Timbre and the Indeterminate Voice

Something that struck me recently was how intensely voice teachers must deal with timbre on a daily basis. Our instruments, more than any others, demand close attention to what sounds are being produced and how.  Unlike a viola or trombone, our resonance chambers are constantly shifting, for better or for worse. Learning how to navigate our own voices is made doubly difficult by the fact that we hear ourselves differently than everyone else.

Timbre is particularly important when dealing with the voices of young singers. Teachers, coaches, and audition panels listen not only for the weaknesses and strengths of the underdeveloped voice, but also for hints of what is to come. What fach (voice category) will this voice eventually fit into? Is the singer singing appropriate rep? How will they sound in 5 years? 10? To the educated ear, these hypotheses are based not on guesswork, but on an audial repository of many voices, and what they have gone on to become.

For me, this tricky field of vocal speculation is particularly interesting because my voice, like many, doesn’t fit neatly into a category. My teachers throughout the years have disagreed as to whether my voice fits better the characteristics of a soprano or of a mezzo. Every time it seems as though things are settled, someone pops up with a countering opinion.

It’s cool. I’m young. I have time to work these things out. But what’s really interesting from a timbral perspective is hearing why people hold the opinions they do. A teacher I studied with recently offered great insight into her thought process on the tricky “mezzo vs. soprano” debate.  While common knowledge on this subject suggests that soprano voices are universally higher, and mezzos have the low notes, that is simply too cut and dry. The most telling sign is actually tessitura, in what part of the voice the singer “sits” most comfortably. Sopranos are most likely to be comfortable having the majority of their notes be relatively high, while mezzos feel most at home in the middle part of their voices. But for me, this explanation still leaves much to be desired. I wanted to know what “sound” people were looking for. What, in timbre, could explain the difference between these voices?

The answer I got was very interesting. A big clue is the way the voice navigates the passaggio (Italian for passage, used to describe the place in the voice where the musculature switches, causing a break. Singers are taught to make this change as smoothly as possible).  Mezzos tend to thin out through the passage, loosing the lower overtones in their sound, whereas sopranos will have a roundness of sound that increases as they comfortably climb the scale. Mezzos may need more effort to ascend, while sopranos will sit with great ease above the passaggio. This, of course, is only one timbral clue among many. But for voices that have both high and low notes, and many overtones in their voice, it’s a helpful and interesting revelation. Given the large number of fachs that even soprano and mezzo voices are broken into, it is also a gross oversimplification. But it does help people like me understand why teachers say what they do about our voices.  And it can help me make educated choices for the future, in terms of repertoire.

I love having concrete things to pick out as I listen to great singers, and this new knowledge made listening to recordings of various sopranos and mezzos very educational.

Here are a few recordings for your enjoyment! It’s really interesting to contrast singers of other fachs singing these same arts songs, or for the arias, other singers of the same voice type.  Have fun!

A Rachmaninoff Romance (Op. 38, No. 5) sung by soprano, Elisabeth Söderström



Susan Graham, mezzo, singing “A Chloris” by Renaldo Hahn


Soprano, Carol Vaness, as Donn’ Elvira from Don Giovanni by Mozart. A very interesting voice—powerful soprano who absolutely has low notes.



Dorabella’s Aria from Cosi fan tutte by Mozart, sung by mezzo Elina Garanca



New Directions

I’m a musician. A vocal performance major. I practice everyday.  It’s the first thing on my mind when I wake up and the last thing before bed.  Music surrounds me constantly, filling my mind like a perpetual soundtrack. Mostly, this is great because it’s what I love most. I spend every day studying, listening to, analyzing, eating, breathing, and sleeping music.

But, in spite of all this, I don’t sing nearly as much as I used to.  I used to sing all the time. Alone, with friends, in my room, outside, for an audience, by myself, every song I knew, as many times as I wanted. It was a way for me to communicate, more natural and expressive than speech.

But now every time I sing it’s about technique. Singing isn’t free anymore, it’s either correct, or it’s just wrong and potentially “hazardous to my vocal health.”

On some levels that’s ok. The better my technique becomes, the more easily I can express the music. The freer the vocal production, the better chance that I will have a long and healthy career. But sometimes I worry that I’m thinking too much about technique when I sing. Particularly because nowadays, those precious hours in the practice room are pretty much the only times I sing. As the years go by, I find myself spontaneously bursting into song less frequently. (Sadly, I hardly ever sing in the shower anymore.) Maybe I’m just “growing up,” but I think it’s something more. Every time I vocalize, I worry about placement and breath and tone. I can’t just open my mouth and let whatever I’m feeling come out. It has to be “right.”

