ChristopherSchlegel

Musical Timbre

72 posts in this topic

Timbre (pronouced "tam-ber") is the combination of qualities or characteristics a sound possesses. Often, people describe the timbre of an instrument or piece/genre of music using metaphors: i.e. the oboe sounds "woody & nasal", the overture sounds "noble".

Whether or not an individual finds any given timbre pleasant or disturbing is of course highly personal. Sometimes, even the process of describing the timbre of a completely isolated sound can lead to highly personal, differing results. For example, a violin can have a lyrical, flowing, singing tone or a hoarse, scratchy tone. My wife says she can't stand most classical/romantic music I listen to because the violins are "too high & screetchy". BUT on the other hand, one of the very few orchestral pieces she will listen to & enjoy is sections of Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons" :D which is mostly very high pitched violin lines over an entire string ensemble.

I noticed in the other thread a bit of personal difference in labelling the timbres of various genres & instrumentation. For example, I know that in metal (heavy or otherwise) music the electric guitar is usually very distorted. This drives some people crazy, "It's just a bunch of NOISE!" & drives other people to play air guitar, "Wow, that's so powerful I want to emulate it!" Interestingly, the specific type of signal distortion used by most electric guitarists is a very regular square-wave created (originally) by clipping diodes. So the actual signal chain event is ONE element while the pitches the player uses are a separate one. This might seem trivial or insignificant, but it is important, because it makes a big difference in the cumulative effect. Some metal songs have a distorted tone, BUT very tonal melodies or series of pitches ("riffs"). Some metals songs use a distorted tone & highly atonal series of pitches. This is why (as I think Alex pointed out) some metal songs can be effectively transcribed for other instruments. In this case it was from distorted electric guitars to a string quartet (was that Apacrypha that covered all those Metallica songs as a string quartet?). I have been working on the reverse case for years now: incorporating electric guitar into symphonic & classical music.

The electric guitar is a very interesting case (one that especially fascinates me, I am primarily a guitarist & grew up playing electric guitar). It has the ability to "sing" expressively like a violin, the ability to sound glass-like transparent with a clear ringing bell-tone like a harp. It also has the ability to sound incredibly ugly & noisy like an industrial machine that is disintegrating. I really love the ability of my Strat & Marshall to "sing" with the overdriven, distorted singal chain. For my personal taste it has to be coupled with extreme skill (Van Halen, Malmsteen) though. I was in a metal band back in the 80s for while & can/do appreciate some of the older metal bands.

Side note: Timbre is one aspect of Beethoven that really gets me. Often it is pointed out that Beethoven was "deaf, but still wrote great music". Well, that's true & must have been hard for him to deal with emotionally. But, having said that, I can write music all day long without hearing a note of it, & I know how it will sound. Any decent musician can do this. What I consider amazing is how, years after having gone deaf, he could still imagine, conceptualize & project how to orchestrate. It is easy enough to write down on paper a C major chord. What gets difficult is: which note of the chord do you assign to which instrument to get the proper effect? Without being able to actually hear the possible combinations? Beethoven wrote his last 3 symphonies under those conditions (among other works, like the C-sharp minor quartet). That is mind-boggling!

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
I noticed in the other thread a bit of personal difference in labelling the timbres of various genres & instrumentation.  For example, I know that in metal (heavy or otherwise) music the electric guitar is usually very distorted.  This drives some people crazy, "It's just a bunch of NOISE!" & drives other people to play air guitar, "Wow, that's so powerful I want to emulate it!"

Right, and I'm much more partial to the latter reaction. :D

Interestingly, the specific type of signal distortion used by most electric guitarists is a very regular square-wave created (originally) by clipping diodes.  So the actual signal chain event is ONE element while the pitches the player uses are a separate one.  This might seem trivial or insignificant, but it is important, because it makes a big difference in the cumulative effect.  Some metal songs have a distorted tone, BUT very tonal melodies or series of pitches ("riffs").  Some metals songs use a distorted tone & highly atonal series of pitches.  This is why (as I think Alex pointed out) some metal songs can be effectively transcribed for other instruments.  In this case it was from distorted electric guitars to a string quartet (was that Apacrypha that covered all those Metallica songs as a string quartet?).

They actually (and annoyingly) call themselves "Apocalyptica." But, yes, Metallica's (and other metal bands') music translates very well to cello, piano, etc., and it is good of you to reemphasize this point.

