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date: 23 January 2022

TimbreAlternative Histories and Possible Futures for the Study of Music

Abstract and Keywords

Timbre has always been a central element of music and sound, but it is only now emerging as a central dimension in musical thought. Aided by the burgeoning fields of sound studies and critical organology, music studies are taking the “material turn” toward timbre. One of the most urgent tasks of a timbral musicology is to rethink its categories from the ground up and to make space for sound at the foundation of our thinking. This chapter offers an overview of the Handbook, presenting a variety of viewpoints on the multifaceted quality of timbre, covering its histories, philosophies, technologies, and modes of perception. It highlights explorations of timbre that have existed (but were marginalized by our collective timbral deafness) and proposes alternative paths not yet pursued.

Keywords: ear, hearing, instrument, material turn, noise, organology, sound studies, soundwave, voice

For the longest time, musicology treated timbre as an afterthought. In his neat systematic taxonomy of the discipline, Guido Adler assigned the last column of his chart for the “history of musical instruments,” while making it otherwise clear that music and musicology was about notes, not tones: indeed, musicology begins at the moment when tones are measured and analyzed for their pitch.1 The trembling air columns that our ears perceive as musical sounds, in specific timbres, were merely a material means serving a loftier goal: the disciplinary gaze was firmly locked on geistfähiges Material, as Adler’s predecessor Eduard Hanslick called it, that is, material suitable for cogitation. In this system, sound appears as little more than a necessary evil, a messy complication for an otherwise pristine structure.

This skepticism vis-à-vis timbre was widespread. Several nineteenth-century aestheticians recommended that composers present their creations in “neutral” timbres. Some instruments, apparently, have too much timbre: C. F. Michaelis argued that string instruments were “capable of giving us the true form of the music and therefore true aesthetic pleasure”; wind instruments, by contrast, had “too much charm in their tones, too much that excites.”2 They were too material, too overdetermined, and risked hindering the imagination of the listener. Hans Georg Nägeli and A. B. Marx, similarly, argued in favor of the sound of the string quartet as an ideal vehicle for music—because, in Hugo Riemann’s paraphrase, the “scratching sounds of the string timbre best affix themselves to our auditory nerves.”3 For most others the piano sound offered the best sonic representation of tonal structures. Orchestration was a color, a Klangfarbe, added later to the prior contrapuntal line-drawing of the musical structure. Woe to those composers, like Hector Berlioz, who would seek alternatives to this strict succession.

(p. 4) If musicology acknowledged the existence of sonorities during these founding years, they were typically theorized away, going up in a puff of smoke by neutralizing them as triadic structures. When the overtone series became the basis for understanding musical structures, the German term Klang came to stand synonymously for both “sound” and “triad,” dissolving the materiality of the former in the idealism of the latter. Even Hermann von Helmholtz, that gadfly of nineteenth-century European musicology, notated complex musical timbres as notes, effectively conceding the equivalence between complex sinewaves and the triadic building blocks of the Western musical tradition.4 Alexander Ellis, the English translator of Helmholtz’s Sensations of Tone (1863/1885), chose “compound tone” as a cognate for Klang (it surely beat the phono-semantic match clang, which other Victorian commentators had used), and in this way cemented this equivocation by reducing timbres to their fundamental pitches, their harmonic roots.

It appears that the world of timbre is simply too unruly. It cannot be ordered in neat hierarchies, in the manner of rhythm and pitch. Schoenberg’s proposed Klangfarbenmelodie, a melody-like structure based on timbres, has remained both evocative and elusive for the last one hundred years. The rise of electronic and electro-acoustic musics during the twentieth century challenged the presumptive stable neutrality of the piano sound (or string quartet sound), making timbre much harder to ignore, take for granted, or analyze away. Indeed, it is no surprise that the first sustained, collective investigations into the role of timbre in music occurred at IRCAM; likewise, the first special journal issues that were implicitly or explicitly devoted to timbre had a focus on contemporary music.5 But even as these important studies brought attention to timbre, they also, often unintentionally, served to re-inscribe the notion that timbre was a niche concern, and not an important issue for earlier musics. More generally, positing the importance of timbre for a particular genre or tradition has been a shorthand for saying: this music—contemporary music, popular music, music from traditions outside of Western art music—has a different value system from the works that have traditionally occupied musicology.6 The challenge of timbre is not simply one of language. Rather it also forces us to ask: what is this music—and what is this musicology—that operates with tones over notes?

