A New Approach to the Analysis of Timbre

Where’s the download link?

Most of my dissertation has now been updated and improved in later articles, so I’m discouraging citation of my dissertation. Below I list my dissertation chapters and their corresponding article versions.

Chapters 1, 3, and 4

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.

Chapter 5

“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.

Chapter 2

Chapter 2 is available as a blog post.