,
    In the bath'

    (M. Flanders/D. Swann, 'In the Bath')

  24. Peter said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 9:29 am

    @Peter Harvey: interesting; how recently was that? I also play the horn, & have live in both England and the US; the first horn I learned on, a battered time-out-of-mind thing belonging to my secondary school (probably actually made in about the 50’s, I'd guess), had piston valves, but all the ones I've met since have been rotary-only.

  25. JP Villanueva said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 9:43 am

    Funky 1970s music with wah-wah guitar is clearly: wákachika wákachika

    Drummers use an extensive and surprisingly consistent vocabulary to talk about beats: regular strokes can be "dut dut dut" or "chut chut chut," but the rim shot (hitting rim and drum head simultaneously) is always "gak!" among English speaking drummers.

    Finally, in Spanish, I know that techno music is described as "ponchis ponchis"

  26. Matt said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 9:44 am

    "Do, say, Italians have a word for the sound a violin makes?"

    Papapapa a la trumbetta,
    A zing a zing, u viulin,
    a pling a pling, u mandulin,
    tu tu tu tu u saxofon
    [whistling] u friscalette, tipiti tipiti tam.


  27. LLD said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 9:50 am

    The 80s band Wang Chung supposedly named themselves after the sound a guitar makes, among other things. From their Wikipedia:

    "The name Huang Chung (simplified Chinese: 黄钟; traditional Chinese: 黃鐘; pinyin: huáng zhōng) literally translates from Chinese as "yellow bell" but, in this case, refers to the standardized bass pitch of ancient China. Early on the band summarized the definition as "perfect pitch" and later, on American Bandstand, they claimed it was the sound a guitar made."

  28. Andrew said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 10:16 am

    I always thought twanging was for banjos.

  29. Red Scharlach said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 10:25 am

    According to Eddie Izzard, oboes go "weasel, weasel":

  30. marie-lucie said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 10:27 am

    It is easier to give an impression of the sounds of percussion instruments because of the various possibilities for producing consonants (stops, affricates, fricatives). For the piano, "tickling the ivories" does not seem to refer to sound at all, only to the motions of the fingers on the keys, but the sounds of the verb "tickle" could evoke the successive sounds in the upper register of the piano, hence the word could be confused with the onomatopeic "tinkle".

    One version of "Jingle Bells" has not only 'jingle' but 'ding-a-ling' (phonetically similar to "tink-l-ing"). In "The Little Drummer Boy" the drum goes 'ram pam pam pam'. In French, marching drums similarly go "ran plan plan" or "rapataplan" (in both languages the initial /r/ was originally trilled and therefore more accurate as an imitation of a drum roll). Other drums might go "badaboum boum boum".

  31. Leonardo Boiko said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 10:27 am

    This is the obligatory reference to shōga, the Japanese vocalization technique for singing taiko drum patterns. don don don dokodoko sore! DON

  32. Z. D. Smith said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 10:29 am

    In extreme metal, guitars often go 'jud jud jud ree nee nee'.

  33. dw said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 10:38 am

    Re "French" horn, here are some British English / American English equivalents (I'm talking from my own experience, which is mostly in classical music):

    AmE "French horn" = BrE "horn" ("French horn" is understood and known but not used much)

    AmE "horn" = BrE "brass instrument"

    AmE "English horn" = BrE "cor anglais"

    And, while we're here, AmE "(string) bass / contrabass" = BrE "double bass"

    When journalists at this year's FIFA World Cup were attempting to describe the vuvuzela, American ones tended to describe it as a "horn" while British ones described it as a "trumpet". To a BrE ear, describing the vuvuzela as a "horn" would imply that it was bent rather than straight.

  34. Jean-Pierre Metereau said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 10:43 am

    Matt: I was going to do that one but I'd forgotten the trumpet. Thanks! Now I can sing it and drive my family crazy.

  35. Mary Bull said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 11:06 am

    When I played horn in high school (1939-1943) there were two kinds in the stable: mellophones (with pistons opening and closing the valves) and horns (with rotary valves). Purists among the horn-playing musicians I know here in the U.S. do not call their instruments French horns, although they are polite to people who do. Also, they seldom quarrel with sax or trumpet players who also refer to what they play as "horns."

  36. Ryan Y said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 11:11 am

    Question asker here. It's excellent to see all the (mostly amusing) instrument sounds I forgot about.

    It seems like there are two different kinds of onomatopoeia here: words that mimic the instrument as played and words that mimic the timbre of the instrument. Thus "widdley-widdley" mimics the *way* the indulgent electric guitar is played. Whereas "twang" is clearly the sound of the platonic banjo.

