Set the Tone: Definition, Meaning, and Origin

Last Updated on
July 28, 2023

"Set the tone" means establishing a quality, feeling, or attitude by speaking or writing. It can also mean to create or develop a general sense or atmosphere among a group of people (about a particular subject).

In short:

  • It is an idiom that means to create or influence the mood or character of something or someone.
  • It can describe how a person’s words or actions affect the feeling or attitudes of others.

What Does "Set the Tone" Mean?

The phrase is an idiom and is used to describe the act of establishing a particular mood or character for something. It can also explain how a situation or event influences the mood or atmosphere of a place or time. In addition, the phrase may have been used to describe how a person's words or actions can evaluate or develop the quality or nature of something else, such as a conversation, a meeting, a relationship, or an event.

Where Does "Set the Tone" Come From?

The origin of the phrase "set the tone" is not clear, but it may have something to do with music. In music, the tone is the quality or character of the sound, which can be influenced by various factors such as pitch, volume, timbre, and harmony. A musical piece's style can affect the listeners' mood or emotion.

Furthermore, the phrase "set the tone" may have also been derived from setting the tone of a musical piece, which means determining or establishing the sound's quality or character.

Historical Example

"He was one of those jolly fellows who set the tone at all public-houses where they drink."

-excerpt from the book "The Luck of Barry Lyndon" by William Makepeace Thackeray, 1844

10 Examples of "Set the Tone" in Sentences

Here are some examples of how to use the phrase "set the tone" in different sentences:

  • The president's speech set the tone for his administration's policies and goals. He has all the bells and whistles of a good leader.
  • Her positive and energetic attitude always sets the tone for our meetings. She is just a beacon of light to everyone.
  • The opening scene set the tone for the rest of the movie: dark, suspenseful, and thrilling. It was weirdly awesome.
  • He wanted to set the tone for their date by bringing her flowers and chocolates. The stars aligned for him that day.
  • The teacher set the tone for the class by laying out her expectations and rules on the first day. As a result, he gained the respect of her students.
  • The music set the tone for the party: lively, upbeat, and fun. That made my day!
  • She set the tone for their conversation by starting with an apology and a compliment.
  • They seized the day, and thanks to the weather, it set the tone for their vacation: sunny, warm, and relaxing.
  • He set the tone for his presentation by telling a joke and engaging with his audience. Such acts lighten the mood in the room.
  • She set the tone for their relationship by being honest and respectful. She is such a hidden gem.

Examples of "Set the Tone" in Pop Culture

The phrase "set the tone" is also used in pop culture, such as songs, movies, TV shows, books, and games.

Here are some examples of how pop culture references use this phrase:

  • In 2016, American singer-songwriter Alicia Keys released a song called "In Common," which features these lyrics:

"We got way too much in common. If I'm honest, we have way too much in common."

-Alicia Keys "sets the tone" for the song itself, which is a mix of romantic and melancholic.

  • In 2019, American filmmaker Jordan Peele released a movie called "Us," a horror thriller that follows a family who is terrorized by their counterparts. The film begins with these words on the screen:

"There are thousands of miles of tunnels beneath the continental United States. Abandoned subway systems, unused service routes, and deserted mine shafts. Many have no known purpose at all."

-These words "set the tone" for the movie, which is mysterious, creepy, and unsettling.

Other Ways to Say "Set the Tone"

Here are some synonyms or alternative expressions for this phrase:

  • Set the mood
  • Set the atmosphere
  • Set the scene
  • Set the stage
  • Set the standard
  • Set the pace
  • Set the trend
  • Establish the tone
  • Determine the tone
  • Influence the tone

10 Frequently Asked Questions About "Set the Tone"

Here are some common questions and answers about the phrase "set the tone":

  • What is the origin of "set the tone"?

The origin of the phrase "set the tone" is not clear, but it may have something to do with music.

  • What does it mean to set a positive tone?

To set a positive tone means to create or establish a mood or atmosphere that is optimistic, cheerful, hopeful, or encouraging.

  • What does it mean to set a negative tone?

To set a negative tone means to create or establish a mood or atmosphere that is pessimistic, gloomy, hopeless, or discouraging.

  • What does it mean to develop a professional manner?

To set a professional tone means to create or establish a mood or atmosphere that is respectful, courteous, formal, or businesslike.

  • How can you "set the tone" for your day?

You can "set the tone" for your day by doing things that make you feel good, motivated, inspired, or productive.

  • How can you "set the tone" for your writing?

You can "set the tone" for your writing by choosing words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs that convey your intended message, purpose, audience, and style.

  • How can you "set the tone" for your speech?

You can "set the tone" for your speech by using vocal elements such as volume, pitch, pace, intonation, and emphasis.

  • How can you "set the tone" for your classroom?

You can "set the tone" for your classroom by creating and enforcing rules and expectations that promote learning, respect, cooperation, and safety.

  • How can you set the tone for your team?

You can "set the tone" for your team by modeling and encouraging behaviors and attitudes that support teamwork, performance, and growth.

  • How can you set the tone for your relationship?

You can "set the tone" for your relationship by expressing and fulfilling your needs, wants, and desires, using honesty and respect to communicate and resolve conflicts, using affection and intimacy to show love and care, and using support and encouragement to help each other grow, etc.

Final Thoughts About "Set the Tone"

The idiom "set the tone" is a common and valuable idiom that can help you describe how something or someone influences the mood or character of something else.

Here are some key points to remember about this phrase:

  • It means to create or establish a quality, feeling, or attitude by speaking or writing.
  • It can also mean creating or establishing a general feeling or atmosphere among a group.
  • It can describe how a person's words or actions affect the feeling or attitudes of others.
  • It can also describe how a situation or event influences the mood or atmosphere of a place or time.
  • It can have positive or negative connotations depending on the context.

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