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date: 30 November 2021

Abstract and Keywords

Organ stops, violin mutes, piano pedals: these are devices for altering an instrument’s sound, and one way to understand how these devices transform sound is that they change the timbre. Already in use and objects of discussion in the seventeenth century, organ stops and violin mutes, however, pre-date the idea of timbre modification, originating in what Emily Dolan has called a “time before timbre.” These devices thus provide a way into the history of timbre before timbre—that is, into ways of conceiving and discussing tone qualities before “timbre” existed as a discrete concept. This essay examines the history of organ stops, violin mutes, and piano pedals so as to illuminate how (what we would consider) timbral dimensions of sound interacted with pitch, loudness, instruments, and musical meaning in the “time before timbre,” as well as the historical processes through which timbre came to be perceived and handled as a distinct musical parameter. It demonstrates that absence of a timbre concept did not mean inattention to instrumental sonority. Rather, before musicians developed timbral perception, it was more common to engage mimetic perception, drawing comparisons to familiar instruments to make sense of variations in sound quality. Tone-modifying devices are central to timbre’s history because they work to hold many aspects of the performer-musical instrument encounter constant, thereby isolating for comparison those qualities that go into distinctions like that between dull and bright sound.

Keywords: Mersenne, Sauveur, Lully, Rousseau, Haydn, symphony, fortepiano, viol, tone modification, timbral perception

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