Lazy Luddite Log

30.9.13

Timbre

On the weekend I was sitting in a music classroom because it was serving as a changing room for a theatrical production I was in. There were student-made posters on the walls dedicated to particular elements of music – things like tempo and pitch and dynamic. I commented that my favourite was missing – timbre. This is my very layperson musings on the topic.

I once claimed to be a timbre junkie. The waveform of an instrument is distinctive and provides a lot of what distinguishes particular compositions and makes them into an aural banquet. I notice how a lot of the time different musical genres are defined by other characteristics. Some kinds of electronic dance music for instance are defined by Beats Per Minute. If they stray one beat away from the proscribed range do the suddenly become something different? For me a lot of what helps me decide a song is what it is comes from the timbres it exudes. The presence and absence of particular instruments is important to me.

I should clarify that sometimes an instrument can be more than one instrument in terms of timbre. It can be played with a different technique which alters its sound. Or that sound can be distorted differently by amplification and recording. And it can all get rather confusing. I listen to some very old metal songs (the kind many metal fans think is just rock) and can be puzzled as to whether I am isolating an electric guitar or electric organ in my active listening. Or similarly in some old funk or soul I will be confounded as to whether I’m focusing on an electric piano (like the Clavinet) or an electric guitar playing a rhythmic "wakakakaka”. My imprecision comes in part from the fact that all of these produce sound using moving steel parts and electromagnets. And whatever is making these sounds hardly matters as they all sound fantastic.

There are short-comings to my focus on timbre. If someone plays me a cover of a song using markedly different instruments I can have difficulty recognizing it even if the timing and notes are faithful to the original. Is this odd of me? I suspect it is a natural and common thing and I say that because of how important voices are to humans. Every person had a distinct voice and for us as pack animals it is important to recognize them. This gets back to music too – a key way to identify a particular artist is by the sound of the vocalist.

I prefer music produced by ensembles of instruments to a cappella music. Vocals are beautiful and allow for the addition of words to music but I also desire diversity of timbre. As such I prefer a band in which there are both male and female vocalists. Likewise a band that has a guitar and a keyboard is better than one with two guitars. Likewise a band which throws something like a saxophone into the mix gets my attention. I get annoyed if the bass player gets lost between cacophonous guitar and drums – hence production values that allow me to identify all the parts is a preference of mine. And finally this desire to distinguish all the instruments puts a limit on the sheer number of instruments I want to be playing all at once. Few if any bands meet all these descriptions and that is possibly why I listen to lots of various-artist playlists. That way the selection approximates the kind of band I want to listen to.

It is too late for me now to turn this into a project poster and put it on that classroom wall. Also I suspect it is too personal to be deemed informative writing (as well as too sloppy – that was a tiring theatrical weekend). Time now to listen to some more music.

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