A New Approach to the Analysis of Timbre

Megan Lavengood

Ph.D. dissertation, The Graduate Center, CUNY

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Keywords: timbre, 1980s, popular music, Yamaha DX7, synthesizers, instrumentation, texture, form, spectrograms.

Two distinct approaches to timbre analysis exist, each with complementary strengths and limitations. First, music theorists from the 1980s adopt a positivist mindset and look for ways to quantify timbral phenomena, often using spectrograms, while avoiding any cultural dimensions in their work. Second, writings of the past five years focus on the cultural aspects of timbre but make no use of spectrograms. This dissertation overcomes the deficiencies of these two approaches by synthesizing them: discussion is grounded in spectrogram analysis, but situated within a broad cultural context, through interactions with listener experience and ethnographic study of music periodicals and other published interviews. The theory is applicable to any genre of music, but 1980s popular music is used as a case study, with a particular focus on the Yamaha DX7 synthesizer, used in much of this music.

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Outline of dissertation

  • Introduction. Definition of “timbre,” review of existing work.
  • Chapter 1: Methodology. To deal with the abundant information in a spectrogram, a system of oppositional vocabulary is provided for the analysis of the spectrogram. Within each opposition, one term is marked and the other is unmarked. Markedness is a cultural consideration that begins to account for the non-acoustic aspects of timbral perception.
  • Chapter 2: The Yamaha DX7 in Synthesizer History. The influence of the Yamaha DX7 is evaluated. The features of the DX7 are related to other important synthesizers, such as the Minimoog, Fairlight CMI, and others.
  • Chapter 3: Norms of Timbre and Instrumentation in 1980s Popular Music. Several hit singles using Yamaha DX7 preset sounds are analyzed in terms of texture and instrumentation, establishing the existence of three distinct categories of textural function: core, melody, and novelty sounds. The timbres of the presets themselves are also analyzed according to the methodology given in Chapter 1. Through the analysis of texture, instrumentation, and timbre, timbral norms are established for each of the three textural functions. Songs analyzed: “What’s Love Got to Do with It?” by Tina Turner, “What Is Love?” by Howard Jones, “Running in the Family” by Level 42, and “When I Think of You” by Janet Jackson.
  • Chapter 4: Timbral Dialogues. Three analyses demonstrate how musical meaning can be created through the transgression of the norms articulated in Chapter 3. In “Do They Know It’s Christmas” by Band Aid, presets shift textural-functional roles across formal boundaries; this process enhances the narrative set forth in the lyrics. In other genres outside the domain of mainstream popular music of the 1980s—namely, hip hop and science fiction soundtracks—presets are used in non-normative ways to enhance the projection of identity in these tracks. I show this through “Girls” by the Beastie Boys and the soundtrack of a Doctor Who episode, “The Two Doctors.”
  • Chapter 5: “What Makes It Sound ’80s?”: The Yamaha DX7 Electric Piano Sound. The interactions between acoustic and cultural aspects of timbre are demonstrated, through the close analysis of one particular DX7 preset, E. PIANO 1, which was often compared to the Fender Rhodes electric piano. The timbres of both sounds are analyzed with the methodology from Chapter 1, then compared with statements from musicians given in interviews comparing the two sounds. These quotations often revolve around the notion of “warmth,” a timbral phenomenon that proves to be partially acoustic and partially cultural. Through this process, the role of perceptualization in the comparison of “warmth” and digital brightness is located. The 1980s can be retrospectively seen as a genre, created through a homogenization of timbre facilitated by the Yamaha DX7 preset sounds.