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.)

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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.

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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…

What helps me survive writing my dissertation

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.

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’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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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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Keyboard Magazine in 1986

It’s funny what we identify with, and how we situate ourselves, when we research an era of the past. As part of my research for my dissertation, I spend a ton of time in the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, looking at old magazines and seeing what performers, fans, and critics had to say about the Yamaha DX7. Right now I’ve focused on Keyboard magazine, targeted of course at keyboardists. In the process I also get a feel for what the culture surrounding keyboards in the 1980s was like.

In the April 1986 issue, many names are given on pages 6–7. The editors are Dominic, Tim, Bob, Ted, and David. Regular contributors are Richie, David, Bill, Jim, Tom, Steve, another Steve, Larry, Terry, another Bill, Allan, a third Steve, Bob, Don, Bobby, Dave, and Ruth (!). Writing letters are James, Nick, Clay, Gary, Ken, Jim, Woody, Jack, Glen, and Scotty. They’re writing about Nick, Alain, Jeffrey, Steve, David, and Joseph. Next month promises articles on Ivo, Wally, David, and Ralph. So then, we have forty-one men mentioned for every one woman on these two pages at the beginning of the April 1986 issue. 

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