My SMT 2018 Activities

SMT is just around the corner! I hope to see many friends in San Antonio. I’m having a particularly busy SMT this season with four different activities.

A study in timbre narratives and instrumentation in 1980s pop

I’m giving a presentation drawn from my dissertation on using timbre to construct musical narratives. In this paper, I categorize sounds used in a given track into three groups, or instrumentational categories: a) core sounds, which articulate structural aspects of pitch and rhythm of the song, b) melody sounds, which are the voice and any instrument replacing the voice, or c) novelty sounds, used primarily for coloristic effects. This paper focuses on 1980s popular music, specifically, on the use of the factory presets of the Yamaha DX7, the most widely-used synthesizer of the 1980s; my categorization therefore was determined by analysis of many 1980s singles. The results of this process suggest that within mainstream 1980s pop, certain Yamaha DX7 presets were consistently paired with a specific instrumentational category. Furthermore, a correlation arises between the timbral characteristics of these presets and their instrumentational category.

xmas bells annotated.png
Spectrogram of TUB BELLS, a DX7 preset.

My paper focuses on “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” by Band Aid (1984) as its main analytical case study—something I wrote a post about here once a while ago. Essentially I argue that this song demonstrates a subversion of timbral norms, which in turn generates musical meaning, when the novelty sound TUBULAR BELLS becomes a melody sound. Though TUB BELLS is typically too noisy to function as a melody sound, this chorus’s communal mantra works especially well with a synthesis of two opposed textural functions.

The Dynamics of the Job Interview

My post reviewing my experience interviewing for a tenure-track position as a music theory professor is by far the most-trafficked post on my blog. While it might seem weird to take job-seeking advice from someone as new as I am to the “other side” of the PhD, I think there’s value in the fact that I just did this.

So I’m presenting from this perspective in a special session put together by the SMT’s Professional Development committee. I’m going to be focusing on the teaching demonstration, giving tips for how to succeed well. I’m going to focus on the following points:

  • reaching out to friends and colleagues for help
  • embracing the awkwardness
  • making music
  • varying activities
  • reflecting your teaching statement
  • using writing

Pop Music Interest Group meeting: small-group breakout sessions

I’m chair of the Pop Music Interest Group now! One of the most demanding duties that gives me is having to read a lot of articles and books, in order to determine who will be the winners of our two publication prizes. I read 13 new articles and (parts of) 2 new books as part of this. While it was a very demanding task, it felt great to read that much again, and to be exposed to the newest research in our corner of the field.

I’m also setting aside a large chunk of our time to break down into small groups by research interest. Tentatively, the groups I’ve chosen are lyrics, timbre, cognition, performance, tonality/modality, topic theory, corpus study, and rhythm/meter; but, these may change depending on how the groups end up looking at the meeting. I like this idea because I think it will be nice to spend unstructured time together (although I will be projecting discussion prompts so nothing gets too awkward). Many people have commented on PMIG’s occasional cliquishness; I think the small group activities will break up some of the cliques and get more different kinds of people talking with each other.

Webmasterly duties

Somehow, I’ve tripped backwards from a humble role as the operator of the SMT Twitter account into the position of Assistant Webmaster for the society. I haven’t done much yet to earn this title, but as time goes on my duties are going to increase until I fully take over as webmaster in 2020 or so. So, it looks like my time spent making Geocities and Angelfire websites, customizing my Xangas and Livejournals, and building this whole website were not all complete wastes of time!

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What Makes It Sound Like Christmas?

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!

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Lerdahl’s Timbral Hierarchies

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.

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Beat of a Different Drummer?

In my dissertation research I’m turning toward drum machines. It’s a natural extension of my ’80s sound inquiries: if the Yamaha DX7 was so important to the ’80s sound, drum machines like the LinnDrum and the Roland TR-808 were at least equally important.

Analyzing the timbre of drum machines using my existing apparatus has revealed how biased toward pitched phenomena theories of timbre really are. For example, so many theories of timbre are completely preoccupied with overtones/partials and their relative loudness. (For more info on spectrogram analysis, check out the first half of this blog post.)

harmonica
This spectrogram is of a harmonica synth playing a melody. Time is on the x-axis in seconds. Pitch is on the y-axis in Hertz (higher Hz = higher pitch). The bottom line of this spectrogram, at around 500 Hz, is the fundamental pitch. Colloquially we just call this “the pitch.” The parallel lines running above the fundamental are the partials of this sound. You don’t hear them as separate notes, but instead you hear a change in timbre.

But for many percussion instruments, drums and cymbals and such, you won’t see any partials like that at all. Even drums that are pitched don’t really have partials running in multiple parallel lines above it.

all sounds mono.png
These are samples from a Roland TR-808: bass drum, low tom, mid tom, high tom, snare, closed hi-hat, open hi-hat, clave, and handclaps. Notice how these are all just thick bars of sound, not at all like the parallel strands in the above example.

So it does us no good at all to talk about partials, how those partials compare to the ideal natural harmonic series, whether there’s vibrato, etc. Yet, that’s the majority of the focus of spectrogram analyses.

Over the next few weeks I’m going to start finessing how we can talk about timbre in non-pitched percussion instruments. For now, back to the grind…

’80s-inspired music

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?

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Reading about embodiment (Heidemann on 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.

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A theory of attacks?

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.

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