MY TOP 5 Insane German Musical Words

Gustav Mahler says “Gesundheit.”

I’m so pleased to tell you that I completed the ARCT History exam over the weekend. As I’m now in the home stretch of my ARCT diploma program with the Royal Conservatory of Music, this was the toughest music history exam I have yet written. If the sheer amount of material wasn’t challenging enough, there was no lack of completely ridiculous German words I had to remember. Not only did I have to know how to spell them, I had to be able to define the unfathomable things that they meant.


  1. Gesamtkunstwerk

Let that roll off your tongue a few times. It sounds like you’re burping pure garlic. In fact, Gesamtkunstwerk is German for “total art work,” and refers to an approach in Romantic opera where all the elements—music, staging, acting, choreography, set design, costumes, everything—is treated with equal importance. That’s why Wagner operas are A LOT.

2. Sprechstimme

Now that you’ve wiped the spit off your screen, get a load of this. Sprechstimme was a style of talk-singing—or was it sing-y talking?—invented by Arnold Schoenberg to make his weird music sound even weirder. Check out Pierrot Lunaire if you ever feel like listening to about 35 minutes of this.

3. Klangfarbenmelodie

Perhaps my favourite crazy German word, it sounds like pretty much what it is. Used by the twelve-tone atonal composers like Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern, klangfarbenmelodie is what happens when a melody is played one note at a time by every instrument. And it sounds like Klang Klang Klang! Fart fart fart! Check out Webern’s Symphony, op. 21 and you’ll see what I mean!

4. Weltschmerz

This word kinda feels like when my grandmother would give me a real sloppy kiss right on my ear canal. But my grandmother was Greek, and this word is German, so not nearly as affectionate or messy. Weltschmerz is the very artsy German idea of world-weariness and melancholy. Keep in mind these were Romantic composers who loved to be sad. 19th century German Lieder was the original emo music, after all.

5. Durchkomponiert

While my instincts translated this to “dirt compost,” it actually means “through-composed,” which is a fancy way of saying that no sections of the song are repeated. Whereas a normal song would have verses, choruses—you know, stuff that comes back—this is just one long meander into the musical abyss, with no recognizable tunes or any indication of where we are, until finally this floundering nightmare comes to an end.

Honorable mentions to go: Sehnsucht (longing for the unattainable), Sturm und Drang (“Storm and Stress,” very Beethoven), and Liedenschaft (passion).

What are your favourite German words?

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