Changing musicology’s old paradigm, inscribing timbres into musical structures, changes everything. To talk about timbre means to constantly define and redefine it. Each of our authors has tackled this problem, and practically each chapter in this volume offers a particular way of framing what timbre is, or could be. This sprawl of conventionalized meanings has caused Michel Chion to throw his hands up in the air and to demand a better term—or rather, a battery of terms—to replace all the many things encompassed by timbre. (Timbre survived this attack, but that’s no surprise—it has proven surprisingly resilient in the past: in Ellis’s translation of Helmholtz, he refused to use the term “timbre,” declaring it “not worth preserving.”7) But, as a consequence of the difficulty of talking about timbre, and the discipline’s relative neglect of the topic, there is only a small body of literature that acts as a touchstone for our chapters counteracting the sprawl that Chion decries. The three gospel writers of timbre—Rousseau, Helmholtz, Schoenberg8—appear across this volume and form a referential backbone connecting (p. 5) many of the diverse chapters in this volume. But there are more communal features to a musicology of timbre that form the invisible glue between the chapters of this book.

First of all, standard notation is relatively useless for questions of timbre. As a referential system that fixes little more than rhythms and pitches, the score loses its central position within the network of musical thought. As the interface that separates the act of composition from the act of performance, conventional scores miss precisely that which is central to this enterprise. Its place has been taken by modern recording technology, which allows for the requisite reproducibility of music—what is being reproduced is no longer the same musical structure in a variety of interpretations, but the sounds of one particular performance.

This new medium requires a new approach. We can no longer rely purely on visualization, a convenience that has become central to the discourse and that we have become quite used to. Timbres can be visually represented, as oscillograms or spectrograms, though we are generally not very well trained to translate that visual information into mental sounds. We need to develop new tools: the study of timbre requires our eyes, our ears, and our imaginations.

One approach to this issue is simply to test the power of verbal description. Michael Praetorius, writing in 1619, characterized the Bärpipe, a reed organ stop of the regal class, as sounding a bit like the quiet growling of the bear.9 This tautological verbal description is probably as good as it gets, even though its lack of specificity may leave something to be desired. Sociologist Antoine Hennion has pointed suggestively to structural analogies between the descriptive language used by experienced music critics and wine experts.10 While non-experts will have difficulty reproducing the specificity of the associative sensory language sommeliers employ, it is relatively easy to match the descriptive terms experientially with the taste of the wine. It seems that the world of wine appreciation is much farther along in this regard—many of their terms are formalized and can be communicated in relatively precise terms, corresponding to a range of recognizable taste sensations. Perhaps the adage in vino veritas has something to offer for timbre scholars.

Furthermore, timbre has been understood as a wastebasket category. The official definition of timbre that the Acoustical Society of America (ASA) agreed on in 1993, declaring timbre to be that “attribute of auditory sensation which enables a listener to judge that two nonidentical sounds, similarly presented and having the same loudness and pitch, are dissimilar,” defines timbre negatively, as a catch-all category of whatever remains once we subtract pitch and loudness. For many commentators, this definition seems like Chion’s arm-throwing-in-the-air, now writ in stone at the institutional level. Many of the chapters in this volume use this negative definition as a springboard to react against and advance alternative, and more positive, approaches to the question of timbre.

This is not to dismiss the ASA definition entirely. Despite its shortcomings, there is a certain liberating honesty to its open-endedness. The dimensions in which this definition operates is still built on a tacit assumption of paradigmatic musical instruments, with their constituent parameters pitch and loudness. But the definition operates independently of assumptions about musical style or genre. The emancipating force of a (p. 6) musicology of timbre is its ability to operate independent of specific musical repertoires. The chapters of this book venture into diverse musics from all corners of the world, from Homeric epic singing to rhythm and blues, from Aeolian harps to Kurzweil synthesizers, from Balinese gamelan to West Coast minimalism, from birdsong to symphony orchestras, from historical recordings at the World Exposition to private intimate silences. If timbre is a wastebasket category, it has the capacity to combine and juxtapose the most varied kinds of waste in forever new ways. Its unruliness forever evades our categorization: it resists the call-to-order of history, genre, culture, or other boundaries that musicology conventionally draws.

Third, and in direct relation to the negative definition, timbre is beset with paradoxes, as famously outlined by Cornelia Fales. She observed that “not only does timbre carry the most information about a source and its location…but of all parameters of music, it also carries the most information about the environment through which the sound has travelled.”11 However, the timbre we perceive, she shrewdly observes, is divergent from the sound in the physical world, often radically so. If timbre only emerges in the ear, then the search for timbre is also a quest to gain a better understanding of the auditory system. Or rather, timbre’s slippery existence is lodged in the “in-between.” It is, quite literally, a medium (or, as Plato put it, to metaxy, the in-between)—which explains why the founding fathers of the discipline had such an easy time ignoring timbre in the deeper search for music’s spiritual structures.