    I'm inclined to think that many of the examples Mark offers are of the first kind. I have a hard time imagining that if I asked a violinist who specializes in Shostakovich what sound her instrument made, she would reply, "fiddle fiddle dee fiddle dee."

    I wonder if other types of onomatopoeia have this sort of language/utterance distinction.

  37. Brandon said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 11:23 am

    Don't forget that Peter Frampton's guitar "talks"…

  38. Heather said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 11:28 am

    @Mary Bull –
    As a younger generation horn player, I can tell you that that is still the case. I play horn, I do not play the French horn. If I wanted to me more specific, I can say that I play an F horn or a double horn (depending on the instrument's configuration), but the F represents the key and does not stand for "French". Trumpeters and the saxophonists who call their instruments "horns"? They are simply envious of the awesomeness of the horn.

    As far as musical genre onomatopeia goes, wouldn't the most obvious example be doo-wop? The actual name of the music is an onomatopeia.

  39. Thomas Thurman said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 11:44 am

    Once upon a time in Chacombe, according to Notes and Queries, there was a bell whose inscription read:

    I ring to service with a lusty bome,That all may come and none may stay at home.

    When I read this, I thought to myself: Why have I believed for so long that bells make a little, tinkling noise like "ding" or "dong"? Clearly a large bell does indeed give a lusty "bome".

  40. Theodore said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 11:46 am

    @Matt: Thanks for "Eh Cumpari". I thought of that along with: "A Symphonic Variation" which only truly uses onomatopoeia for the drums, though on the recording "horn" and it's rhyme "scorn" are sung onomatopoeically. ("Clarinet" also somewhat so.)

    Maybe we should extend the "Words for x" concept to "onomatopoeia for y". How long before it's claimed the symphony would be more popular if we had a word for the sound it makes?

  41. Freddy said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 11:56 am

    There's no ambiguity about what to call the sound that a wah-wah pedal gets out of an electric guitar:

    Are there other musical examples where the onomatopeia has been promoted to the name of the thing? Perhaps the etymology of the word 'drum' would show this, as it rhymes with 'thrum'. But not that I can find.

  42. Theodore said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 12:12 pm

    @Freddy: The first that comes to mind is the goblet drum known as the doumbek which makes two main sounds, "doum" in the middle of the head and "bek" at the edge, though players notate the latter as "tek".

  43. Amy Stoller said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 12:14 pm

    Ding-dong, ding-dong, that is their song.
    If I were a bell, I'd go ding, dong, ding, dong, ding.

    Flute (or fife) and Drum:
    Turelurelu, patapatapan

    Flutes also tootle.

    I played my drum for him, pa rum pum pum pum

    We also speak of bass drums booming.

    Funk guitar with wah-wah pedal effect (now associated mainly with porn, or with sex):

    Zing! went the strings of my heart

  44. Terry Collmann said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 12:15 pm

    "A tinkle on the ivories"? To British ears that sounds as if you'd want to wipe them down with a disinfectant-soaked cloth afterwards.

    Irish music goes "diddley diddley", at least in Ireland and the UK, but I don't know if that's the sound of the fiddles or the bodhrán or the mandolin or the whole emsemble.

  45. David Donnell said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 12:15 pm

    Back in the day, some fellow musicians and I described the sound of reggae rhythm guitars as "chink…chink…chink…" etc.

  46. Elise said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 12:26 pm

    Flutes clearly toot:

    A tutor who tooted the flute tutored two tooters to toot. Said the tooters to the tutor, 'is it easier to toot, or tutor two tooters to toot?'

  47. micah said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 12:31 pm

    @Freddy: Gongs are pretty definitely auto-onamatopoeic.

  48. D. Sky Onosson said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 12:32 pm

    I'd love to hear someone knowledgeable comment on the use of the vocal technique used by musicians in India for learning(?) rhythmic patterns. I've often heard in the context of tabla drums, but maybe it's used for other instruments as well?

  49. richard howland-bolton said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 12:34 pm

    According to Hilaire Belloc it's "the Ting, Tong, Tang, of the Guitar"

  50. John Cowan said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 12:34 pm

    Many of the names for the patterns of rudimental drumming are onomatopoetic: paradiddle, paradiddle-diddle, flam, flamacue, pataflafla, ratamacue.

  51. Xmun said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 12:42 pm

    Auden once reversed the order:

    "Already the mass-bell goes dong-ding"

    which always offended my ear. Ding-dong, tick-tock, pitter-patter, etc.: the second element nearly always has a more open vowel than the first (if it doesn't merely repeat the same vowel).

