I am newly obsessed with the group “The Piano Guys,” (http://www.youtube.com/user/ThePianoGuys) and featuring their work in this blog is perfect because so much of what they do involves timbre. Using just a piano, cello, and sometimes vocals, they recreate popular songs and perform mash-ups of popular and classical works. Though they restrict themselves in the number of instruments used, they overlay tracks and use the instruments in non-traditional ways to create a wide range of sounds. For example, some of the videos show extended techniques such as plucking the strings of the piano or using the body of the cello as a percussion instrument. In doing this, they create an array of sounds that when combined enables them to imitate a huge variety of sounds.
Take, for example, their rendition of One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful.” I find it to be far and away the most interesting version of this song. It’s just under 3 minutes long, so if you have time to listen to it twice, I suggest listening the first time without watching the video. See how many different sounds you can pick out. It will make your second listening (while watching how they created the work) that much cooler.
First, the obvious: IT’S ALL A PIANO! (With some vocals toward the end….) This turns the traditional idea of the timbre of a piano on its head. Sure, I can tell it’s a piano if you strike a note for me, but if you pluck or slap (or bow?!?!) a string? Or strike the soundboard? Or thump the side? No way. It completely changes the meaning of “playing the piano.” This touches upon one of the current problems in defining “timbre,” because with all the extended techniques invented in contemporary playing, the timbre of an instrument now depends entirely on how it is being played.
But what I found really amazing about this is the way they imitated and expanded upon the original version of the song. For example, using delicate pizzicato piano at the beginning, they set a very intimate, personal tone for the muted “first verse” to enter upon. The original version does this to an extent as well, adding instruments/tracks until the refrain. Yet the dramatic contrast is greater in the piano version because, miraculously, they found more timbral nuances to work with than the “pop music” version, though they are merely using a piano.
Listening to the way “The Piano Guys” alternated between the subdued moments and the more extroverted ones got me thinking about how timbre is used to convey emotion and to build to a climax in a song. It’s more than dynamics. I tried to pinpoint what exactly I was hearing in the more extroverted sections of version and decided that contributing timbral aspects included a more sustained sound, more harmonics, a greater range (both upper and lower), and more overall noise. I guess that these characteristics of musical high points can actually be applied to most songs, but here, as you can see on the graph, the dichotomy is HUGE. In retrospect it seems fairly obvious, but I usually don’t take the time to dissect the sounds I’m hearing in a piece of music; I mostly just follow the melody. I can tell you that the climax of a Mahler symphony is loud. But really, that doesn’t capture the half of it. Volume alone doesn’t bring down the house.