Philosophies of Timbre

The inclusion of Arnold Schoenberg among our gospels of timbre scholarship may seem surprising. After all, Pierre Boulez, who knew the music of the Second Viennese school intimately, counted him among those composers “for whom the idea of timbre is almost abstract, and who never cared at all about the physical conditions of sound emission.”12 In a similar vein, the philosopher Theodor W. Adorno modeled his own notion of structural listening that was so central to his music aesthetics on Schoenberg’s pronounced devaluing of the sonic medium.13 But these views are ripe for reevaluation. Schoenberg’s timbral gospel is focused on a key moment on the final pages of his Harmonielehre (1911) in which he floats the suggestive idea that the new age might take the structural role of timbre more seriously. His evocative concept of Klangfarbenmelodie has been debated ever since. Does the much-discussed movement “Farben” from his Five Pieces for Orchestra op. 16 (1909), which must be somehow related, shed further light on the concept? It seems Schoenberg provided just enough fodder to open up endless speculation.

Once we scratch the surface, it seems that Schoenberg’s intellectual heirs have more to offer on the subject of timbre than meets the ear. What do the avatars of musical modernism have to contribute? Thomas Patteson presents translations of three lectures by Adorno on the topic of timbre and of an essay by Carl Dahlhaus. These texts appear for the first time in English and significantly contribute to a fuller picture of these important (p. 7) figures’ thoughts on music, which may cause us to revise some of the received knowledge about their aesthetics.

The complex position that timbre occupies between materiality and idealist abstraction occupies all the authors assembled in this section. Isabella van Elferen offers a wide-ranging theoretical perspective under the term “timbrality” that ties together recent diverse approaches to timbre and opens up the discussion in various directions. Peter McMurray’s chapter contributes a media-theoretical perspective from Islamic traditions, which explores the liminal aesthetics of the voice in Qur’anic recitation between sensuousness and spirituality. The mouth and the acoustics in which it resonates must be disciplined, lest vocal sound production come into conflict with the clarity of the words of Qur’an. This is as good a place as any to issue a reminder that the concept of timbre, while now chiefly used as a musical term, is also at work in speech recognition. In fact, as the chapters on Helmholtz and Stumpf in the later sections of this volume will explore, the vocal production of vowels and consonants was the principal field of inquiry during this early period of timbral research, to which musical timbres formed almost an afterthought. Daniel Villegas Vélez and Naomi Waltham-Smith each offer deconstructions of the concept of timbre. Waltham-Smith offers a thought-provoking deconstructive reading anchored in the fertile intellectual soil of French literary theory, while Villegas’s exploration goes a long way toward establishing a notion of “sound” that may come to wield the same critical authority as the concept of the “text” does in the field of literary studies.

These chapters perform vitally important groundwork: these authors offer new frames and definitions for their subject, while teasing out the thorny difficulties that adhere to the messy, capacious term timbre. There is a lesson to be learned here: even though there is now a robust growing body of literature on timbre—enough that we might feel comfortable speaking of “timbre studies” as a discrete subfield—there is no rest, no comfort in numbers, and no making easy assumptions that we know what we are talking about when we talk about timbre.14 Our compulsion to define and redefine timbre is actually one of its strengths: it is hard to sustain a lengthy discussion of timbre without thinking carefully, precisely, and critically about what we mean by this term.

Histories and Cultures of Timbre

Timbre’s slippery ephemerality causes it to evade straightforward attempts to historicize it. And yet it does have a history: whatever we might mean by timbre today is different from what was implied by the term in the eighteenth century. The modern definition of the concept itself dates to the eighteenth century, in an article by Rousseau in d’Alembert and Diderot’s Encyclopédie:

A sound’s timbre describes its harshness or softness, its dullness or brightness. Soft sounds, like those of a flute, ordinarily have little harshness; bright sounds are often (p. 8) harsh, like those of the vielle or the oboe. There are even instruments, such as the harpsichord, which are both dull and harsh at the same time; this is the worst timbre. Beautiful timbre is that which combines softness with brightness of sound; the violin is an example.15

If one were so inclined, one could go timbre-hunting and trace the concept as it became increasingly common in later eighteenth- and nineteenth-century musical discourse. Timbre-spotting is enjoyable and sometimes revealing: Johann Gottfried Herder meditated on the concept in the fourth of his “Critical Little Forests” (he even named it: “the French call it ‘timbre’ ”),16 arguing that a true aesthetics of music must account for music as heard, not as sounding number; in the early nineteenth century, it crops up in treatises on instruments and the voice, where, not uncommonly, it signals a more unusual sound.17 But if we were to confine our discussions of the history of timbre merely to those places where the term appears, we would miss out on so much. As this volume shows, some of the richest and most fascinating discussions of timbre occur far away from the term itself.

Today, it is not uncommon to encounter calls for narrower and more precise definitions of timbre and complaints about the vagueness of the term. All of our attempts to clearly define and delineate what timbre is, can, or should be are deftly undone by history. Where the term is absent, other stories can be told: stories about how people listened, how different musical parameters were understood to relate to each other, what sonic values were understood to be important, and how different sensorial registers were seen to relate to each other. These chapters serve to remind us that timbre is always cultural. Naomi Weiss attunes our ears to the sonic language of ancient Greece, and the inherently multisensorial language of acoustical experience. Much of the language used to describe sound, she shows, elides the quality of the sound with its impact upon the listener’s body: a single word can convey volume, pitch, and emotional effect.

