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!

’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?

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.

Keyboard Magazine in 1986

It’s funny what we identify with and how we situate ourselves when we research an era of the past.

It’s funny what we identify with, and how we situate ourselves, when we research an era of the past. As part of my research for my dissertation, I spend a ton of time in the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, looking at old magazines and seeing what performers, fans, and critics had to say about the Yamaha DX7. Right now I’ve focused on Keyboard magazine, targeted of course at keyboardists. In the process I also get a feel for what the culture surrounding keyboards in the 1980s was like.

In the April 1986 issue, many names are given on pages 6–7. The editors are Dominic, Tim, Bob, Ted, and David. Regular contributors are Richie, David, Bill, Jim, Tom, Steve, another Steve, Larry, Terry, another Bill, Allan, a third Steve, Bob, Don, Bobby, Dave, and Ruth (!). Writing letters are James, Nick, Clay, Gary, Ken, Jim, Woody, Jack, Glen, and Scotty. They’re writing about Nick, Alain, Jeffrey, Steve, David, and Joseph. Next month promises articles on Ivo, Wally, David, and Ralph. So then, we have forty-one men mentioned for every one woman on these two pages at the beginning of the April 1986 issue. 

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.