  52. wally said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 12:43 pm

    I don't know about the Italians, but the Germans seem to have words for the sound a violin makes

    Ich bin ein Musikante
    Und komm' aus Schwabenland ;
    Wir sind auch Musikanten
    Und komm'n aus Schwabenland
    Ich kann auch spielen, Wir könn'n auch spielen.
    Die Violine. Die Violine.
    Sim sam-ser-lim, sim sam-ser-lim,
    Sim sam-ser-lim, sim sam-ser-lim,
    Sim sam-ser-lim, sim sam-ser-lim,
    Sim sam-ser-lim, sim sim.

    a list of other sounds is here

    or here

  53. Mr Punch said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 12:47 pm

    There are a number of songs using words to mimic the sound of church bells – (English) "Oranges and Lemons" say the Bells of St. Clements (etc.); (French)
    Orléans, Beaugency, Notre Dame de Cléry, Vendôme, Vendôme.

    @JPV – "wákachika wákachika" sounds like something from a Blue Swede b-side.

  54. rpsms said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 12:52 pm

    Jimi Hendrix goes "meow meow meow"

    Jimi Page goes "gobbley gobbley"

    Funk goes "shank shank shaskank skank"

  55. Theodore said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 1:08 pm

    Here's one for the computational linguists in the crowd: How do computer speech recognition systems interpret the sounds of musical instruments?

  56. Peter Harvey said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 1:23 pm

    @Peter, I'm talking of the 1960s and that was a school instrument. I have no idea how old it actually was. I was no good but you know how it is — I once had a whim and I had to obey it …

    @dw, Weren't coaching horns straight?

  57. Plane said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 1:27 pm

    I've never heard "jud jud jud ree nee nee", but metal guitarists often talk about "chugging". chuggachugga

  58. Bill Benzon said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 1:32 pm

    @Leonardo Boiko: I suspect that every percussion tradition has a set of vocables used to teach and to convey rhythm patterns (cf. John Cowan's remark on rudimental drumming). The vocables may also be used more generally within the musical tradition, such as the solkattu patterns of South Indian classic music, which consist of vocables and hand signals. @D. Sky Onosson: the solkattu patterns are used in general music pedagogy and are not specific to percussionists. I've even heard vocalists using them for improvised vocal solos.

    When I was in grade school we sang a song which went through the various instruments and had syllables for most of them. 'The clarinet, the clarinet, goes doodle doodle doodle det' but 'the horn, the horn, awakes you at morn' (yes, that's what I remember the line as being).

  59. Ben Hemmens said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 1:50 pm

    When I was a teenager, my father referred to the noises I made with my guitar as "twanging that damn banjo" – if it helps.

  60. Ben Hemmens said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 1:51 pm

    "Irish music goes "diddley diddley","

    or more often, diddley-eye.

    Whereas in Austria, brass band music is referred to (disparagingly) as Humptata.

  61. Chandra said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 2:05 pm

    As for the French horn not being French, the French in fact call it "cor anglais" (English horn), which is itself a French eggcorn for "cor anglé" (bent horn).

  62. Maneki Nekko said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 2:23 pm

    Old-style Hawaiian music is sometimes described as "sha-lang-a-lang," mimicking the strumming of the guitar and ukulele.

  63. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 3:32 pm

    "Throbbing bass" (for a variety of musical genres) seems so frequent a collocation as to be a cliche/idiom; likewise (in a somewhat narrower context) "wailing guitar" or (in an even narrower context) "shredding guitar. But that doesn't necessarily mean that e.g. the bass is described as going "throb, throb, throb." Then there's, e.g. "jangle pop" used to describe a particular style of rock from my lost youth characterized by a "jangly" guitar sound, which sounds imitative but also *might* (this is speculation on my part) be so called at least in part because the Ur-version of that guitar sound can be heard on the Byrds' version of "Mr. Tambourine Man" with its lyric about the "jingle-jangle morning."

  64. Ray Girvan said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 3:33 pm

    This recalls the song The Music Man. Some years ago I remember this being sung in a pub and someone decided to add a verse about being able to play the gamelan: according to the singer, it goes "boom pwang boom pwang boom pwang dong".

  65. Eric said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 3:44 pm


    Everyone knows harpsichords sound like skeletons copulating on a tin roof.

  66. dw said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 3:50 pm


    Not quite. The English horn/cor anglais is not a horn at all, but a kind of oboe. And the supposed etymology from "cor anglé" is spurious. The name apparently derives from German "engellisches Horn" ("angelic horn").

    The instrument is generally known as a cor anglais in Britain, even though "English horn" is the older usage in both Britain and the US. Yet another case where American English preserves a form that has been mostly lost in Britain.