I have been working on the reverse case for years now: incorporating electric guitar into symphonic & classical music.

That sends chills up my spine just thinking about it! Trans-Siberian Orchestra has done that a little bit with Beethoven, and it's a project that I think is more than worth pursuing. I absolutely love the combination of guitar with other symphonic & classical instruments.

The electric guitar is a very interesting case (one that especially fascinates me, I am primarily a guitarist & grew up playing electric guitar). It has the ability to "sing" expressively like a violin, the ability to sound glass-like transparent with a clear ringing bell-tone like a harp. It also has the ability to sound incredibly ugly & noisy like an industrial machine that is disintegrating.  I really love the ability of my Strat & Marshall to "sing" with the overdriven, distorted singal chain.  For my personal taste it has to be coupled with extreme skill (Van Halen, Malmsteen) though.

Yes, this gets as the "virtuosity" point that Ray Vernagus made in the Poetry/Rap thread. Many people do not realize the jaw-dropping skill that some guitarists employ when playing their music.

And, I know you said this at the beginning, but I wanted to end on it, given how important it is:

Whether or not an individual finds any given timbre pleasant or disturbing is of course highly personal. Sometimes, even the process of describing the timbre of a completely isolated sound can lead to highly personal, differing results. For example, a violin can have a lyrical, flowing, singing tone or a hoarse, scratchy tone. My wife says she can't stand most classical/romantic music I listen to because the violins are "too high & screetchy".

This is one of the big points that we should not forget, and I thank Christopher for emphasizing it. We all have certain emotional responses to violins, metal guitars, etc., but we must be extremely careful about turning these reactions into universal pronoucements about the inherent worth of a certain timbre.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
I noticed in the other thread a bit of personal difference in labelling the timbres of various genres & instrumentation.  For example, I know that in metal (heavy or otherwise) music the electric guitar is usually very distorted.  This drives some people crazy, "It's just a bunch of NOISE!" & drives other people to play air guitar, "Wow, that's so powerful I want to emulate it!"  Interestingly, the specific type of signal distortion used by most electric guitarists is a very regular square-wave created (originally) by clipping diodes.

Is this the same as the "fuzz" effect, that was introduced (to my disgust and horror) in the mid-60s?

It strikes me as an attack on my mind.

Doesn't this distortion cause a high degree of dissonance? So high, that it necessarily causes pain?

Some people want pain-filled music. And some people have such stagnant minds and such low self-esteem, that they feel chronic psychological pain. How much of a stretch is it to conclude that the two groups coincide? Ayn Rand observed once that some people seek reassurance that the pain they feel is not their fault, but part of reality.

As far as vocal performance: a scream or moan of pain is a scream or moan of pain, whether or not it has a musical accompaniment.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Is this the same as the "fuzz" effect, that was introduced (to my disgust and horror) in the mid-60s?

It strikes me as an attack on my mind.

It's high time that people actually substantiate claims like these, rather than simply assert them. What is the proof that "distorted" guitar is inherently an "attack on the mind," irrespective of what melody is being played with it or how it is being used?

I'm starting to seriously question how many people here have even heard the music of people like Yngwie Malmsteen (who Christopher mentioned above), or John Petrucci of Dream Theater. These men are bona fide musicians who create serious (and often neo-classical) melodies. And their fans are often well-educated musicians themselves, not motivated by one iota of angst that is allegedly endemic to metal music.

While I don't think that metal needs to be justified by neo-classical tendencies, the sheer existence of people like Malmsteen should make those who claim that metal is inherently an "attack on the mind" summarily blush.

Doesn't this distortion cause a high degree of dissonance?  So high, that it necessarily causes pain?

No, and no. When I listen to metal, I am -- along with many other Objectivists -- extremely happy, just as happy as you when you listen to music that you like. Are you denying this?

As far as vocal performance: a scream or moan of pain is a scream or moan of pain, whether or not it has a musical accompaniment.

True, although this just begs the question.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
I'm starting to seriously question how many people here have even heard the music of people like Yngwie Malmsteen (who Christopher mentioned above), or John Petrucci of Dream Theater.  These men are bona fide musicians who create serious (and often neo-classical) melodies.  And their fans are often well-educated musicians themselves, not motivated by one iota of angst that is allegedly endemic to metal music.

