What Makes It Sound Like Christmas?

Every year, music theory enthusiasts begin to ask the same question: “what makes it sound like Christmas?”

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!

“What makes Mariah Carey’s song sound so incredibly Christmassy? Aside from the sleigh bells, of course.” This last line in the Vox video is done as a throwaway joke—”haha, gotta have sleigh bells in Christmas songs, obviously!” Well, yes! You do! That is actually what makes it sound Christmassy. I would argue the only thing contributing more to its Christmas sound is the lyrical content and all its allusions to Christmas imagery (stockings, Christmas trees, fireplace, snow). Why focus so much on harmony—which is not different in Christmas music than in comparable pop styles—when we could focus on what really distinguishes this music from other genres?

Do We Know It’s Christmas?


“Do They Know It’s Christmas?” is a charity single by the supergroup Band Aid that was released in December of 1984. It was meant to raise funds for the famine in Ethiopia. This song is also among the worst Christmas songs of all time, not only due to the musical content but for spreading some harmful reductionist representations of Ethiopia. But it’s a Christmas song nonetheless. So what makes it sound so Christmassy?

Harmony-wise, this track is completely unremarkable. The chords of the verse are F–G–C (IV–V–I in C major), in the prechorus, you have Dm–G–C–F (ii–V–I–IV), and in the chorus we’re back to F–G–C (IV–V–I).

I’d contend that, like a lot of Christmas songs (including Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You”), these harmonies don’t sound particularly Christmassy. Instead, Christmas themes are communicated through the lyrics—that is, by repeating the words “Christmas” and “Christmastime” over and over—and also through the heavy use of synthesized tubular bells. 

“Do They Know It’s Christmas?” features that grand old synthesizer, the Yamaha DX7. I reached out to Midge Ure, one of the song’s writers of Ultravox fame, on Twitter and he confirmed that the DX7 preset called TUB BELLS is the source of this infamous bells sound.

TUB BELLS analysis

Here is the TUB BELLS sound isolated, playing an octave C3–C4, the same sound that you hear at the very beginning of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”.

Today I don’t have time to get into all the details of this timbre, but if you’ve never heard what’s so special about bell timbres before, well, now you can. In general, bell timbres are special because the overtones that resonate when you strike a metal bar are totally different than the regular harmonic series that you get from a vibrating string or column of air. Bell timbres do not follow the harmonic series—they are inharmonic instruments.

Here’s another spectrogram image, this time for just a single note, C3. (For info on how to read a spectrogram, click here.)

tub bells 2.png

Since most of you probably don’t immediately know how to translate Hertz into pitch names, I’ve made a transcription in traditional notation of what these partials are.


If you’re familiar with the harmonic series, you can see that that series of notes is quite different. If you’re not familiar with the harmonic series, well, here it is:


The harmonic series has intervals that progressively narrow in a predictable fashion. Each frequency is a multiple of the lowest (fundamental) frequency. But in the harmonic series for TUB BELLS, well, it’s not quite so predictable. Not every partial is a multiple of the fundamental, and the intervals are not progressively narrowing.

But what does it mean?

The Yamaha DX7 was released in 1983, and so the technology was still shiny and new by December of 1984. The synthesizing capabilities of the DX7 were especially renowned for being able to faithfully replicate percussive sounds such as tubular bells, glockenspiel, and the like, much better than other contemporary synthesizers.

So the TUB BELLS sound in “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” is actually carrying a lot of semiotic weight! DX7’s TUB BELLS immediately inform the listener that 1) this is a Christmas song and 2) this is an ’80s Christmas song.

In so many cases, when we’re wondering “what makes it sound ____?” where ____ is Christmas, or metal, or Irish, or whatever, the answer lies not so much in the harmonies, but the timbres. Timbre is probably the most immediate aspect of our musical experience. Why shortchange it in our analyses?


’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.

Screen Shot 2016-07-18 at 9.20.17 AM

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? When today’s millennials—who were only infants or children in the ’80s—recreate an ’80s sound, how does it compare to an authentically ’80s sound? What elements of the ’70s or the ’90s get misremembered as an ’80s phenomenon?  All these questions are discussed in the episode. Here’s a bit of my conversation with Scott Interrante and Kurt Trowbridge:

Megan: I think that a lot of the people who use, you know, “’80s-ness” in this way are younger people, like a lot of young producers maybe want to make music that “sounds ’80s”. And so they’re kind of creating this memory of the ’80s that they’re then putting into this music. And maybe they’re not so super familiar with what makes something sound ’80s authentically.