Attention to timbre also has the power to trouble our historiographies of music. Bettina Varwig explores the ways in which the early modern voice was heard and described as something that fused the material body with the soul. The voice, then, complicates the Cartesian divide that sundered the corporeal and immaterial realms. The voice and ear were precisely the conduits by which souls communicated with each other: one person’s voice—the nature of whose soul shaped the precise sonority of that voice—could enter another person’s body. Varwig traces the rich language used to described vocal qualities and the ways in which those sonic qualities were seen to reflect immaterial qualities of the owner of that voice.

Indeed, it often serves to attune us to the edges of musicality: vivid descriptions of sound often crop up when new sounds creep into the broader soundscape, whether they are the result of new instruments, the modification of exciting instruments, or the expansion of the very definition of what constitutes music. This “edginess” of timbre is especially apparent in the chapters that constitute our “histories and cultures” section: timbre or timbre-focused language crops up as musicians, philosophers, critics, and audiences seek to describe a previously unknown musical experience. In this way, timbre reveals the contours of what constitutes the very idea of music.

(p. 9) This appears, perhaps unsurprisingly, at moments when thinkers aggressively sought to redefine the basic material constitution of music. Turning to the manifesto-laden Italian Futurist movement, Gavin Williams probes the status of sound itself, showing how the liberation of sound—through the embrace of the unknowable infinitude of noise—was the “unlimited domain of musical expansion into the future.” Timbre and noise are frequent companions, since writers often turn to the concept of timbre to discuss noise. Later in the volume, Daniel Walden explores how early comparative musicologists who studied Native American musics worked to “extinguish” timbre—heard as noise—in order to focus on the pitch.18

But new sonorities were, of course, not always heralded with entire new aesthetic or political movements. Focusing on the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Deirdre Loughridge shows how discussions of organ stops and mutes were sites of vivid sonic description. Many of these descriptions come from before the word “timbre” entered broader musical discourse. Importantly, Loughridge highlights the impossibility of identifying easy synonyms for timbre. To talk about “timbre before timbre” is to enter a different parametrical paradigm: concepts like “harmonie” encompassed both “harmony” in the modern sense, but also ideas of sonic color.

But just as timbre can reveal change, it can also signal the opposite. Indeed, for all of timbre’s ephemerality and cultural situatedness, it is also remarkably durable. Emily I. Dolan and Thomas Patteson follow the surprisingly long history of sound technologies understood to produce “ethereal” tones. From the Aeolian harp to contemporary Sound Art, musicians, composers, instrument makers, writers, and listeners have been fascinated timbres heard as silvery or crystalline. And just as this class of timbres has continually reappeared in different technological guises, so has their association with the otherworldly and the celestial.19 This is perhaps another way in which timbre can mark musical edges: here, these timbres sonify the boundary between the real and the ideal.

Thinking in historically and culturally situated ways about timbre—and whether the concept is named or not—can also suggest ways in which we might radically reconceive the very idea of musical parameters. One approach would be to imagine the parameters of pitch and volume as subsets of timbre. This approach turns the “wastebasket” image inside-out: timbre here becomes constitutive of the entirety of sonic experience. Joseph Auner, looking at Pierrot lunaire and Schoenberg’s broader theoretical writings, shows the expansive ways in which Schoenberg fundamentally reconceived of the idea of sound. Timbre is everywhere in this project: as Auner shows, timbre was fundamentally generative in many of his works and it functioned theoretically as the ur-parameter (familiar from Schoenberg’s famous statement that “pitch [Klanghöhe] is nothing but tone color [Klangfarbe] measured in one direction).”20

Schoenberg’s theory of sound—his inversion of musical parameters—perhaps finds its most powerful manifestation not in his own music, but rather in Tuva. Theodore Levin and Valentina Süzükei’s chapter describes the “timbre-centered” vocal and instrumental practices of Tuvan pastoralist culture. Here, musical practices capture the contours of the landscape in subtle ways, though the imitation of ambient environmental sounds as well the visual contours, translating the topography of mountains and steppes (p. 10) into sound. Timbre is central to this mimetic practice: Levin and Süzükei show, for example, the subtle, virtuosic manipulations of overtones that help capture the particularities of a scene.21 Levin and Süzükei conclude by remarking that Tuvan timbre-centered listening “offers striking evidence of human aural diversity.” These aural practices might indeed impress us for their difference, for their distance from Western practices. But within this volume Tuvan aurality shows that it is possible to reorient ourselves towards timbre. We might even say it provides an ambitious goal for those of us studying timbre: to learn to hear as subtly as Tuvan pastoralists do.