And therefore, when it counts, I don’t worry enough about what I’m singing.  My time in the practice room is spent primarily working on the technicalities of being musical.  I show up to lessons and coachings struggling to explain what I’m singing about because, though I can translate all the words, I haven’t thought about WHY I’m singing them.  I have fallen into a trap common among young, highly –trained conservatory singers: I’ve become a (somewhat) technically-proficient robot.

This is majorly unfortunate. Singing is human. It gives voice to everything we can’t put into words.  That’s why it drives me nuts when people claim they “don’t want to sing around me” because (as a music major) “I might judge them.” No. For heaven’s sake—SING! If something is stirring you to sing then by all means: do it!! We can’t go around judging people constantly because that would be exhausting, and it would make us incredibly cynical. The ultimate purpose of music can’t be technical perfection because that wouldn’t move us.  Even in the Western classical musical tradition, where seemingly everything explicitly stated, music cannot be solely about placement, articulation, rhythm etc. There is something more. Something all great musicians bring to their music, making it unique while technically brilliant, and still allowing the composers’ intentions to shine through. That is passion, or soul, or heart. Without this, a “perfect” piece of music will feel cold, and audiences, judges, and audition panels can tell.

In this blog, I’d like to continue researching and analyzing music, but with a new focus on my current repertoire, in addition to the study of timbre in music. I love learning about music, but I need to organize the information I study into knowledge that I can apply.  I want to have something meaningful to put into every song. And so I’d like to use this space to share discoveries I’ve made about the music I’m working on.  I’m hoping it will encourage me to put meaning back into everything I sing. And perhaps eventually, I’ll find my voice.

Five Satires


I initially wrote these “program notes” as part of a class assignment, and have been meaning to post them for a while. I picked the work somewhat arbitrarily from the options we were given, but became truly fascinated with the work. It is a little known cycle; in fact, there are unfortunately no YouTube recordings I can link to, but it is an interesting and important work that bears seeking out.

Five Satires (Pictures from the Past) by Dmitri Shostakovich

Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich, illustrious composer at the height of Soviet-era Russia, was born in 1906 to a Polish-Lithuanian family.  His compositions from his earliest years onward were influenced by the political turmoil of revolutionary Russia. Shostakovich’s Five Satires is a perfect example of a work that significantly features politics.

Against his personal beliefs, Shostakovich “came to prominence as a hero of Soviet culture” while he was still quite young.  He struggled with this identity for the rest of his career, simultaneously composing works that were true to his beliefs, as well as “official” works for the state, and adjusting his aesthetic to avoid censorship.  This manifested itself in numerous ways, in fact, (Pictures from the Past) was only added to the title Five Satires at the suggestion of his singer to “mask the contemporary relevance of the work,” thus helping protecting it from censors.

Five Satires was composed in 1960, towards the end of Shostakovich’s life, for the singer Galina Vishnevskaya. She and her husband, Mstislav Rostropovich, premiered this work on February 21, 1961. Though the critical reception had been lukewarm, the audience enjoyed it so much they demanded an encore of the complete cycle. Shostakovich was better known for his symphonies and other instrumental works, but he did set numerous texts and poems throughout his life in song cycles and operas. Five Satires (Pictures from the Past), was set to political poems by Sasha Chorney, poet and children’s writer from the early 1900s. These poems address and mock various aspects of life in Russia during the revolution, sentiments Shostakovich imbues with additional meaning through the use of musical allusions and references. Each “satire” begins the same way: the piano opens with a single repeating note, and the vocal line with a declamatory phrase (the title of the work). After this unifying “intro,” the songs evolve into separate entities.

The first satire, “To the Critic,” sets up the rest of the poems. Its text wittily explains that the pronoun “I” in a poem does not represent the poet, but the subject of the poem. This serves as a warning in the interpretation of the rest of the poems; the ambiguity in the poem’s subject hides some of the political tension. In the beginning, the text is set to speech-like rhythms and melodic inflections, rather than a true melody, and the vocal line becomes progressively more sustained and melodic throughout the piece. At the end, the piano takes over with a brief, dance-like postlude, a sort of musical “laugh” after the humorous final lines of the poem, “The poet is a man. He even has a beard!”

