Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

A few notes about crescendo

with 16 comments

Common musical notes

‘Crescendo’ is an interesting word. It’s commonly used in the expression ‘reach a crescendo’, as in the following examples:

Bank pay row reaches a crescendo (Guardian online)

… protests demanding the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak reached a crescendo. (Telegraph online)

Some careful wordsmiths rail against this use. Here, for example, is newspaper editor Simon Heffer in his book, Strictly English (the title says it all):

A misunderstanding of musical terms leads to the misuse of the term crescendo, which is a gradual rising of the dynamic in a passage of music. Therefore, nothing can “reach a crescendo”.

And Bryan Garner, in Garner’s Modern American Usage, describes the expression as ‘woolley-minded’.

Really? Firstly, if a term, even when used wrongly (strictly speaking), is widely understood, should it be jettisoned?

Secondly, the Oxford Dictionary of English allows that the phrase ‘reach a crescendo’ is now widely accepted to mean ‘the most intense point reached’, despite the objections of traditionalists.

Ah, here comes the traditional Wordwatch Towers ‘however’…

However…

The following use of  ‘reach a crescendo’ does somewhat disturb my equilibrium. Well, it’s about music, and ‘crescendo’ is a musical term with a specific meaning (see Heffer above), and … well, see what you think:

…and as the downpour hammered on the high-tension roof, the music became inaudible; when the percussion reached its crescendo, the thunder went one better. (Independent online)

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16 Responses

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  1. Morning Deborah,

    And why, I have to ask, is the ODE – once again – compounding the error by approving the completely wrong usage? They might just as well pack up and go home if they’re going to do that.

    Misuse by the majority does not equal correct usage and never will.

    Ron

    03/02/2011 at 9:34 am

    • Hi, Ron! You’re in Heffer’s camp — I thought you might be! The ODE does get a bit too laid back for some people’s liking.

      Deborah

      03/02/2011 at 9:37 am

      • This is one thing that was pounded into us by my Best English Master in the World (TM) – who also ran the school orchestra, so misuse doubly infuriated him.

        He had remarkable faith in my ability to play the cello – still, I suppose even the best of us has a blind spot!

        Ron

        03/02/2011 at 9:43 am

  2. It’s fun to be able to weigh in as a musician for once! Though the original use of crescendo is for increasing (volume, tempo, vibrato etc.) it also means the peak of that increase. Use of crescendo to mean peak point began with jazz composers and players almost 90 years ago. It was later adopted by pop composers and performers, and spread to the general culture.

    Those who work only in traditional instrumental or vocal music tend not to employ crescendo to mean peak, but orthodox musicians in my experience commonly resist accepting newer forms and styles as being “real” music. Jazz, pop, rock and all modern musicians use the term both ways (as do I).

    Invisible Mikey

    03/02/2011 at 5:32 pm

  3. I forgot to mention that it’s used to mean “peak” in The Great Gatsby. I recall it came up for discussion when we studied the novel in high school.

    “The caterwauling horns had reached a crescendo and I turned away and cut across the lawn toward home.”

    I don’t think Fitzgerald had become woolley-minded by that point in his career…

    Invisible Mikey

    03/02/2011 at 5:46 pm

    • Hi, Mikey — thanks so much! You are far more knowledgeable than I am about music, and I was so interested to read about how the definition of ‘crescendo’ has changed among musicians. That must be why ‘reach a crescendo’ has subsequently been adopted so widely for general use. (No explanation is given in the Oxford Dictionary of English.)

      Thanks for the Gatsby line too – I love ‘cut across the lawn towards home’. It’s amazing how a few simple words can be so evocative. Woolley-minded is definitely not a description that comes to mind.

      Thanks again, Mikey.

      Deborah

      03/02/2011 at 6:24 pm

  4. LOL @ Mikey.

    Couldn’t you say “the crescendo reached its [or a] climax”?

    And–quick–what is the proper plural?

    Michael Farrell

    03/02/2011 at 6:11 pm

    • Hi, Michael — yes, I don’t see why not. I think that would be OK even with those who object to ‘reach a crescendo’.

      I feel I am teaching my grandmother to suck eggs (must investigate that expression one day), but the plural is, of course, ‘more than one crescendo’. Or, in musical circles (and to be technical), ‘crescendo plural’.

      Deborah

      03/02/2011 at 6:42 pm

      • As the grammar blogger, you’re always right. But, as a less satisfactory alternative, one could follow the rough rule of thumb that says to add only s to newer or less common foreign words ending in o.

        Michael Farrell

        04/02/2011 at 11:21 pm

        • Thanks, Michael, that’s a good tip about when to add ‘es’ or when to add only ‘s’ to make a plural. (Potatoes/tomatoes — but, as you say, e.g., ‘crescendos’.) Also, if you want to be posh, ‘crescendi’ is an alternative plural.

          Deborah

          05/02/2011 at 6:03 am

          • Oddly, Crescendi is also the name of the new Ford minivan.

            Michael Farrell

            05/02/2011 at 4:11 pm

            • Interestingly, quite a few cars are named after musical terms: Hyundai Sonata; Honda Quintet; Saab Nocturne; Mazda Etude; and Ford Tempo, for example. I’m sure there are others. That’s why all those marketing people are paid so much — they have to spend at least two minutes trawling through an online list of music-related terminology before billing for three months’ work, plus expenses.

              Deborah

              05/02/2011 at 4:28 pm

  5. Ford Crescendi?

    Does it get bigger as you drive it?

    Ron

    05/02/2011 at 5:43 pm

  6. From Guy Keleny’s Errors & Omissions column in The Independent:

    Piano and forte: In our preview of Radiohead’s new single, which is an attack on the Daily Mail, we described it as “a piano ballad which builds to a crescendo”. A crescendo, as any junior thunker of the plinky-plonk knows, is a musical passage that becomes louder. It is not the bit to which the crescendo builds, which is usually called the climax. I suppose misplaced prudery might explain the frequency of this error.

    Deborah

    19/12/2011 at 4:20 am

  7. From the After Deadline column in The New York Times:

    “The 100 or so hours beginning with the arrest of Jerry Sandusky, a former defensive coordinator for the football team, had built to a crescendo by that Wednesday night’s meeting of the trustees.”

    The stylebook says this:

    Crescendo. A crescendo is not a peak of intensity but a gradual increase in force, intensity or loudness. It is the trip to the peak.

    Deborah

    31/01/2012 at 4:11 pm


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