  67. Matt said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 4:00 pm

    Throughout his poem "The Congo," Vachel Lindsay uses "boomlay" to convey the rolling sound of drums. Here are the opening lines:

    Fat black bucks in a wine-barrel room,
    Barrel-house kings, with feet unstable,
    Sagged and reeled and pounded on the table,
    Pounded on the table,
    Beat an empty barrel with the handle of a broom,
    Hard as they were able,
    Boom, boom, BOOM,
    With a silk umbrella and the handle of a broom,
    Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, BOOM.

  68. peterv said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 4:27 pm

    With so many different instruments mentioned in the comments, it would be a shame not to recall that wonderful 1967 song "The Intro and the Outro" of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band (song by Vivian Stanshall). Full lyrics here:

    An excerpt:

    On my left Sir Kenneth Clark, bass sax…. A great honour, sir.
    And specially flown in for us, a session's gorilla on vox humana.
    Nice to see Incredible Shrinking Man on euphonium,
    Drop out with Peter Scott on duck call,
    Hearing from you later Casanova, on horn,
    Yeah! Digging General de Gaulle on accordion….
    Really wild, General! Thank you, sir.
    Roy Rogers on Trigger.

    . . .

    What a team, Zebra Kid and Horace Batchelor on percussion,
    And a great favourite, and a wonderful performer, of all of us here,
    J. Arthur Rank on gong….

  69. Levi Montgomery said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 5:23 pm

    I can't believe nobody has pointed this out yet. There is no word in English for the sound a band makes. Therefore English speakers have no concept of bands.

    As Archie used to say, "Ipso fatso."

  70. Nicholas Lawrence said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 5:41 pm

    No concept of bands?

    There was once a man who could ex-e-cute
    Old Zip Coon on a yellow flute
    And plenty of other tunes to boot
    But he couldn't make a penny
    With his tootle ti toot
    Tootle ootle ootle. Tootle ti toot.

    He met a singular quaint old man with a big tu-ba
    Who said he'd traveled near and far
    But he couldn't make a penny with his Umpa pa
    Umpa Umpa Umpa Pa.

    They met with a man who was trav-ell-ing
    With a big bass drum and a cymbal thing
    Who said he'd banged since early spring
    But he couldn't make a penny with his boom zing zing
    Boom zing. Boom zing Boom zing zing.

    So the man with the flute played tottle ti toot
    And the other man he played Umpa
    And the man with the drum and the cymbal thing
    Played Boom zing Boom zing. Boom zing zing.

    And oh the pennies that the people fling
    When they hear the tootle ootle umpa Boom zing zing
    Tootle ooltle umpa. A boom a zing aboom a zing
    Tootle ootle umpa Boom zing zing
    Tootle ootle umpa a boom a zing a boom a zing
    A toolte a tootle umpa zing.

  71. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 5:51 pm

    A Chinese gong produces a big bang bong when played by a big bang bonger at the rear.

    Johnny Cash's instruments went boom-chicka boom-chicka.

    @Szwagier: Only if you bend the string like that.

    @Bill Benzon: Talk about lost memories! Some discussion of it here.

  72. Kapitano said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 6:21 pm

    Plink, plonk, tinkle, ring, ding-dong, sweep, swish, swoosh, chime, ping, ting, ting-a-ling, bonk, ching, clang, clank.

    Trumpets go parp, woodblocks go clonk, and some synthesisers put a donk on it.

    Things that make you go "Hmmm".

  73. Michael Moncur said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 7:10 pm

    The German band Van Canto has done a lot of thinking about vocal forms of the sounds heavy metal guitars make, since they perform a capella…

  74. Joyce Melton said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 7:12 pm

    As a cornet player, I called my instrument a horn, even though I knew that music written for "horn" was for the French horns, mellophones and double horns. Horn has both a general and specific meaning in music, and an even more general meaning in ordinary speech.

    Any brass instrument in a band or orchestra is a horn. If it's a jazz band, then the saxophone counts as a horn, too, because it sounds like a horn and is used like a horn in jazz.

    If you go back far enough in the derivation, I suspect that horn, cornet, trumpet, trombone, tuba, flute, fife, pipes and possibly harp are all onomatopoeic. I also think "guitar" is a pretty good description of what an acoustic guitar sounds like.

  75. Dw said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 7:18 pm

    @Joyce Melton

    "Horn" definitely isn't onomatopeic. It comes from a Proto-Indo-European word that originally referred to the animal appendage, rather than a musical instrument. I'm pretty doubtful about the rest as well.