The second, satire “Taste of Spring,” purports to be about the speaker’s excitement at the beginning of spring. The poem, however, is actually a political metaphor that Shostakovich intended to represent the “Thaw,” a time of “loosened controls on cultural and political expression” that occurred during the 1950s and 60s. Shostakovich sets each stanza slightly differently; the first two and final two stanzas have variations on the same musical material: excited, wild, whirling piano arpeggios, and jubilant vocal exclamations, as the narrator talks about the promise of springtime. This raucous music also serves to highlight the poet and Shostakovich’s uninhibited excitement at the dawn of a less-regulated era. The third stanza stands alone, employing a reference to a Russian street song with the imitations of an accordion in the piano’s left hand, to support the depictions of street cleaners.

“Progeny,” the third satire, is set strophically to a driving, waltz-like accompaniment. This repetitiveness in the piano forces the listener to focus on the text, which blatantly denounces the current regime and expresses disillusionment with the idea of a better future. This poem is crux of the cycle, and it was the poem that put the cycle most in danger of being censored.

The final two satires, “The Misunderstanding,” and “The Kreutzer Sonata,” differ from the rest of the poems in the cycle because they are set in the third person, and they read as parables.  The latter, though it does not refer to the Beethoven sonata of the same name, but to the Tolstoy short story about the sonata, quotes material from the sonata in an obvious reference. These two satires evoke various musical references in the setting of their stanzas the fourth uses melodies to represent the dichotomy between characters, while the fifth employs waltz- and march-music to evoke salons and calls-to-action.

Researching this cycle really piqued my performing curiosity, so I am starting to work on these songs, and am finding them challenging but extremely interesting works. I highly recommend listening to them, and only wish I could provide links to recordings!

Back again!

Sorry it’s been so long since I’ve posted last! I’ve spent the past few weeks focusing primarily on the paper component of my independent study, and I let the blog aspect slide a little.  I’ve posted a basic outline of what my paper was about/what it showed below, so check it out!

I’m still working out in what form I want this blog to continue, now that I’ve finished the semester. I’m hoping to continue my work on timbre, but with a greater focus on my vocal repertoire. Anyway, I thought I’d put a short post up since it’s been so long! Thanks for reading!

My paper focused on the timbral components of fast and slow movements in Haydn symphonies. The terms “fast” and “slow” refer solely to the descriptive tempo markings (such as adagio, andante, allegro), and not the actual performance tempo. I showed that these tempo markings were used more as guideline for Haydn’s orchestrational purposes (with regards to timbral elements), and were not indicative of metrical tempo (in beats per minute).

The aspects of timbre I looked at specifically were spectral centroid (the average of all frequencies in a sound) and attack noise (the non-tonal aspect of a sound’s beginning). I used symphonic recordings from one box set to ensure consistency of conductor (Christopher Hogwood), ensemble (Academy of Ancient music), and recording equipment. In the paper, I examined studies of Haydn’s works to first prove his sensitivity to timbre, and then I detailed the results of my work on his symphonies. I found that descriptive tempo markings were not generally indicative of metrical tempo. Instead, factors such as “brightness” (regarding spectral centroid), and amount of attack noise present in a movement contributed to the perception of tempo. For example, “fast” movements were brighter and had more attack noise. As always, the studies left me with more questions than answers! It seems like this is a fruitful area for research and I’m eager to keep my eye out for more developments.

Appreciating Ives


I love Ives. I think his music is really cool and interesting to examine from a theoretical standpoint. But honestly, it can be extremely jarring upon first listen, especially if you don’t know what to listen for. I want everyone to be able to appreciate Ives’s music for its genius and originality, not just music scholars. So what can we tune in to that will help us make sense of his music, or *heaven forbid* allow us to enjoy it?

Brief Case Study: Central Park in the Dark (1906)

First of all, when I’m looking at a new piece of music, I find that background information helps me greatly to contextualize and understand it:

Charles Edward Ives lived from 1874-1954. He grew up in Connecticut and one of his biggest early influences in music was his father, a band director, who encouraged his musical and theoretical exploration and experimentation. This is highly apparent in his works, which are innovative and often difficult to understand tonally. Ives attended Yale University, an institution housing many of the prominent musicians and music educators of that time, where he studied composition. His work was not widely performed during his lifetime, particularly his early/mid-life, and his greatest fame and recognition was achieved (as it unfortunately was for many composers) posthumously. Ives is known for using manifold techniques including polytonality, atonality, layering, polyrhythm, and quotation.

