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GRE Vocab Wednesday: Musical Words

Music can move us, sometimes eliciting tears. It can galvanize us, making an interminable drive go by much faster. It can also bring us together, uniting thousands under the same roof. But what many don’t know is that music also contains GRE vocabulary. Not literally of course (though a GRE vocab rap would be interesting!). Below are words that relate to the quality of musical sound.



This word comes from the Latin to flow like honey. Music that is mellifluous sounds sweet to the ear. You may be prone to humming a mellifluous tune throughout the day (or you may not be able to get the tune out of your head!). Of course music is highly subjective, so what is mellifluous for me (a Schubert sonata) may not be mellifluous for you.

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One way to come up with the opposite of mellifluous is to bang your hands against the piano. Another is to say the word discordant, a word that sounds discordant. That’s right, discordant is harsh sounding and unpleasant. Like many words it can be applied in different contexts. Something that is discordant clashes.  Someone’s outfit can be discordant (a pink tie with a mustard yellow blazer); discordance between two people suggests conflict.



If you thought discordant sounded jarring, try pronouncing cacophonous. The first two syllables sound like someone expectorating. Even more so than discordant, cacophonous is about harsh sound. Instead of striking random piano notes with your fingers, imagine doing so with your fist. Unlike discordant, cacophonous refers more to music and sound, though figuratively can mean clashing, as in a cacophony of differing opinions. 



Something that is deep sounding and resonant is sonorous. A voice that is very low and full sounding is sonorous. The base (that upright violin looking instrument) is a sonorous instrument; Pavarotti, the opera singer, was known for his sonorous voice. Sonorous, however, doesn’t apply to much beyond sound and voices.



This word doesn’t only relate to music. It can relate to anything that touches you emotionally. A movie can be poignant; witnessing a family embrace after years apart can be poignant; and music can be poignant. Whether it is Billy Holiday crooning Strange Fruit, the modern day diva Adele sultrily intoning about heartbreak, or the opening bars of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings music is filled with poignancy: that quality that can touch us at the deepest emotional level.


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8 Responses to GRE Vocab Wednesday: Musical Words

  1. Anirudh July 26, 2013 at 2:53 pm #

    just loved the way u used the term expectorate to describe ‘Ca-co’ . . . made me burst into peals of laughter!!! 😀

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele July 30, 2013 at 12:04 pm #

      Hi Anirudh,

      I’m happy I was able elicit some “peals of laughter” :)!

  2. kikis July 18, 2013 at 7:25 am #

    thanks for the words. I had a doubt with respect to the word poignant (though I know this word had been described related to music here) which has many other meanings like something that is distressing to the mind, pungent, incisive. I was wondering if we have to remember all of these for GRE.

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele July 18, 2013 at 10:31 am #

      Hi Kikis,

      That is a great question! Poignant is indeed quite a diverse word. For the GRE, you should also know that poignant can mean distressing. I don’t think the pungent use would be test, since it is a little more dated.

      Hope that helps!

      • sagar July 19, 2013 at 3:27 am #

        Well here is something different from the above discussed theme.

        I would like to know what do you think of the words “Syncretic” & “Eclectic” ( I know their literal meanings but couldn’t think critically as to how far these words are related or not so much related). plz provide your own words for both defining and differentiating these words.

        Can they be used as a Synonym (in extreme cases) in a sentence equivalence question?

        • Chris Lele
          Chris Lele July 19, 2013 at 1:54 pm #

          Hi Sagar,

          I’d say the two words are different in levels of specificity. Eclectic means drawn from a variety of different sources. Those sources could be just about anything: musical genres, world cuisines, etc. Syncretic, however, is a very specific word that means the combining of different beliefs or schools of thoughts. For instance, say I have an syncretic philosophy that draws on Confucianism, pragmatism, and Marxism. In that sense my philosophy is also eclectic: it blends different schools of thoughts.

          Think of it his way: eclectic is a big circle, encompassing many possibilities, and a tiny circle in the big circle of eclectic is syncretic. So syncretic and eclectic could be correct answers to a Sentence Equivalence question.

          Hope that helps!

          • sagar July 19, 2013 at 7:59 pm #

            Thanks Chris for replying.

            So in a much more informal way I can Say that ” All ‘syncretic’ are an example of ‘Eclecticism’ but not all ‘Eclecticism’ are ‘Syncretic’.

            • Chris Lele
              Chris Lele July 22, 2013 at 2:03 pm #

              Yes, that is good, succinct way to put it :).

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