Not having heard any of this music I can't comment on it specifically. But 'angst' or no angst, a musician being "bona fide" has little meaning in regard to the quality of the music he plays, for which we (so far) have very little in the way of an objective standard.

All bona fide means is honest and not fraudulent. And since objective standards for music are as yet mostly unknown, musicians who make terrible-sounding music are not necessarily fraudulent, and are thus 'bona fide' regardless of how their music sounds.

Also, I think well-educated musicians of the twentieth century have put out some of the worst-sounding Western music in history because of their education.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Could we rule out as music: distortion (by its very definition), scratching (the noise that DJ’s make when they slide the stylus over the grooves of a vinyl record), atonality, “chance music”, mechanistic repetition of one or more ideas (minimalism), and rap (no melody)?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Could we rule out as music:  distortion (by its very definition), scratching (the noise that DJ’s make when they slide the stylus over the grooves of a vinyl record), atonality, “chance music”, mechanistic repetition of one or more ideas (minimalism), and rap (no melody)?

By what criteria would we rule out distortion? By its definition? Explain that. How is a melody played on an acoustic guitar music, but the same melody played on the electric with distortion not music? Affecting the timbre of an instrument does not remove it from the realm of music. How it is played may, but the sheer timbre of the tone produced cannot disqualify as an expression of music. It can remove it only from the realm of your tastes.

Scratching is out in and of itself. Atonality is out.

I don't know what you mean by mechanistic repition of one or more ideas. Are they musical ideas? Are they pieces of music? Then no, they cannot be ruled out. They can be criticized as being mundane, or boring. I think My Sharona by The Knack still qualifies as music. Not very good music, but still music.

Rap I consider not only not music, but I do not even consider it poetry. The "genre" especially pisses me off in its implication that I give a damn what a singer or "rapper" is saying as a primary part of my focus. The voice is an instrument, it belongs in the music just as much as the violin, or distorted guitar. It is not meant to be a one way conversation. I get really irked on the modern myopic focus one what the idiot in front is saying-DON'T CARE!

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

distort: To twist out of a proper or natural relation of parts: misshape; contort.

(Amercian Heritage Dictionary, 2nd edition)

Possibly I have a bad definition of distortion, or is distortion on a guitar not distortion? If I turn my speakers up too high on my sound system, the music sounds distorted. I can see how distortion might work as an effect at a certain point in music, like flutter tonguing on the trumpet for a bizarre or comical effect, but it would be hard for me to imagine enjoying an entire melody that way.

Is any kind of a sound acceptable for music as long as it is attached to a melody?

Minimalism is a so-called style of music where melodies, chords, or timbres are repeated over and over with little or no variation. It's like painting 20 identical blue squares or faces on a canvas and calling it art. Is it art if it uses paint and a canvas? Is "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star", repeated identically, 20 times consecutively, with no variation art? I would say that the mind would probably blank out after about the 4th or 5th repetition, just as it does with atonality.

Just because a sequence of notes is based on the diatonic scale, is it necessarily a melody?

By what criteria would we rule out distortion? By its definition? Explain that. How is a melody played on an acoustic guitar music, but the same melody played on the electric with distortion not music?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Possibly I have a bad definition of distortion, or is distortion on a guitar not distortion?

Given its negative connotations, "distortion" is really an unfortunate name for the general effect on a guitar that we are talking about. "Distorted" guitar sounds different from non-distorted guitar, but it by no means is inherently dissonant. It sounds metallic (hence the name "metal"), and (if you ask me) much more pleasant than an instrument like the violin.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I'll take Itzhak.

...... It sounds metallic (hence the name "metal"), and (if you ask me) much more pleasant than an instrument like the violin.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
distort: To twist out of a proper or natural relation of parts: misshape; contort.

              (Amercian Heritage Dictionary, 2nd edition)

Possibly I have a bad definition of distortion, or is distortion on a guitar not distortion? 

I think that you have a very bad definition of "distortion."

Distortion is not a "misshapen" or "contorted" soundwave. It is one in which the peaks and valleys in the sine waves composing an instrument's sound have been clipped, that's all. See this page for an excellent explanation and demonstration. A person's particular evaluation of what "clipped" sound waves sound like may lead them to use words like "misshapen" or "painful" but—and I think that this was Christopher's lead-in point—many of us do not. I think it's an error to assume that those evaluations are an intrinsic part of the sound itself. There are, thankfully, a plethora of thoroughly musical examples of distorted guitars out there making wonderful music.