Scott: Right. Well, I think it’s also not always coming from the artist. You know, like, I don’t know that M-83 set out and said “We’re gonna make music that sounds like ’80s synth-pop,” or if they made music and then it was labelled as such. At this point, you know, I just mentioned, M-83 who really broke out in 2007? 08? So now we’re almost ten years past that—at what point do we just realize, “well this is what music sounds like now”? But we sort of continually put that ’80s label onto it, maybe against the artists’ wishes, maybe not in every case, but I do wonder where that label comes from.

We also discuss ’80s-style covers like Tronicbox’s remix of Ariana Grande’s “Focus”: what is authentically ’80s about this, and what’s not authentically ’80s?


Learn more about how we relate to the ’80s today by listening to the episode on Pop Unmuted.

I’ve been on the Pop Unmuted podcast a few other times, too—check out this episode on Max Martin, one of the songwriters behind the Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC, and Britney Spears, or this episode dedicated to #FreeKesha, which I also wrote about a bit in another blog post.

header image credit: Igor Fuentes

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. McAdams also theorizes timbre but from a perceptual approach. From a study asking participants to rank the similarity between 153 pairs of timbres, McAdams devised a three-dimensional timbre space onto which the 18 timbres could all be mapped. One of these dimensions is attack time, on a scale from short (4) to long (−3). Listeners seem to have conceived of attack times as basically short or long, with little middle ground. This is visible in McAdams’s Figure 2 (below) by the grouping of the sounds into two clusters: there are basically timbres that are up high at around +2 (vibraphone, guitar, harpsichord) and timbres that are down low at around −2 (clarinet, trombone, English horn). 

Screen Shot 2016-06-20 at 3.13.50 PM
from McAdams 1999, 89.

This encourages me, but I admit that binaries are not always going to be appropriate. I have already begun to discard one binary in favor of a number, which measures the distance in octaves between the fundamental and the highest sounding partial. In Figure 2 above, spectral centroid and spectral flux do not neatly fall into two groups. McAdams’s research here confirms that binaries might not adequately capture spectral centroid or spectral flux (which colloquially maybe could be referred to as brightness and hollowness, respectively—I’ll save a more thorough investigation of these ideas for another time). On these axes, all timbres are scattered around the values from 3 to −3. So in these cases, the usefulness binaries may have to be reassessed. 

Even if binaries are good to assess slow attack vs. fast attack, I may still not be adequately capturing other ways that attacks contribute to timbre. McAdams 1999 is actually using FM-synthesized sounds, not acoustic sounds, in this study. I haven’t studied this exhaustively but a hypothesis I have is that FM synthesizers like the Yamaha DX7 do not have as complex or as nuanced attack sounds as acoustic instruments do—even though the DX7 has a highly sophisticated envelope generator. But perhaps McAdams’s use of FM synthesis lead to this binary being a useful generation. Acoustic instruments may have opened up more subtleties in attack sounds that would not be so easily captured. 

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. It’s clear that Keyboard is not really a place for women. This is something I can’t help but notice as I, a woman, pore over every single page of every issue, thirty years later. Gender is not currently a focus of my research into timbre and culture in 1980s synth-pop music, but maybe in the future I might wonder what exactly this is about.

Also in this April ’86 issue, I was struck by the number of letters to the editor complaining about the featuring of Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran in the February issue. Here are some choice quotes:

“I have one question about putting Nick Rhodes on the cover: Why? Are you trying to raise sales by appealing to pre-pubescent girls? You are alienating your true audience.” –James C. Gladue, Ithaca, NY

“Who are you and Nick Rhodes trying to kid? … ludicrous and pretentious. I wonder if this fellow … can in fact read a C major scale, let alone play one.” –Nick Peck, Mill Valley, CA

More in June ’86:

“Nick Rhodes’s playing technique leaves much to be desired. … I doubt he could play scales on the piano. … Grow up, Nick!” –Steve Webb, Decatur, GA

