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.

Timbre is a big topic that affects every kind of music, but I’m focusing on 80s music. This is a body of music that definitely has a “sound,” created partially through the timbres being used. It’s a very polarizing sound; people either say “80s music is so terrible” or “I love 80s music!” when I tell them about the repertoire I’m focusing on. One unique aspect of this music, which likely contributes to this love/hate reaction, is a heavy reliance on synthesizers throughout almost every track. One synthesizer in particular, the Yamaha DX7, was particularly pervasive, and so this synthesizer is the focus of much of my dissertation work. Crucially, the DX7 provides the bass line in many iconic 80s tracks, like “Danger Zone” and “Take On Me,” rather than an actual electric bass guitar. In my eyes, this sound, along with many other famous timbres that came from the DX7, is a major part of the “sound” of the 80s.

I’ve always loved 80s music—I think this is because I’m a keyboardist, and the 80s is the one decade where keyboards were more pervasive than guitars in popular music since the 1940s. And everyone knows that you have to really, really love the repertoire you study in your dissertation. But my choice of repertoire and instrument has more to do with issues of convenience. The DX7 is special because the sounds for which it’s famous are actually presets, sounds that were pre-loaded onto the machine when it shipped out to buyers. (The DX7 was notoriously difficult to program yourself, so the presets were to help make it more accessible.) This means that I can duplicate these sounds exactly in my own home with my own DX7 by simply pressing a button. If I wanted to study, for example, the Rickenbacker 12 string guitar that the Beatles used in “Hard Day’s Night” and other tracks, I’d not only have to acquire that same guitar, but also the same amplifier that the Beatles used, and then use the same settings on the various knobs, before I could adequately duplicate the timbre.

Now that we all know the DEAL with TIMBRE, in my next post, I’ll talk about how I actually go about analyzing timbre myself.