A jet engine makes a painful noise. The sound of a person talking played at half-speed could be considered misshapen. But if you ask me, my electric guitar plugged into my Peavey 5150 II amplifier (through copious amounts of distortion) is neither painful nor contorted; it's music to my ears!

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
I'll take Itzhak.

Did you ever see him on some of the old Sesame Street episodes? Not only is he a brilliant "fiddler," but he expresses such a joyous sense of life. It's wonderful to see him with children.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Maybe I should expand my musical horizons.

But, you see, that's so hard to do, where I live. All day long teenagers drive by, with Rachmaninoff or Tchaikovsky blaring from their loudspeakers. You turn on the tv, and instead of nice pounding and screeching like Beavis and Butthead liked, you hear nothing but strings.

I open the newspaper, and it says the conductor of the local symphony orchestra has been arrested (again) for pistol-whipping somebody. He's out on bail, to resume his quarrel with a local gang called the Insane Sibelius Posse. There's been a drug bust, and the police broke in on a bunch of crack addicts who were sitting around listening to Chopin. :D

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Is any kind of a sound acceptable for music as long as it is attached to a melody?

Minimalism is a so-called style of music where melodies, chords, or timbres are repeated over and over with little or no variation.  It's like painting 20 identical blue squares or faces on a canvas and calling it art.  Is it art if it uses paint and a canvas? Is "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star", repeated identically, 20 times consecutively, with no variation art?  I would say that the mind would probably blank out after about the 4th or 5th repetition, just as it does with atonality.

How is it "attached" to the melody? I can abstract away the melody from the instrument playing it, but cannot experience the melody without the particular sound. So, an instrument capable of playing a melody would be an acceptable sound. Do I like the particular sound of a certain instrument? That is my own personal preference.

Your examples in painting are incongruous and not expressive of what I was saying at all. Painting twenty identical blue squares is not art, but twenty identical faces may be. And it may be really bad art. The mind would blank out on the monotony and the atonality for two entirely different reasons. One is entirely to simplistic to engage one's mind for a significant length of time. Atonal music disrupts the mind by having no center, and no tonality. It is the opposite of the other in that there usually has no repetiton at all.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

ADS wrote: "It sounds metallic (hence the name "metal"), and (if you ask me) much more pleasant than an instrument like the violin."

The violin has such a wide range of timbres, it cannot be compared to a single timbre of a single instrument (i.e., distorted guitar). (Actually, there are so many distorted guitar possibilities too that the statement becomes nearly meaningless.

Aurally, a distorted guitar tone consists of the original tone, with a hiss of white noise accompanying it. Ignoring its attack and decay profile, it is very much like a slow-bowed violin note: "breathy".

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I'm sorry to say, I missed the Sesame Street episodes. His violin playing is passionately lyrical and technically impeccable.

Did you ever see him on some of the old Sesame Street episodes? Not only is he a brilliant "fiddler," but he expresses such a joyous sense of life. It's wonderful to see him with children.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
ADS wrote: "It sounds metallic (hence the name "metal"), and (if you ask me) much more pleasant than an instrument like the violin."

The violin has such a wide range of timbres, it cannot be compared to a single timbre of a single instrument (i.e., distorted guitar). (Actually, there are so many distorted guitar possibilities too that the statement becomes nearly meaningless.

I was speaking in terms of the various timbres I've heard from both instruments.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
All day long teenagers drive by, with Rachmaninoff or Tchaikovsky blaring from their loudspeakers.  You turn on the tv, and instead of nice pounding and screeching like Beavis and Butthead liked, you hear nothing but strings.

I open the newspaper, and it says the conductor of the local symphony orchestra has been arrested (again) for pistol-whipping somebody.  He's out on bail, to resume his quarrel with a local gang called the Insane Sibelius Posse.  There's been a drug bust, and the police broke in on a bunch of crack addicts who were sitting around listening to Chopin.

I just caught the latest news. The concertmaster of the local orchestra smashed his violin on stage--again. The screaming audience was so excited, they trampled several people to death. And yet another opera diva has choked to death on her own vomit, due to a drug overdose.

All this is exactly as probable as an opposite scenario--RIGHT??