“How I miss the good old pre-DX7 days. I am so sick of reading about these Fairlight freaks and one-finger virtuosos. As a performer, Nick Rhodes is a joke. Why don’t you interview a real keyboard player, like Rick Wakeman?” –Steve Cross, Bronx, NY

Advancements to synthesizer technology in the ’80s, especially sequencers and arpeggiators, made it easier and easier for less technically proficient musicians to make music together. Nick Rhodes likely is one such musician. Nevertheless Duran Duran’s music was immensely popular, meaning that Nick Rhodes was probably one of the best-known synth players at the time! But Keyboard is marketed toward keyboard players, and many of its readers are surely very technically accomplished musicians.

I don’t blame people for writing in. The ’80s were a time of extremely rapid change in the world of synthesizers and technology more generally. Change makes people uncomfortable and displeased, and letters to the editor are one venue in which to voice that displeasure. I just think the comments are very telling. They call out Nick Rhodes for a lack of technical knowledge—scales are mentioned twice as an exemplar of this. “Truth” is also appealed to twice—the first quote says that Keyboard is alienating its true audience, and the last quote holds up Rick Wakeman, a prog-ish session musician, as a true keyboard player. (And don’t miss the DX7-blaming in the last quote either! That quote going right in the dissertation, for sure.) There’s a lot to unpack, in terms of assumptions of “true” quality, imbued into these comments, but I’ll leave that to the readers.

To make things even more interesting, here are two letters that Keyboard publishes in defense of Nick Rhodes:

“Thank you for your superb cover story on Nick Rhodes. He is a great influence on teenage keyboardists, including me. …” -Clay Janes, Ft. Smith, AK

“… Nick Rhodes isn’t some amateur keyboardist who appeals only to ‘pre-pubescent girls’ on the basis of looks. … I am a 16-year-old girl, but I’ve been playing the piano for 12 years and synthesizers for the past few as well, so I think I know what I’m talking about.” –Diana Perry, Danvers, MA

These are the only two letters that they publish defending Rhodes, and yes, both of them are self-identifying as teenagers! My gut reaction is to question whether these letters are even authentic—I was on the internet as a teen, participating in some semi-anonymous forums similar to these letters to the editor, and I was very reluctant to identify myself as a teenager if it wasn’t necessary. But even if the letters are real, Keyboard still shows its bias through their selection of these letters. What I mean is that it’s hard to imagine that the only people writing in to support the Nick Rhodes story were people explicitly mentioning that they are teenagers.

To take a cynical view, it could be that Keyboard was attempting to distance itself from its own publication of the Nick Rhodes interview and downplay Rhodes’s status. But on the other hand, maybe Keyboard actually agrees the first letter writer—perhaps they are indeed trying to appeal to a new demographic! Maybe these letters from people self-identifying as teens are meant to evoke some compassion for the teenage viewpoint. It’s impossible to say but I’d prefer to think that my latter interpretation is true. After all, they’re the ones who published the cover story in the first place. But maybe my wishful thinking is borne of something more personal—I was even younger than a teenager in 1986 (i.e., definitely “pre-pubescent”!), and I’m now studying the dreadful (according to Steve Cross of the Bronx) Yamaha DX7, and studying Duran Duran (among others), so maybe I just identify with these teenagers that are getting implicitly made fun of by the presumably grown men writing the other letters.

header image credit: Phil Guest

Analyzing timbre

So I’ve explained my rationale for analyzing timbre, and for specifically focusing on the Yamaha DX7, in another post; now it’s time to show this in action.

I base my analysis on the visual aid of the spectrogram. A spectrogram visually represents all the sounding frequencies on a two-dimensional graph, with pitch indicated in hertz on the y-axis and time represented on the x-axis, and loudness represented through color. Here is a spectrogram, paired with a transcription of the line you see in the spectrogram:

flute transcriptionflute

The header image for this website is a spectrogram, too (I used a prettier but maybe less useful color scheme for the header image). All those parallel lines are actually just part of one note. The loudest line—the thickest line with the white color—is the fundamentali.e., the pitch that we perceive as “the notes” that are being played. These are the notes that get transcribed above. All those other lines above and below it are partials, other frequencies that are actually sounding at the same time. These could be separated out as separate notes that are occurring at the same time, but instead they’re subsumed within the fundamental; we experience these other pitches not as pitched lines, but instead as part of the timbre of the fundamental.

