A New Approach to the Analysis of Timbre

Ph.D diss. by Megan Lavengood. City University of New York. This dissertation uses a new methodology for timbre analysis to explore 1980s popular music and the Yamaha DX7 synthesizer.

Most of my dissertation has now been updated and improved in later articles. I encourage interested parties to read these articles in lieu of my dissertation:

“Oops! …I Did It Again”: The Complement Chorus in Britney Spears, The Backstreet Boys, and *NSYNC

In Music Theory Online 26/3, 2020.


Choruses are the sections of pop songs that tend to worm their way into your ears. Take “Oops!… I Did It Again” by Britney Spears as an example: even if you don’t already know the song, after hearing the chorus once, you could sing along by the second repeat of the chorus. Like most standard-issue pop songs, the chorus of “Oops!” comes back for a third time after the bridge, but what is not at all standard is the surprise withheld until this climactic moment: the third chorus brandishes a new melodic line with a distinct rhythmic profile. The signature lyric, “Oops!”, is pushed back into a syncopated rhythm, imbuing the now-familiar melody with new vigor.

This special chorus section, which I call the complement chorus, was a distinctive feature of turn-of-the-millennium singles performed by the Backstreet Boys, NSYNC, and Britney Spears. The complement chorus lets the songwriter repeat the carefully-crafted chorus while simultaneously mixing up the musical material; in other words, the complement chorus technique makes the third chorus a high-energy climax rather than a tedious restatement. Complement choruses seem to have been a trick used exclusively by Max Martin and his associates during the years 1998–2000, making them a distinctly Y2K phenomenon.

The Cultural Significance of Timbre Analysis: 
A Case Study in 1980s Pop Music, Texture, and Narrative

In Music Theory Online 26/3, 2020.


This article is in three interrelated parts. In Part 1, I present a methodology for analyzing timbre that combines spectrogram analysis and cultural analysis. I define a number of acoustic timbral attributes to which one may attune when analyzing timbre, organized as oppositional pairs of marked and unmarked terms, in order to both aid in spectrogram analysis and account for some of this cultural and perceptual work.

In Part 2, building from Allan Moore’s definition of four functional layers in pop texture, I argue for the adoption of a fifth layer, which I term the novelty layer. I study its construction in hit 1980s singles via the Yamaha DX7 synthesizer. The novelty layer is imbued with several layers of semiotic significance: it functions oppositionally to the melodic layer, comprises instruments whose timbral characteristics are more resistant to blending with the rest of the ensemble, and often uses “world instruments” in 1980s popular music. This latter point is a reflection of the problematic treatment of world music by 1980s music culture. I use my approach to timbre analysis to define the timbral norms for the novelty layer as opposed to Moore’s other layers.

In Part 3, I create a dialogic narrative analysis of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” by Band Aid (1984) that demonstrates what it might mean to transgress these norms. This analysis, in acknowledging the problematic cultural associations of the song, illustrates the rich discourse that can be produced when timbre is made central to the analytical process.

“What makes it sound ’80s?”: The Yamaha DX7 Electric Piano Sound

In Journal of Popular Music Studies 31/1, 2019.


Popular music of the 1980s is remembered today as having a “sound” that is somehow unified and generalizable. The ’80s sound is tied to the electric piano preset of the Yamaha DX7 synthe-sizer. Not only was this preset (E. PIANO 1) astonishingly prevalent—heard in up to 61% of #1 hits on the pop, country, and R&B Billboard charts in 1986—but the timbre of E. PIANO 1 also en-capsulates two crucial aspects of a distinctly ’80s sound in microcosm: one, technological asso-ciations with digital FM synthesis and the Yamaha DX7 as a groundbreaking ’80s synthesizer; and two, cultural positioning in a greater lineage of popular music history. This article analyzes the timbre of E. PIANO 1 by combining ethnographic study of musician language with visual anal-ysis of spectrograms, a novel combination of techniques that links acoustic specificity with social context. The web of connections created by the use and re-use of DX7 presets like E. PIANO 1, among hundreds or maybe thousands of different tracks and across genres, is something that allows modern listeners to abstract a unified notion of the ‘’80s sound’ from a diverse and eclec-tic repertoire of songs produced in the 1980s.


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.

A three-minute summary of my dissertation (#3MT).


Outline of dissertation


 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.