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Thanks for the recommendation. I'll try to find the Paganini: 24 Caprices.

His album Paganini: 24 Caprices is true virtuso.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
I just caught the latest news.  The concertmaster of the local orchestra smashed his violin on stage--again.  The screaming audience was so excited, they trampled several people to death.  And yet another opera diva has choked to death on her own vomit, due to a drug overdose.

All this is exactly as probable as an opposite scenario--RIGHT??

I sense that you may have an aversion to modern music? But, what does all this have to do with the music timbre of an instrument? Are you making a blanket statement for all musicians who play the electric guitar? Or just those that use distortion? I love the sound of distortion on my guitar, and I love to hear it in recordings if it is done to my taste.

Does the fact of distortion on guitar necessitate the actions you describe above? Is the use of distortion and thus hard rock and "metal" inherently bad, or does it merely reflect the culture? Does the fact that this form of guitar timbre and the music it spawned point to a disintegration of our culture? Or was the birth of this technology, and thus the form of music it gave rise to, a victim of the general cultural disintegration of which every other form of art has suffered? Meaning, that it had its birth at a bad time, while the violin and piano et all got to enjoy periods of higher sanity?

I had a friend awhile back that postulated the former. Rock and metal were of itself a sign of a disintegrating culture and standards. Distorted guitar tones were irrational.

This is pure rubbish. If movies were just now being invented, would we call the whole form inherently bad because the first thing to come out was Midnight Cowboy, and Rob Cohen productions? And the actors were getting busted for punching people and overdosing, and the actresses were starving themselves and running topless all over the place.

Even if we had been living in a relatively rational culture through the last century, Les Paul (or his equivalent) would still had come out with the electric guitar. Someone would have played it. Someone would have found a way to "tweak" the signal that produces distortion. Someone would have grabbed a mike (probably classically trained this time) and wailed. And the kids still would have loved it much to the chargrin of the parents I'm sure. What that would have sounded like instead of Black Sabbath, I do not know. What would they have looked like? Probably not like Alice Cooper.

I would love it the subject matter of this music was better (there are limitless topics, words, phrases, ideas etc) and more expressive in general. As it stands, it is a form of music that hasn't even tapped the surface of its future potential. I'm not going to live forever though, so I take the best that there is now.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

That last sentence not meaning that I settle because there is some really good stuff out there. I like to start my morning in the kitchen with a little Back in Black-better than 5 pounds of coffee. Although it would better if I were the captain on a raiding pirate ship, but my job isn't too far off that mark!

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I second this point from Thoyd Loki: "I sense that you may have an aversion to modern music? But, what does all this have to do with the music timbre of an instrument?"

To put it bluntly, proceeding from a particular timbre of a particular instrument, to the conclusion that an appreciation of such in some contexts is tantamount to "attacking the mind", by low-self-esteem stagnant minds who "want pain filled music", is dogmatic moralizing.

A distorted guitar tone, with its "fuzzy" sound envelope and propensity toward audible overtones, is very similar to some violin notes, and to most reed instruments. Are clarinets an "attack on the mind"?

Or consider this question, from an earlier post: "Doesn't this distortion cause a high degree of dissonance? So high, that it necessarily causes pain?"

First, distortion isn't even remotely correlated to dissonance (let alone "causing" it, whatever that could mean). (In fact, dissonance will be more apparent among "clean" tones than "distorted" ones.)

Second, dissonance per se does not "cause pain". Even if we consider "pain" in a metaphorical sense -- for example, in the sense that a red sportcoat and orange pants is "painful" to look at -- dissonance is still contextual, with a single musical interval sometimes being difficult to integrate aurally (i.e., dissonant), while other times resolving quite pleasantly.

The vocabulary of music is quite abstract. And still quite undeveloped, in my opinion. But this is no excuse to flout clarity and rush headlong into broad baseless assertions. Abstractness is not a cover for vague thinking.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Bill Bucko, I sense that there is a point to your sarcasm, but I can't figure out what it is. Could you elaborate?

Why do you call it sarcasm? Don't you think it's possible?

If you don't think it's possible ... why not?

Do you think there's no connection between what a person listens to, and what his soul is? Do you think Ayn Rand, for instance, could have been a devotee of heavy metal or rap, and still have had the same soul?

The purpose of my posts was to provoke thought.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites