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This sentence appears in Donna Leon's Acqua Alta, Chapter 20:

Auf dem zweiten Treppenabsatz hörten sie die Musik durchs Treppenhaus heruntertönen.

The word "heruntertönen" does not appear in any online resource, Duden, Pons, Reverso, Leo, dict.cc, nor in DWDS. Google translate tells me, "tone down," but that makes little sense to me in the context. So my question is, What does a native German speaker do in this situation, with a word he may have never seen before because it is not part of any standard lexicon?

I imagine that such a German speaker would look at the parts and infer that the author is trying to convey the idea that the sound of the music is coming down the stairwell from above. Is that an accurate understanding and is it a complete one, or is there more to it than that?

If that is the case then it would seem that German authors may be expected to make up words ad lib, that have no particular meaning by themselves but, instead, must always be interpreted in the context in which they appear, as inferred from parts that do have particular meaning on their own. Is this true?

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    It's again about composite words, and again DWDS works pretty well in giving you the composite parts. You'll have to look up these parts separately, and combine their meaning in the most reasonable way regarding the context. – πάντα ῥεῖ Jul 31 at 21:25
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    herunter means down from above. That's easy to understand for a German-speaker – Bernhard Döbler Jul 31 at 21:26
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    Please clarify how this is different from your last question. – infinitezero Jul 31 at 21:48
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    There are no "authoritative definitions" at all, unless someone makes up a definition and someone believes in its authority. And even then, a definition hardly influences language understanding. If you know the language, you don't "think" about it at all. You just understand it. – phipsgabler Aug 1 at 7:47
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    English speakers run into this kind of thing too, it's just in German you don't use spaces as much. For example "finance minister" in English becomes Finanzminister in German. The trade off is that in German it's more clear that the combination is meant to be a single (perhaps brand new) concept, but it's less clear where the boundaries between the words are. In English you can tell that a "finance minister" is a minister that governs finance without having to look it up in a dictionary; presumably it's the same for German. – RDBury Aug 1 at 18:13
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I imagine that such a German speaker would look at the parts and infer that the author is trying to convey the idea that the sound of the music is coming down the stairwell from above. Is that an accurate understanding and is it a complete one, or is there more to it than that?

That understanding is correct, yes.

If that is the case then it would seem that German authors may be expected to make up words ad lib ...

In that particular case not exactly.
There are such combined words, often pictured, which are widespread and used all the time, and not only as a new creation of an author.

herunterhören is one of those exemplary. Phrases like

Die Schmidts hat man gestern auch noch nach halb eins heruntergehört.

Aren't unusual. It's colloquial, the correct sentence in high german should rather be

Die Schmidts hat man gestern auch noch nach halb eins bis herunter gehört.

... must always be interpreted in the context in which they appear, as inferred from parts that do have particular meaning on their own. Is this true?

Yes, that's true.
Heads up: It's getting easier with knowing more of the word parts, and being familiar with their meaning.

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