Though I am no longer writing this blog for an independent study, my passion for finding new ways to approach music is as great as ever. My goals for this blog are evolving slightly, but the main purpose is still to bring new ideas to old (and new!) music.
Thanks for reading!
This blog is part of my independent study project in music theory this semester. In it, I plan to explore how concepts dealing with timbre can be used by a larger audience (beyond just musicians studying theory) to approach music. Timbre plays a crucial role in the way we perceive all types of music, and understanding it can lead to a wider appreciation of music in general. I want to use this space to share what I’ve learned and to continue to develop new ideas.
First of all, what is “timbre”?
This is not easily answered. Timbre (pronounced “TAM-ber”), as it is used in classical music, can mean all sorts of things. It often varies from person to person, and situation to situation. For general purposes, timbre consists of everything that differentiates one sound from another when each has the same pitch, duration and intensity (for example: why do a flute and violin sound different if they’re playing the same note at the same volume for the same amount of time?). But it gets confusing because even these seemingly concrete elements can sometimes affect the “timbre” of a sound.
So why bother to look at this at all?
Examining timbre provides another method for organizing sound, beyond the traditional means used by music theorists (think melody, harmony, rhythm …etc.). Contemporary composers use these traditional organizational methods far less frequently, thus an unaccustomed ear may find modern works challenging and frankly unpleasant to listen to.
This is where timbre comes in. After learning about all the different ways to approach sounds, and studying atypical methods of musical organization, I found that I had a much greater appreciation of contemporary works and music in general. The human brain is constantly looking for ways to classify and understand its surroundings. I believe that finding concrete ways to look at sounds will allow others to gain an appreciation for works that don’t have a conventional “melody,” or that don’t follow any sort of harmonic pattern, or even works that seem random, or creepy, or accidental! And beyond that, once you have the tools to examine sounds, you will start hearing sounds differently everywhere; these concepts invite a whole new level of perception.
Humans have incredible ears and we are able to pick out so many different sounds, yet we are never really taught to pinpoint exactly what we’re hearing. What makes a sound “bright,” “dark,” “warm,” “round,” “full,” or “reedy?” Musicians tend use terms like these without truly being able to qualify or describe what they are hearing. I’m hoping that a better understanding of timbre will lead to a more complete understanding of music and sound.
Look at this picture for a moment before reading on. What do you see?
What is “The Dalmatian Effect”?
This is something we referred to in one of my theory classes after looking at the rendering of a *SPOILERS* Dalmatian (pictured above). If you don’t know what you’re looking at, some people (like me) can’t tell what this is a picture of. Without a way to organize the information, or even a place to start, all I saw was a collection of splotches. Once I was told what to look for, however, I couldn’t go back. The Dalmatian cannot be “unseen.” Likewise, once you start to think about timbre and the differences between sounds in regards to musical organization, it cannot be “unheard.”
But what if I like how I listen to music? I do not like contemporary classical music and I don’t want to find deeper meaning in the music I already listen to.
Then I would encourage you to try something new. It’s hard to appreciate something as complex as contemporary classical music if you don’t know where to start. So if you can manage even a hint of curiosity, I encourage you to read my blog. Yes, once you start thinking about sound classification it is hard to go back. But why would you want to? Finding new ways to listen to music is incredibly rewarding. That’s where the “Dalmatian Effect” comes in. Personally, I’d rather see the Dalmatian than randomly-shaped dots. But, to each his or her own.