Timbral Technologies

If you see a Trumscheit, an obsolete musical instrument that enjoyed popularity in central Europe in the early modern age, you would not guess its sound.22 In its basic form, the instrument resembles a very long, very thin pyramidal double bass with one string. It truly has to be heard to be believed: as the instrument is bowed, a snarling sound modifies the string vibration, which then resembles a low brass instrument much more than the typical string sound. In the English-speaking world this curious instrument is known as the trumpet marine. (The origin of the “marine” part of the name is unclear. Some suggest it refers to the visual resemblance of the instrument to the speaking-trumpet, a skinny precursor of the megaphone that was used for communication from ship to ship, or, as a bowdlerized version of “marian,” to its purported widespread use in European nunneries.) The snarling sound is created by an irregular bridge that vibrates against the belly of the instrument, creating a buzzing resonance as the string is bowed. Unlike common modern string instruments but similar to brass instruments, the tonal range of the Trumscheit is largely restricted to the pitches of the harmonic series. These are played not by stopping the string but by damping it at the nodal points and creating harmonics. Spectrographic analysis reveals a similar distribution of upper partials as are found in brass instruments.

The Sachs-Hornbostel classification recognizes the trumpet marine as a bowed lute. But its striking timbral mimicry conceals a different curiosity. From a technical perspective the instrument is nothing but a massive monochord. This fabled Pythagorean device is, of course, a favored emblem of the sonic turn in the humanities and has been much discussed in recent organological literature. It is the epitome of the music-theoretical instrument, devices that create sounds and in so doing contribute knowledge about music. The monochord’s special power is to demonstrate that the fundamental musical intervals—octave, fifth, fourth, whole tone—correspond to the simple integer ratios in which its string can be partitioned. As David Creese points out in a beautiful ekphrastic aphorism, the monochord makes numbers audible and sounds visible.23 The music of the trumpet marine partakes of this feature, and moves it beyond the abstract, very basic intervals that were relevant to the aesthetics of the Pythagorean tradition to encompass a range that is more easily recognized as (roughly) the compass of natural brass instruments.

(p. 11) But speaking more broadly, the Trumscheit combines the phantasmagoria that one instrument can sound like another—as is realized in the modern synthesizer—with the epistemic acumen of the music-theoretical instrument that forms an important part of knowledge production. The section on technology explores both aspects in a variety of scenarios.

In fact, the synthesizer, which started its life in Helmholtz’s laboratory as a device to model and mimic vowel sounds, is the epitome of the long-standing desire to create multiple contrasting timbres from the same sound source. In its separation of form from function, and maximum control over the sound output, it embodies a modernist dream. Jonathan De Souza takes the bull by the horns and leads us on a tour of synthesizers from Helmholtz to Moog. If one of the functions of timbre is to help us identify sounds with their sources, then the shape-shifting capability of synthesizers is maddening. This is the Trumscheit’s timbral mimicry to the nth degree—or, using Moog’s term, “timbral thievery.” But De Souza does not stop with this trompe l’oreille, the acoustic illusion that the synthesizer engages in; instead he advocates a “timbral technics”—a method that reverse-engineers the machines, in the manner of Wolfgang Ernst’s and Jussi Paarika’s media archaeology, in order to better understand the way in which they function.24 From the perspective of timbral technics, the shape-shifting capacity of the synthesizer opens a window to the way in which the soundwave is modified—combined or filtered—to achieve different aural effects in the listener’s ear.

It is common to associate technology with machines, and the synthesizer indulges the modern dream of the universal machine. But we can loosen these strings and broaden our understanding of technology. Alexander Rehding’s chapter takes a similar set of questions back in time, to the European nineteenth century, an age that did not yet possess the technology of synthesizers but, in certain quarters, longed for the flexibility that sound synthesis provided. He considers how composers manipulated the orchestra to achieve certain psychoacoustic effects, often trompe l’oreille, based on timbre. In this, they relied less on explicit scientific theories but their practical knowledge and experience as orchestrators. The creation of art that is also a creation of a form of knowledge harks back to a Heideggerian notion of techne, which he regards as a form of poiesis, of both bringing forth and revealing.

It is one of the cornerstones of research into auditory perception that timbre, as the impression and mental recreation of a sound source, only occurs after the soundwaves have reached the listener’s ear. Stefan Helmreich explores what happens when the soundwaves take the path via a technological interface: he discusses the controversial technology of cochlear implants that allow a d/Deaf person to attain a degree of hearing. But cochlear implants function as an interface that only enhances certain specific frequencies—those that are particularly useful for speech recognition. But certain composers have used this technology as an opportunity to write a new kind of music that is specifically suited to the affordances of cochlear implants. As in the other chapters in this section, here too the sound of music doubles as an experiment to probe, challenge, or complement the specific perceptual features of the auditory system. The case study of music for cochlear implants is a pitch-perfect demonstration of the Gibsonian aphorism: (p. 12) “Ask not what is inside your head, but ask what your head is inside of.”25 Gibson and his followers are interested in an ecological theory of perception, in which affordances (in this case, the cochlear implant) enable the flow of certain information (in this case, music).