Out of all the musical elements for which Ives is renown, I think that musical quotation is perhaps the most important for understanding and appreciating his works. It is, at least, the easiest to grasp, because Ives intended for his quotations to be recognized. If you hear something familiar when listening to a piece by Ives, Stop! Establish what it is that you’re hearing, and then hypothesize why or how he’s using it! This is one way that listening with timbre in mind can assist greatly with Ives, because he uses sound to comment on the associations we may have with preexisting material.

The next thing I look for is anything the composer may have written about the piece. If the music is programmatic, but you never read the program, it will be that much more difficult to understand and appreciate what the composer has done. Here is what Ives has to say about Central Park in the Dark:

The strings represent the night sounds and silent darkness- interrupted by sounds from the Casino over the pond- of street singers coming up from the Circle singing, in spots, the tunes of those days- of some ‘night owls’ from Healy’s whistling the latest of the Freshman March- the “occasional elevated,” a street parade, or a “break-down” in the distance- of newsboys crying “uxtries”- of pianolas having a ragtime war in the apartment house “over the garden wall,” a street car and a street band join in the chorus- a fire engine, a cab horse runs away, lands “over the fence and out,” the wayfarers shout- again the darkness is heard- an echo over the pond- and we walk home.

Something else to keep in mind when listening is how the composer (Ives) was intending for you to perceive the sounds. Upon first listen, this work can be extremely confusing and our ears may struggle to make sense of what we’re hearing. But realizing that Ives is trying to imitate an outdoor scene, where layers of unrelated sound occur over one another, can help us to adjust to his style.  Most of us don’t find it distressing to walk down the street and hear layer upon layer of disconnected sounds because our brain filters through the unimportant (like the bustle of city traffic), leaving us to focus on the interesting, critical, or unusual (like a sudden crash or the ice cream truck). In my opinion, Ives can be difficult to listen to because we are used to assigning equal importance to all sounds we hear in a concert setting. If we treat Ives’s music like that of a Romantic composer, we are expecting the different layers to complement each other rhythmically, melodically, and harmonically. Ives does not do that. To enjoy to a piece like Central Park in the Dark, we should allow our brains to function like we are simply taking a walk in the park. We can be conscious of many layers at once, but we don’t have to worry about how they all fit together. We should let our attention go where Ives takes us.

Hearing in Color

When musicians discuss timbre, they often do so using vocabulary that speaks to stimuli other than audial. Conductors will ask for a sound that’s “brighter,” “darker,” “warmer,” or “sweeter.” Teachers wonder if you can “color” a note, and coaches will suggest that a syllable or word could benefit from a “whiter” sound. We use these conflicting cues because we don’t have a good solid vocabulary for talking about sound. Hearing is nebulous for most of us; it’s something we do unconsciously right from birth.

But for some, hearing is also seeing. Or tasting. Or any combination of things. Synesthesia is a term meaning “union of the senses” and it refers to a condition in which a person has an atypical response to a stimulus. This can manifest itself in many ways. Someone can see colors and shapes when they hear a sound, or even experience taste sensations when they hear a certain musical note. Their numbers or days of the week might have certain “personalities,” or they may see colors and shapes when looking at alphanumeric letters.

I have a type of synesthesia where I associate certain colors with numbers and letters. For example, my numbers look something like this: 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

It is as trippy for me to look at black type and try to imagine I’m seeing only black, as it probably is for a person without color synesthesia to imagine seeing an array of colors.

For purposes of looking at timbre, I find sound/color synesthesia to be the most interesting. This is the type where people see colors (and colored shapes) with certain sounds. There have been many composers throughout history with this type of synesthesia, and I think it is particularly fascinating to look at their music with this in mind, as if offers a unique look into the way someone else perceives the world.  One particularly fascinating instance of synesthesia that was actually incorporated into a composer’s work can be found in the symphonic tone-poem, Prometheus, by Alexander Scriabin.

Scriabin was a Russian composer who lived from 1875 to 1915, and who is believed to have had synesthesia. Envisioned as a “symphony of sound,” his work Prometheus was also intended to be a “symphony of color-rays,” though it was conceived long before lighting technology had developed well enough to accommodate this. His was a revolutionary idea at the time and in my opinion, a brilliant one. Something that has always fascinated me about composition is the idea that we can hear sounds that these extraordinary composers heard in their minds before they immortalized them on paper. With Scriabin’s “color symphony,” we can not only hear what he heard, but also see what he saw in his mind’s eye.