  76. Tyler Bickford said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 7:19 pm

    I love this topic. It's not *exactly* what's being discussed, but Caroline Traube's dissertation [paywall] at McGill spends a lot of time on how classical guitarists vocalize timbres for different plucking techniques. Also here [paywall] and here.

    There's a huge opening out there for lots more research on syllable-note and/or vowel-timbre correllations.

    [(myl) Indeed. Among the relatively well documented areas are Indian theka and similar systems, talking drums, etc.]

  77. Gordon Campbell said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 7:26 pm

    In Australia, a doof (‘oo’ as in foot, not boot) is an outdoor rave (dance party) held in the bush, beach or other remote location. It comes from the sound of electronic dance music (techno/trance/house/whatever) . At a distance, all the top end is lost and you just get that kick drum sound: doof doof doof.

  78. Alexander said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 8:17 pm

    People write about these sound differently than they impersonate them. People write about "chugga-chugga" metal riffs. But the most common syllable that metalheads actually utter when they're imitating a riff on palm-muted low strings is definitely "dv" (not "dzh", whose rhyme is way too trebly for most metal, and not fuzzy enough). People write about the "twang" sound you get picking thick strings near the bridge, especially with a hollow-bodied electric; that's the sound associated definitively with Duane Eddy. But everybody performs that sound as nasalized "dao".

  79. Charly said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 9:08 pm

    Kling, gloechen, kling-a-ling-a-ling!

    There's a German onomatopoeia for you.

    Et en français:

    Frère Jacques, frère Jacques,
    Dormez-vous? Dormez-vous?
    Sonnez les matines! Sonnez les matines!
    Din, dan, don. Din, dan, don.

  80. Charly said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 9:15 pm

    Similar to the drum sound is one way of spelling the knocking-at-a-door sound, "rat-tat-tat." In French, this is "toc-toc." If you should choose to ring, that could be represented by "tintement," "bagarre" or "ding-dong." I'm pretty sure the first two are nouns, like "a ring at the door," rather than onomatopoeic.

    Stephen Colbert, when he wants to go heavy metal, always makes a sould like "woooooooo-oah-oun!"

  81. Portia said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 9:16 pm

    Similar to the drum sound is one way of spelling the knocking-at-a-door sound, "rat-tat-tat." In French, this is "toc-toc." If you should choose to ring, that could be represented by "tintement," "bagarre" or "ding-dong." I'm pretty sure the first two are nouns, like "a ring at the door," rather than onomatopoeic.

    Stephen Colbert, when he wants to go heavy metal, always makes a sould like "woooooooo-oah-oun!"

  82. Kyle said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 10:40 pm

    This discussion makes me think of Christopher Smart's poem Jubilate Agno, which I know from Britten's choral work "Rejoice in the Lamb".

    For the Shawm rhimes are lawn fawn moon boon and the like.

    For the harp rhimes are sing ring string and the like.

    For the cymbal rhimes are bell well toll soul and the like.

    For the flute rhimes are tooth youth suit mute and the like.

    For the dulcimer rhimes are grace place beat heat and the like.

    For the Clarinet rhimes are clean seen and the like.

  83. Kai Samuelsen said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 11:26 pm

    Far to late to ever get noticed, but I think the onomatopoeia words for musical instruments are less strictly tied to the specific instruments than other onomatopoeia. Horses will never "oink" in English, but it's conceivable of a guitar playing "tootle tootle-too."

  84. Nat said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 11:31 pm

    Latin has the lovely "tintinnabulum" for "bell". According to the OED, this comes from the verb "tintinnare", "to ring". This seems to be an example of onomatopoeia giving rise to an instrument name.

  85. benritmato said,

    October 8, 2010 @ 12:26 am

    We have a children's book called "Le train des animaux." One of the animals plays the drum, "ran tan plan", and another plays the fife, "tuit, tuit, tuit." My spelling may be wrong because I can't find the book right now. (The book is originally in English–don't know the English title.)

  86. Adam said,

    October 8, 2010 @ 1:07 am

    Some old Toothpaste For Dinner comics had guitar onomatopoeia:

    jing jing j-j-j-j-jing
    oowaka oowaka
    chunka chunka chunka chunk
    chug chug chug chug chug

    And there's kick drum here:

    ticka ticka

    I guess kick drums in metal have a nice clicky attack?

  87. David Green said,

    October 8, 2010 @ 1:18 am

    And for the piano, there D.H. Lawrence's
    "boom of the tingling strings"
    often misquoted (quite naturally but paradoxically) as "boom of the tinkling strings".
    Credit I.A. Richards for the observation, many years ago.