Elizabeth Bradley Strauchen-Scherer contributes the perspective from the museum and shows how careful consideration of the material qualities of brass instruments allows us valuable insights into the changing technologies that instrument builders employed. And in his thought-provoking reflections on technology and media occasioned by Ottorino Respighi’s Pini di Roma—the first composition to incorporate a prerecorded sound in a musical score—Arman Schwartz questions the limits of the definition of an orchestral instrument. Rather than a quirk, Respighi’s vinyl nightingale reveals early twentieth-century ideals of instrumental sound, which placed value on the directness of instrumental mimicry, melding instrument and source on the level of timbre.

If Schwartz prompts us to ask whether the recorded bird song is art or nature, media theorist Friedrich Kittler would answer bluntly that it’s a recording. For him, a sound recording is a technology of writing—an Aufschreibesystem (discourse network, but literally “writing-down system”)—in that it fulfills the three fundamental functions of storing, processing, and transmitting data, which in this case happens to be sound.26 The recording is functionally no different from the score (or rather, the other instrumental parts), and its reproduction device, the gramophone, is functionally equivalent to other musical instruments. The curiosity only enters in the way in which the various technologies are serviced: the conventional musical instruments need to be played by musicians with years of highly specialized training, whereas the human input required to operate the gramophone is minimal.

The question of how birdsong is visually represented is also the subject of Alexandra Hui’s chapter. In an ironic twist, she regards the ornithologist who attempted to analyze the timbres of various birdsongs as technologies-made-flesh that give voice to birds, by interpreting and notating the song in terms that might make sense to human ears, in hopes that it would also reflect something important about bird behavior. There is, however, no reason to assume that birds’ ears are like humans; the only thing these ornithologists are revealing are human all-too-human assumptions. With this chapter we come full circle in the questions of technology between humans and machines. Where at one extreme machines and mechanical devices are used to test human audition in timbral mimicry, and at various intermediary stages human and apparatus interact in changing constellations, there at the other extreme the human him- or herself turns into a writing machine, a technology, to test and understand timbre.

Perception and Analysis

Sound has finally shattered the twittersphere. An acoustical illusion, a male voice saying a name that could be heard either as Yanny or as Laurel, caused much consternation across the internet in the summer of 2018, after it was posted by a group of high school (p. 13) students on the social news website Reddit on May 11.27 One half of the online world called the other half insane for not hearing what they could hear so clearly. There’s not the slightest doubt that Yanny sounds very different from Laurel. It’s impossible that this is just a slight mishearing—the two names are poles apart. Like Necker cubes or like #TheDress, it is possible to switch from one percept to the other, but it’s not possible (or barely possible) to attend to both versions at the same time.

Moments in which we realize that what I hear isn’t what you hear are deeply unsettling because we rely on our senses to, well, make sense of the world. If we can’t rely on sense perception what else is there to rely on? If we can’t agree on something as basic as sense perception, how can we even get to the more complex stuff? It’s possible to manipulate the data just enough to privilege one percept over the other: by blocking out certain parts of the frequency spectrum, one name becomes clearly audible over the other. These explanatory maneuvers are helpful because they create a sense of shared experience, and they show that both sides have a point. One group just attends to a different part of the frequency spectrum than the other. Various interpretations have been proposed, mostly to the effect that we attend to that range of the frequency spectrum from which we expect to glean the most information—whether we hear Laurel or Yanny can be related to factors such as gender or age.

One point here may seem obvious but is nonetheless important: the Laurel/Yanny recording is a recording—it is a representation and it is repeatable. It is a form of writing. If it weren’t repeatable there would be no controversy: at best, the listener could have asked: Did I just hear Yanny? To which the speaker would reply: No, I said Laurel. And both would move on. The ambiguity and the deep controversy only ensues because the recording is repeatable, and both percepts can be verified. Repeatability is the basis for both sides digging in their heels. Even though the recording happens in time, like notation, it is not bound to a specific time. Repeatability is the basis of analyzability, since analysis cannot (or can barely) happen in real time.

We should tarry over this moment of extreme doubt between Yanny/Laurel for a little longer. This perfect ambiguity, and our inability to hear what others hear so clearly, gives us some insight into our sense perception. Perception is deception, as the old adage goes. What we hear and what is being said are not the same things at all. It’s just that usually we are individually and collectively deceived and are in agreement, and as long as we are all happy to operate on the same level there is no practical problem. In other words: we live in the Matrix—welcome to the desert of the real.28 While it’s perfectly possible to lead a perfectly happy life on the level of communication, and many may prefer it, there may be reward in the thrill of knowing what is going on outside of our normal perception. Like the déjà vu moments in the Wachowskis’ Matrix movie trilogy (1999–2003), the Laurel/Yanny moment can be understood as a momentary glitch in the Matrix that allows us to get a brief glimpse of what lies behind the phenomenon. Unlike Neo, who was given a red pill to get beyond the ordinary world of phenomena, we first have to figure out what mind-altering substances the red pill is made up of. Laurel/Yanny is speech, not music, but its timbral implications are immediately relevant to any theoretical engagement with music. Inside the Matrix, the difference between music and language (p. 14) become immaterial. There are only sounds—frequencies, which are variously turned into music, speech, or noise.

