What Makes It Sound Like Christmas?

In so many cases, when we’re wondering “what makes it sound ____?” where ____ is Christmas, or metal, or Irish, or whatever, the answer lies not so much in the harmonies, but the timbres. Timbre is probably the most immediate aspect of our musical experience. Why shortchange it in our analyses?

Every year, music theory enthusiasts begin to ask the same question: “what makes it sound like Christmas?”

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As you can see, this discussion recurs every year in /r/musictheory.

Vox.com has incurred the wrath of Twitter’s musicologists after posting a video focusing on Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” that suggested that iiø7 chords are what make it sound Christmassy. The video begins by stating the research question, “What makes Mariah Carey’s song sound so incredibly Christmassy? Aside from the sleigh bells, of course.” They then proceed to discuss the harmonic content of the song and how the harmonies signify Christmassy-ness.

Vox’s declaration that iiø7 chords sound Christmassy irritated musicologists for many reasons, perhaps best summarized thusly:

In the Vox video and in all those reddit posts, and indeed in much of beginner music theory, there is an obsession with finding explanations in the harmonies, specifically, of a song. This is a reflection of the overall bias in music theory: we focus on teaching harmony most of the time. Curiosity about how harmony elicits emotions is natural in this context. It only becomes problematic when this discussion really leads to the exclusion of other music-analytical domains that are more relevant to the track’s signification—namely, timbre!

Lerdahl’s Timbral Hierarchies

A very belated review of an article from 1987. Are timbre hierarchies possible?

The real reason, I would argue, why timbre has been regarded as a secondary musical dimension is that, unlike pitch and rhythm, it has lacked any substantial hierarchical organization.

–Fred Lerdahl, 1987

Yesterday I read “Timbral Hierarchies” by Fred Lerdahl, originally published in 1987 in Contemporary Music Review Vol. 2. This article is post-GTTM (A Generative Theory of Tonal Music) and represents an attempt to explain how timbre prolongations, or at the very least timbral hierarchies, might be possible, in much the same vein as L&J-type metrical or tonal hierarchies.

This article is another curious entry in the outpouring of timbre music theory research that occurred in the mid-1980s (see also Cogan 1984, Slawson 1985). Since I wasn’t researching in the 1980s, I’ve wondered myself what the music theory community was like at this time, and what in the culture propelled this sudden interest in timbre. I presumed that this was due to a wider access to 1) spectrograms, a useful visualization tool for timbre, and 2) digital synthesizers, which allow for the level of precise control necessary in many perception studies. Lerdahl identifies out another possible impetus for a sudden rush to theorize timbre: “The issue has sharpened with the recent rise of computer music. There is now such an infinity of timbral possibilities that the need for some kind of selection and organization has become acute” (136).

I’ve found it funny in the past that I study 1980s popular music, and that so many of the existing articles and books on timbre research also date from the 1980s. But this quote in particular helped me realize that the unifying factor in all of this is rapid technological advancement.

’80s-inspired music

How do we make something sound ’80s? When today’s millennials—who were only infants or children in the ’80s—recreate an ’80s sound, how does it compare to an authentically ’80s sound? What elements of the ’70s or the ’90s get misremembered as an ’80s phenomenon? All these questions are discussed in the the latest Pop Unmuted episode.

Last Wednesday I was a featured contributor to the podcast Pop Unmuted on an episode about ’80s music—listen here.

We are currently living in a kind of ’80s revival. Google “How do I make my song sound 80s?” and you can see hundreds of posts on online forums from amateur producers looking for an ’80s sound.

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The funny thing about this is that of course the ’80s was an entire decade of music, and there were tons of different genres and styles that were going on at this time. Obviously it would be difficult to name even a single characteristic that was represented in every ’80s style. And yet there’s something that persists in the collective memory of people today that can be called an ’80s sound.

How do we make something sound ’80s?

Reading about embodiment (Heidemann on timbre)

If you’ve never studied voice seriously, it’s very difficult to describe how to do impressions of various singers. Kate Heidemann’s recent article solves this problem (and others), and is a completely wonderful way to approach the discussion of vocal timbre.

Since I first saw it, I’ve been fascinated by this video of an impressionist singing in the style of many different singers. I love karaoke, and I love doing impressions of quirkier singers myself (Celine Dion, Idina Menzel, and Britney being a few of my favorites)—I’m nowhere near as good as Christina Bianco, but it’s good to have goals.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C3DlDPeurRw

Actually, watching Christina Bianco convinced me that it must be possible for anyone to sing beautifully. It must all just be muscles and vowel placement and so on, if this one woman can make all these different kinds of voices!

Never having studied the voice seriously, it’s hard for me to describe how I would make these different voices. But it’s probably the first thing you’d try to do in describing this video to someone else. I’m reading Kate Heidemann’s article, “A System for Describing Vocal Timbre in Popular Song,” recently published in Music Theory Online 22/1, which I find a completely wonderful way to discuss vocal timbre. This article pinpoints the kinds of distinctions I’m tuning into when I watch that Youtube video above.

A theory of attacks?

The critique of binaries as being over-generalizing is leveled at me a lot. But McAdams 1999 shows that perhaps this isn’t actually a damaging oversimplification.

Studies have shown that the attack (onset) of a sound plays an important role in a listener’s ability to accurately determine the sound’s source. In Saldanha and Corso 1964, listeners were able to identify the source of a tone with 50% greater accuracy if the attack of the sound was included in the sample, as opposed to a sample that cuts out the attack and plays only the sustain of the sound.

Therefore the attack of a sound must greatly influence our perception of timbre. In order to summarize the most important aspects of a timbre, my methodology must have an adequate way of accounting for the attack of the sound. How to do this? At the moment, my methodology is based on a system of oppositions. My first thought, of course, was an opposition between sounds with a fast attack and a slow attack. But isn’t this oversimplifying? There are probably degrees of variance between “fast” and “slow.” (Now you have a little insight into what I think about when I walk between my apartment and the cafe.)

The critique of binaries as being over-generalizing is leveled at me a lot. But McAdams 1999 shows that perhaps this isn’t actually a damaging oversimplification.

WHAT is the DEAL with TIMBRE?

After reading roughly 10,000 articles and books about the analysis of timbre, I can say with confidence this is how all of them start out. So here’s my own explanation of timbre’s DEAL. Timbre is more colloquially known as “tone color.” Imagine two different instruments, e.g., a violin and a trumpet, playing the same exact note at the same exact pitch, the same exact volume, and the same exact duration. You can still tell them apart, because the instruments have different timbres. You don’t need to have special training to tell that they are different; timbre is something that we intuitively understand.

In terms of how timbre relates to music, or specifically to popular music, it’s what gives each band their “sound.” It’s often said by music theorists that timbre is one of the most important aspects of popular music (e.g., Tagg 1982), while in classical music it’s maybe not so important. Even though this is generally agreed upon, music theorists still focus on things they focused on when dealing with classical music: pitch, rhythm, harmony, form.

In other words: even though timbre is highly intuitive, and so central to our experience of music, music theorists still don’t really talk about it! It’s my assertion that this is just because there is not a clear methodology that’s been established for the analysis of pitch, at least not one which is as accessible as theories of pitch/rhythm/form. I want to try and fill this gap with my own work.