  88. Jordan said,

    October 8, 2010 @ 1:37 am

    The rock critic Robert Christgau coined the term "skronk" to describe the late '70s art-punk scene. (Lots of discordant, wailing saxophones and herky-jerky guitar).

  89. Joyce Melton said,

    October 8, 2010 @ 3:52 am

    At Dw, that doesn't actually prove that horn is not onomatopoeic. The word is now horn, not *ker-. I think the change going back to proto-Germanic was related to the sound and the original sound may have been onomatopoeic in PIE.

  90. Ray Dillinger said,

    October 8, 2010 @ 4:30 am

    We have a ready onomatopoeia for the sound of a flute, but lack an orthography suitable for transcribing whistles.

    I know that because there are languages that use clicks IPA has added symbols for various click sounds. Since there are also a few languages that can be whistled, does IPA have any symbols for whistles?

    Hmmm. And if IPA has such symbols do they describe the sound as an 'unvoiced aspirated bilabial approximant?'

  91. Ivan said,

    October 8, 2010 @ 5:30 am


    I always assumed that the sewing-machine image was a dig against the repetitive rhythmic bouncing of concerti grossi by Telemann and the like.

  92. Ray Girvan said,

    October 8, 2010 @ 6:59 am

    Kyle: This discussion makes me think of Christopher Smart's poem Jubilate Agno

    For me, the intro to WS Gilbert's The Story of Prince Agib:

    Strike the concertina's melancholy string!
    Blow the spirit-stirring harp like anything!
    Let the piano's martial blast
    Rouse the echoes of the past,
    For of AGIB, Prince of Tartary, I sing!

  93. Nick said,

    October 8, 2010 @ 12:31 pm

    According to the late, great John Peel, short drum rolls at the end of songs go 'flubadum' (my spelling).

  94. Clarissa at Talk to the Clouds said,

    October 8, 2010 @ 2:02 pm

    Funny, I was just complaining to someone that it's odd how in English we make a great deal of imitative sounds that can't be proper transcribed–so that if I imitate a guitar, car crash, downpour, printer jam, or even something not truly sound-based like an eruption of anger, the sound is often something that will never make it into print in a novel. I have no idea how standardized these sounds are (kind of, I think, but apparently not stylized enough to be have a standard orthography). It's just such a contrast compared to Japanese, which seems to have a mimetic or onomatopoetic term for everything–probably even this feeling.

  95. Language Log Lurker said,

    October 8, 2010 @ 10:51 pm

    "…my guitar gently weeps". Thank you, George.

  96. marie-lucie said,

    October 9, 2010 @ 10:36 pm

    In French the "French horn" is just called le cor, and the "English horn" (which is straight) is le cor anglais.

    The original "horns" were actual animal horns. In French the word for the horns of a cow or similar animal is la corne. The musical "cornet" (le cornet à piston) also comes from the same word.

    In the past, primitive "horns" in the rough shape of a cow's horn were used to send signals to others. In the epic poem La chanson de Roland, Roland's army is in difficulty and he must summon help – he dies of blowing his horn so hard that he bursts a vessel in his neck, but he has been heard by the main army which comes to his rescue. Mounted couriers and post coachmen in past centuries used a horn to announce their imminent arrival at a stage post, so that fresh horses would be ready for them in time. Mounted hunters (in a traditional hunt, as in England) still use le cor de chasse (hunting horn) to locate each other. Another word for the same instrument (I think) is la trompe de chasse (there is also la trompe de brume, the foghorn). La trompette was originally the diminutive form of la trompe (which by itself usually means an elephant's trunk).

    The harpsichord: not quite, but related as to sound: my father (who played violin and viola) was chatting with his bowmaker; the conversation turned to the mandolin, and the bowmaker exclaimed: "La mandoline, une symphonie de cure-dents!" (a symphony of toothpicks).

    Frère Jacques: the sound of the bells is written in French ding, din, don (where ding is pronounced as in English, the others with French nasal vowels).

    Bell sounds in general: (oranges and lemons, etc): I think that those words represent the rhythmic patterns as well as the pitches of the bells, more than their actual sound quality. "To ring the bells" is sonner les cloches (transitive or intransitive). This word is also used to mean what one does with a horn: sonner du cor.

    Drum sounds: French marching drums say ran plan plan and rapataplan. I think that in both French and English the original r was a trill, which would be the most suitable consonant for imitating a drum roll. In my parents' youth there was a song starting with Ta … ra … ra … boum!, also a drum imitation.

    Knocking sounds: toc toc is right for knocking on a door, but bagarre ??? This word does not mean a type of sound, une bagarre is a fistfight, especially between more than two persons (but not a large number). The verb se bagarrer means to get into a fight, to be fighting (as many young boys do).

  97. Matt McIrvin said,

    October 9, 2010 @ 11:02 pm

    Isn't Roland's horn supposed to be literally a hollowed-out elephant's tusk? I remember he calls it his "oliphant".

    In my junior-high school in Virginia circa 1981, electric guitars went "nair, nair, nair".

  98. Mary Bull said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 11:03 am

    In Browning's "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came," the horn is called a "slug-horn."
    "Dauntless the slug-horn to my lips I set"

  99. marie-lucie said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 11:21 am

    Isn't Roland's horn supposed to be literally a hollowed-out elephant's tusk? I remember he calls it his "oliphant".

    Yes, and the elephant's tusk works like a cow horn, probably giving a lower and louder sound because of its larger size. The principle is the same, which is why I did not dwell on the precise nature of that horn.

    a slug-horn: no doubt there is an old meaning of "slug" here. Perhaps it is in the OED.

  100. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 5:26 pm

    I have an idea that 'slug-horn' is actually a mistake, being a misreading of 'slogan' (in its original sense of 'war-cry').

    Regarding the use of 'horn' in British English; I think it's true that no orchestral instrument other than the French horn would be called a horn, and therefore in the context of orchestral music 'French horn' is pleonastic and not much used. However, 'horn' can be used of other instruments, such as the (English) hunting horn (which is quite different from the French hunting horn), or the post horn (which I think is straight), or the Ripon hornblower's horn, still used to sound the curfew at nine o'clock every night, which is a large instrument roughly the shape of an animal's horn, curved, but not twisted round. Thus 'French horn' may sometimes be useful to make it clear that you mean an orchestral horn and not some other kind.

  101. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 5:32 pm

    Oh, and 'rataplan' must at one time have been used in English, since in the operetta 'Cox and Box', Cox and Box's landlord has a song with the refrain 'Rataplan, rataplan, I'm a military man'.

  102. Dw said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 7:42 pm

    @Joyce Melton:

    I think it's very unlikely that Proto-Indo-European *krnu or whatever was onomatopoeic because the word originally referred to the animal part. The use as a musical instrument was derivative, because the very earliest musical horns were made of animal horns. In addition, although we don't know for sure exactly how Proto-Indo-European was pronounced, no likely realization of *krnu resembles any other onomatopoeic sound for a horn-type instrument that I am aware of.

  103. marie-lucie said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 10:25 pm

    "Dw" is right. Some people find it easy to justify "onomatopeia" or "sound symbolism" after the fact, once they know what the meaning of a word is. It is much harder to predict what an unknown word must mean based on its sounds.

    Even words that began as obviously onomatopeic are subject to the same sound changes as others which happen to have the same sounds. An example is the cat's cry, written in English meow ([mi-aw]), in French miaou [mya-u]. Used in isolation, those words are fair imitations of the cat's cry, but "to meow" is French miauler [myole], not [myaule], because earlier [au] has become [o] everywhere, regardless of its origin, so this verb (which has all the forms of a regular French verb) was no exception.

  104. Sissyphus said,

    October 11, 2010 @ 2:19 am

    There is (or at least was) an a capella instrumental hardcore band called "Jud Jud" who sang all of the instruments, though that's referring to a specific type of guitar sound, I would argue that it's as sensical as twang, which I would only use to describe certain guitar styles/sounds.

  105. rone said,

    October 11, 2010 @ 6:57 am

    Sounds like the beginnings of an onomatopedia to me.

  106. Mary Bull said,

    October 11, 2010 @ 12:52 pm

    @Andrew (not the same one)
    You're correct that "slug-horn" is a corruption of the old Scottish word "slogan." Every source I found on-line says this, and the critics discussing Browning's poem say that he followed Chatterton's error in mistaking "slogan," meaning "war-cry," for a war trumpet. One dictionary did have a note that some Scottish dialects seem to use the word to mean a cow's small, misshapen horn — but that's really not relevant here.

    @marie-lucie and @Matt McIrvin
    Your mention of the elephant's tusk as Roland's horn and the deeper sound it would have made caused me to think of the alphorn, which I have actually heard played, at one of the annual conferences of the International Horn Society. But I've never run across a particular word for its sound, which has been described as mellow and sonorous. I did try one out and produced what I would say was a very loud "boom."