Once we realize this, we are able to see parallels everywhere. Take Hugo Riemann’s model of how music theory operates: a composer has musical thoughts, writes them down in notation, and performers recreate these musical thoughts in sounds by reading the notation, which are then communicated to listeners, who can recreate and understand the musical logic of the composer’s thoughts.29 Riemann develops this model with Beethoven in mind, whose deafness makes the act of communication in sounds and writing all the more poignant. Tones are the carriers of musical thoughts in this process of communication. This schema essentially follows the telephone model of communication, a message conveyed from sender to receiver. Beethoven’s message happens to be musical, but there is no fundamental difference to speech. Riemann’s idea is that we mentally return the sounds to the same structural relationships that Beethoven held in his head when he composed his music. The sounds are nothing but a medium for an abstract notion of music, just as in the case of Laurel/Yanny the sounds of the speaking voice must be mentally mapped onto logical units that correspond to one of the two names.

This model is essentially focused on the receiving end, the perception of tones. It does not matter at what frequencies the musical message is communicated, or that the sounds produced stand in a logarithmic relationship with the tones heard. We operate purely on the symbolic level, from Beethoven’s thought process to the listeners’ mental recreation of his musical logic. The fact that the acoustical relations that underlie our perception operate on quite different principles leaves us cold. The fact that perception happens comes into focus only during rare moments when glitches happen, when listeners split into two camps of Laurel and Yanny. It is during those rare moments that we can pay attention to our perception, that we can listen to our listening, as Jean Luc Nancy is fond of putting it.30

We should be careful not to get over-enthusiastic here: this insight is not the same as getting to an objective reality. The Fourier spectra that break down the Laurel/Yanny phenomenon into its constituent components are still a representation, not the elusive thing-in-itself, but they constitute a radically different mode of representation that allow us to gather insights that other modes would foreclose.

What if we tried to do this all the time? If we attended to the multiple levels at which sounds operate, in language and in music? We can turn to one of Riemann’s famous nineteenth-century contemporaries, Gustav Theodor Fechner, who discovered that most sensations are in a logarithmic relationship with the stimuli that cause them and established in this way the scientific basis of psychophysics. Fechner’s Vorschule der Ästhetik (1876) sought to build aesthetics from the ground up, starting with the lopsided relationship between sensation and perception. This might be the red pill we should swallow to get beyond our usual limitations.

If musicology’s task is to get beneath the surface and to understand how music works, it is well advised to get away from the symbolic lull of notation and to dive headfirst into the messy world of acoustical relations. Of course, that comes with new kinds of (p. 15) commitments: there is no doubt that the standard musical repertoire of compositions in the Western mode roughly between 1600 and 1950 is still well served in this way. But it is increasingly apparent that the notated repertoire of Western art music is only a small subsection of all the music that could be analyzed and theorized.

One musical invention that is fast establishing itself as a touchstone for a new form of timbral composition is Peter Ablinger’s speaking piano, which exists in various works, most famously perhaps as “A Letter from Schoenberg” from Quadraturen 3 (2008). The work synthesizes the reading of an irate letter by Schoenberg and converts the soundwaves of the spoken words to match a piano keyboard. A sophisticated computer-directed system then presses the correct piano keys at the correct microintervals with precisely calibrated pressure to reproduce the reading on the instrument. Each key stands in for one partial of the pixelated vocal timbre—but of course, each piano sound is in turn also composed of a complex waveform. The sonic outcome of the “speaking voice” of the piano is, effectively, a second-order timbre. Is this speech? Is it instrumental music? Robert Hasegawa takes up the challenges presented in Ablinger’s piece in the context of his thoughtful analytical observations on recent compositions that play with higher-order sonorities that blur the lines between harmony and timbre.

Whereas the connection between harmony and timbre has a long tradition in western musical thought, going back to Marin Mersenne and Joseph Sauveur, Michael Tenzer’s contribution underlines that there is nothing inevitable about the pairing of these two parameters: using the example of Balinese gamelan, his close analysis shows that in this musical tradition timbre is directly related to polyphony.

