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.

Listening

This is a bit of a watershed moment for me and I need to record it, so I can go back when I slip into my jokey aloof self, and remind myself that this is how it felt when I really finally understood.

It’s a cliché to say this now, but the election results were a complete and utter shock to me. Maybe that makes me blind. I was in disbelief as the numbers climbed on the TV, dismissive of Florida when it went red (“typical Florida”), betrayed by my home state of Ohio when it followed suit, and bowled over as more and more Midwestern states voted for a reality TV star rather than the most qualified politician to ever run for president. I kept watching til 2AM waiting for things to change, before my friends and I began the slow process of coming to terms with our new reality. I slept for about five hours before waking up and scouring the internet for strategies Hillary might use to still eke out a win—something about recounts or the Supreme Court or something?—but of course there was no such path. This is really happening.

AMS/SMT 2016: The One with the Sound Bleed

Mansplaining in Erlkönig, To Pimp a Butterfly, AMS After Dark, and more. Quick summaries of each of the papers I went to (warning: mostly early music and pop) and a Twitter roundup.

Now that I’m back from (lovely!!) Vancouver, I’ll reflect on my #amsmt16 experience this year.

Here are the papers I saw, with a quick summary of each and maybe a few personal notes.

Fado

Cuca Roseta blew me away. Her voice was extremely powerful, and her timing with the guitarists was highly precise, even while the tempo fluctuated quite a lot. I was also especially fascinated with the ornamentation style, which is extremely rapid and requires excellent vocal agility.

There’s been a lot going on in my life lately! One thing I’ll highlight is that I went to Lisbon in October, which was my first ever trip to Portugal. While I was there I went to one of the big fado places, Clube de Fado, and got my first ever taste of fado singing.

What helps me survive writing my dissertation

Transitioning from student to writer has been somewhat bizarre. I can’t rely on my old thought patterns anymore. I’ve made number of changes to my working style that improve my mentality and attitude toward writing, which I hope could be helpful for someone else out there.

For dozens of years in a row, I was a student that took classes every semester which were taught by a professor and culminated in a final project or exam. I didn’t really need long-term goals because they were largely articulated for me. I got pretty good at writing a 15-ish page paper every semester for every class.

Transitioning into the new full-time job of writing a long document (my dissertation) has been somewhat bizarre. I can’t rely on my old thought patterns anymore.  I’ve made number of changes to my working style that improve my mentality and attitude toward writing, which I hope could be helpful for someone else out there. (This seems to be a pretty common type of post for a PhD blogger!) I have six tips and recommendations to share.

’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.

Screen Shot 2016-07-18 at 9.20.17 AM

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.