  107. gnaddrig said,

    October 11, 2010 @ 3:59 pm

    @Ivan (October 8, 5:30 am): Could well be, but I had never heard of this particular comparison before, so it kind of stuck. And anyway, in this case the harpsichord had apparently been quite far away from the one microphone used in the recording so the sound of the strings was drowned out by the other music (or never really got as far as the microphone), and all that was actually heard of the harpsichord was the rhythmic clicking of the strings being plucked.
    @ Eric (October 7, 3:44 pm): The mind boggles. I guess cats doing it on the next tinroof would provide the guitar solo then…

  108. gnaddrig said,

    October 11, 2010 @ 4:08 pm

    @ Michael Moncur: Great stuff, thanks for the link!

  109. Robert said,

    October 11, 2010 @ 6:11 pm

    I'm surprised that Mr Ryan Y. didn't think of tubas as going oompah. Admittedly they do so only in a particular kind of music, rather than in general, but that certainly takes care of one of the instruments on his list.

  110. marie-lucie said,

    October 11, 2010 @ 9:01 pm

    Andrew (not the same): 'rataplan' must at one time have been used in English, since in the operetta 'Cox and Box', Cox and Box's landlord has a song with the refrain 'Rataplan, rataplan, I'm a military man'.

    French rataplan and English rataplan cannot sound the same. French rataplan rhymes with French an, grand, dans, enfant and a host of other words ending in the low back nasal vowel. English rataplan (most likely a borrowing) appears to rhyme with man, which does not at all suggest the sound of a drum.

  111. D. Sky Onosson said,

    October 11, 2010 @ 11:31 pm

    @ marie-lucie

    That depends what kind of drum you're thinking of. A marching snare drum could be described as "rat-a-tat-tat", all rhyming with "man".

  112. D. Sky Onosson said,

    October 11, 2010 @ 11:32 pm

    And, I just realized that "rat-a-tat" is in the original post, too.

  113. marie-lucie said,

    October 12, 2010 @ 10:42 am

    rat-a-tat rhyming with man

    The cat sat on the mat … next to the man? "man" would not fit in there. Why use "rataplan" to rhyme with "man" is "rat-a-tat" was already suitable?

  114. D. Sky Onosson said,

    October 12, 2010 @ 11:55 am

    Sorry, I should have said "having the same vowel as man" rather than "rhyming with man".

    Closer to rataplan, a flam is a type of drum rudiment (technique) with an onomatopoeic name – which does indeed (to English speaking drummers at least!) suggest the sound of a drum.

  115. marie-lucie said,

    October 12, 2010 @ 2:26 pm

    There is an old French folk song, Trois jeunes tambours

    Trois jeunes tambours
    s'en revenaient de guerre,
    Trois jeunes tambours
    s'en revenaient de guerre
    et ri et ran, rampataplan,
    S'en revenaient de gue-erre

    Three young drummers
    were coming back from the wars …

    There are several verses, all including "et ri et ran, rampataplan", which is meaningless but suggests the drum sounds, and must have been much more effective when the standard language still had the trilled r.

  116. Per said,

    October 12, 2010 @ 6:48 pm

    Rock bands don't go unn-tss unn-tss, eh?

  117. Ian Tindale said,

    October 13, 2010 @ 4:11 am

    And as for the theremin…

  118. Wendy M. Grossman said,

    October 13, 2010 @ 9:09 am

    Being a banjo player, I feel I can be authoritative about saying that banjos go plink plink plink. (Of course, it does depend whether you play bluegrass or clawhammer or fingerpick or frail. I frail and play clawhammer. plink, plink, plink is how my older sister, who also plays banjo, describes it.

    None of the words above describe my guitar playing, though. I try for a very clean, fluid sound.

    Autoharps? Concertinas? I think I'm with Zappa.


  119. Bill said,

    October 13, 2010 @ 9:36 am

    Banjos, at least tenor banjos, go plunk, as in Someone's in the kitchen with Dinah:
    Fee plunk fi plunk fiddlyio plunk
    fee fi fiddlyio plunk plunk plunk

    I'm inclined to think that 5-string and plectrum banjos would go plink.

    In descriptive terms, of course, banjos ring.

  120. xyzzyva said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 4:35 pm

    Clearly, it's the whistle-tips that go woo-woo!

    But only in the mawnin'.

  121. Laurie said,

    September 7, 2012 @ 12:32 am

    Many of the sounds in the article seem to come from songs or poems that describe sounds with words or non-sense syllables. Another example that comes to mind is from a children's book "Zin, Zin goes the Violin". Another is describing the drum in "pat a pan". As an elementary music teacher I think this would be a fun activity to do with my students. They could think of words that describe or imitate the sounds instruments make. Some would come up with the examples from songs and poems/nursery rhymes they are familiar with. It would be a fun discussion, although not nearly as intellectual as the one above.

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