If we return to Fales’s paradox, which implies that the auditory system must always be built into our considerations of timbre, then we can trace the origins of this line of holistic timbre research back to Carl Stumpf and his research in the early years of the twentieth century, as Sebastian Klotz explores in some detail. As Klotz shows, questions of timbre, its perception, and related “mental functions” were central to Stumpf’s broader project of phenomenology. And unlike his predecessors, notably Helmholtz and his circle, Stumpf championed a pointedly holistic approach that aimed to capture timbre in all its complexity. Fast-forwarding a century, Meghan Goodchild and Stephen McAdams present us with the cutting edge of cognitive research on timbre, focusing especially on how orchestration, as presented in treatises and in compositional practice, aids auditory stream segregation. Zachary Wallmark and the late Roger A. Kendall use the tools of cognitive research to probe the links between timbre perception and the conceptual metaphors we employ in verbal descriptions of sound.

Daniel Walden takes the tradition of Comparative Musicology, which was also associated with the circle around Carl Stumpf in Berlin, as an opportunity to make a final plea against the parametric thinking that has so long dominated our discipline. In a carefully documented study of early comparative practice, he notes how researchers trained themselves to “listen above the noise,” to filter out the timbral dimensions in the sole focus on pitch, which could then be transcribed, identified, cataloged, and compared. And Nina Sun Eidsheim and Schuyler Whelden explore a Laurel/Yanny moment in vocal studies: they examine the profound timbral ambiguities in Bobby Caldwell’s (p. 16) music. Any further explanation about this chapter would have to be prefaced by a spoiler alert. Suffice it to say, therefore, that once we start digging deeper, we realize that Laurel/Yanny moments are around us all the time. We just need to (re-)learn how to listen carefully, and not to “listen beneath the noise.”

Let’s return for a moment to Guido Adler and the birth hour of modern musicology in 1885. It is true that his musicological system, by design, seems to exclude timbre from the central aims of scholarly inquiry. But a close reading of his foundation charter reveals a fascinating passage earlier in that essay that is easy to miss. There Adler lays out the steps that should be taken to analyze a musical work: for polyphonic pieces, one should attend to the voice leading; for vocal works, the text must be examined “first only as poetry.” And if the work is “purely instrumental,” Adler gives the following methodological instructions:

The method of treating the instrument or instruments must be discussed. The instrumentation must be examined, that is, the way in which the instrumental sound-groups [Klanggruppen] and -bodies [-körper] are united and separated, contrasted, and blended.31

This is nothing less than an exhortation to study orchestration, to pay attention to timbre; indeed, in his focus on “sound-groups and -bodies,” Adler foreshadows work by Stephen McAdams and others that delves into ideas of timbral grouping and the perception of instrumental blend.32

We highlight this moment in Adler for its counterfactual force: how might have musicology developed since the 1880s had attention to timbre, instrumentation, and orchestration been a fundamental part of musical analysis? Our hope is that this volume presents not only a vibrant snapshot of the richness of timbre as a subject of scholarly inquiry, but also reveals what a fully timbrally aware music studies could be.


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(5.) See, for example, the collection Le timbre: Métaphore pour la composition, ed. Jean-Baptiste Barrière (Paris: C. Bourgois, IRCAM, 1991), which grew out of a week-long seminar at IRCAM in April 1985. Contemporary Music Review has had three special issues that have focused on timbre: “Music and Psychology: a Mutual Regard” (1987); “Timbre in Contemporary Electro-Acoustic Music,” (1994); and “Timbre” (2017), which was guest-edited by volume contributor Isabella van Elferen.

(6.) On the commonly asserted claims about the importance of timbre to popular music, see the introduction to Robert Fink, Melinda Latour, and Zachary Wallmark’s excellent recent collection, The Relentless Pursuit of Tone (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 2–3.

(8.) To these we should add two contemporary classics: Cornelia Fales’s “Paradox of Timbre,” Ethnomusicology 46 (2002): 56–95, and Emily I. Dolan’s The Orchestral Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), which are cited with similar frequency to those older works. Daniel Muzzulini’s monumental Genealogie der Klangfarbe (Bern and New York: Peter Lang, 2006) is not yet as well known in the English-speaking world as it deserves to be.

(11.) Fales, “Paradox of Timbre,” 57.

(13.) Ibid.

(15.) Rousseau, “Tymbre,” in Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert, eds., Encyclopédie (Neufchastel: Samuel Faulche & Companie), 16: 775.

(17.) See, for example, the discussion of the different registers of the clarinet in Jérôme-Joseph Momigny, La seule vraie théorie de la musique (Paris: Au magasin de musique de l’auteur, 1821), 487.

(19.) Such durability might call to mind Wolfgang Ernst’s notion of instruments as time machines, by which he implies the ahistoricity of soundwaves. Wolfgang Ernst, Sonic Time Machines: Explicit Sound, Sirenic Voices, and Implicit Sonicity. Recursions: Theories of Media, Materiality, and Cultural Techniques (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2016).

(28.) With apologies to Baudrillard, Žižek, and Morpheus.

(30.) Jean-Luc Nancy, Listening, tr. Charlotte Mandell (New York: Fordham University Press, 2007).

(31.) Adler, “Umfang, Methode, und Ziel,” 6–7.