There are (for obvious reasons) not a lot of great videos on YouTube that showcase both the audio and visual aspects of this work, but I’ve included a recording that originated as a graduate project on this work and it’s performance. The actual piece starts around 9:43.  I encourage you to watch and see how the lighting affects your perception of the piece!

I think combining music and lighting in this way an amazing idea, and that colors absolutely enhance the way one can perceive a piece of music.  Even though we are not all synesthetes, we all experience some degree of sensory-connectivity just simply in order to make sense of our world (imagine your surprise if a small cricket hopped out of the grass and instead of chirping, bellowed!). Performing music with specific colored-light cues could offer a whole new perspective on the piece. And taking any piece of music and having someone create a color-scape for it would prove an interesting collaboration that might draw people into the world of classical music. We already describe music in visual terms; could we use color to enhance/explain complicated music? Would it draw people in, or make them more receptive?

The Complexities of Simple Music

Philip Glass has been a major composer on the American music scene for quite a while now. He’s written in a number of different genres from symphonies to operas to film scores. The work I’d like to explore in this post is from his film score for Koyaanisqatsi, a 1982 collaboration with cinematographer Ron Fricke that juxtaposes slow motion and time-lapse videography of the natural world and civilization. The particular section in the work that I’d like to look at is entitled “The Grid,” and in the film, it plays over time-lapse footage of cities at night.
Glass’s music is perfect for discussing timbre because changes in timbre provide much of the the interest in his music. In fact, I find it easier to isolate particular sounds in minimalist music because my ear doesn’t have to worry about tracking the melody. This may also be why people find minimalist music repetitive and boring. It is repetitive, but the repetition in melodic and rhythmic material means we should be directing our attention elsewhere.

Screen shot 2013-02-21 at 9.19.29 PM
Here’s my breakdown of the first couple minutes:
The first two seconds of this work are purely white-noise. The white noise continues through the rest of the piece, but this initial isolation forces us to focus on it. Because of the accompanying visual to this work, I find myself interpreting the white noise as traffic or the wind whistling in the city.
The next 43 seconds are dominated by horn-noises (I’m going to call them horns, though they could be electronically manipulated) playing F, then C, then D and G together. This use of perfect 4ths is very archetypal and evokes a somewhat primal feeling. At 0:45, we start to hear a horn faintly playing above other horn. This then becomes even stronger at 1:00, and at 1:28, the lower horn starts to repeat the interval of a major second, “embellishing” it’s “melody.”
At 1:57, trumpets come in with an iterative pattern that is quite jarring. Due to the traffic theme, I hear them as horns honking or car alarms sounding, and they bring an urgency to the work. The next minute continues with much the same sounds, and its specific combination of timbres and sonorities sounds rather jazzy.
At 2:56, the trumpets really step up their game and give us much more dissonance and brightness (we can see this on the spectrograph, which unfortunately only goes up to 3:24).
Throughout this entire section, the horns are still playing their two-note repeating ostinato. If you ever find yourself getting bored in this work (or others like it), I suggest tuning in to the number of instruments and varying sounds that you can hear. Were you still paying attention to the backdrop of white noise by the 30-second mark?
At 3:24, we start to get a bright, frantic triplet pattern. This corresponds perfectly to the visual of time-lapse traffic. In fact in many sections, the videography and music each amplify the other’s effect. For example, listen and watch from 4:03 to the end of the YouTube clip. Do the cars appear to be moving at different speeds based on the meter of the music? I have watched this section with and without sound and the difference is striking in what the music causes me to see!
In general, I hear this work as a commentary on modern existence. Glass captures the repetitiveness of daily life, particularly travel, and the futility of going and going and going but never really getting anywhere.
I tried not to look up very much information about this work prior to analyzing it because I wanted this post to be about what I was hearing, not what someone else thought I should be hearing. And there are a lot of aspects I didn’t touch on. So if you hear other things, awesome! Let me know what they are!
Also, if you’re enjoying this music, or you want to see really cool costuming and sets, Indiana University is putting on Glass’s opera, Akhnaten this weekend. It will be an incredible production and though I am not in it, a lot of my friends are. If you’re interested, you can live-stream the opera here Friday and Saturday (Feb 22, 23) at 8pm ET: http://www.music.indiana.edu/iumusiclive/streaming/