Step 1: Find songs to analyze. After playing with my own DX7 for many hours, I’ve learned to identify the Yamaha DX7 presets by ear. I often start looking for songs by perusing http://www.officialcharts.com, the archive for the UK’s Top 40 charts (I find their website more usable than Billboard’s, plus synthpop was more popular in the UK than in the US).

Step 2: Isolate the DX7 sounds. Once I’ve found a track with a few DX7 sounds in it, I hook my DX7 up to my computer and rerecord the synthesizer lines myself, to isolate them from the rest of the track.

This step is essential to get any clarity in the spectrograms. Here is what a spectrogram looks like for the entire composite track of “What’s Love Got to Do with It”:



Some things come out clearly, such as Tina Turner’s voice, the sustained bass line, and the hi-hat. But generally, it’s difficult to separate out what instrument is creating what visual aspect of the spectrogram. The flute line, a DX7 preset that is very salient in the middle of this clip, is almost impossible to see. But if I rerecord the clip myself, we get a much clearer image of the flute sound:


We can do a lot more with this! All the other clutter is out of the way, and the sound of the flute is clearly visually represented.

Step 3: Analyze the spectrogram. This is the most difficult part of my dissertation work, and it’s still very much under construction. I’m basing my approach on work by Robert Cogan. Cogan borrows an old approach from linguistics called “oppositional analysis.” Building from Cogan’s 13 oppositions, I have my own list of 20 or so oppositions that isolate one facet of the timbre of the sound and give it a negative or positive designation (these aren’t meant as aesthetic judgements; think of “negative/positive” like you do with a battery, not like with an Amazon review). I usually summarize these results in a table of plusses and minuses, and sometimes plus-minuses (±) or neutrals (∅). In the future I’ll write a post that focuses on my issues with Cogan’s oppositions, and brainstorm for future possibilities and alternatives. For now, let’s dive into an example analysis.

Tina Turner’s most well-known single, “What’s Love Got to Do with It”, sounds like a demo tape for the DX7. It uses four different distinctive DX7 presets: CALLIOPE, FLUTE 1, E. PIANO 1, and HARMONICA. It could practically be a demo tape for the DX7. The track peaked in the US at #1 in September 1984 and at #3 in the UK in June 1984. I like using this track as an example because it uses so much DX7 and it was so immensely popular, so it’s a good example of how the DX7 saturated popular music of this time.

The E. PIANO 1 preset is used the most in this track, constantly supporting Turner’s vocals. It’s mixed softly and doesn’t draw attention to itself. E. PIANO 1 is what I call a core timbre—a sound that’s used as the foundation of the track, like an electric guitar or drum set would be in a typical rock song. This is as opposed to a novelty timbre, which is used more sparingly for a coloristic effect. Core vs. novelty is not a distinction based on oppositional qualities or anything to do with the timbre itself. So it’s more of an orchestrational concern (how timbres are used) than a timbral one (what are the details that comprise this sound).

The CALLIOPE (heard in the intro and in verse 2), FLUTE 1 (heard in the prechoruses, and featured earlier in this post), and HARMONICA sounds (featured in the instrumental and in subsequent choruses) are all novelty timbres. CALLIOPE and FLUTE 1 both play some of the song’s hooks. They are all mixed very loudly in the track, and are only heard when they are replacing Turner’s vocals. The HARMONICA sound is used for a lengthy solo section, and afterward improvises some descant lines while Turner is singing.  Here are the spectrogram images for all four of these sounds (click to enlarge):

One interesting opposition for this set of sounds is narrow/wide, which captures a property of timbre often colloquially referred to as “brightness.” It refers to the distance between the fundamental and the highest sounding partial. CALLIOPE and FLUTE 1 are both narrow (dark) sounds, and they’re used in similar ways. They’re both novelty timbres that play short hooks that are only sounded while Turner is not singing. Dark sounds tend not to carry so well, and they also play in approximately the same range as Turner’s singing. This means that hearing both the FLUTE 1/CALLIOPE simultaneously with Turner would muddy the FLUTE 1/CALLIOPE. HARMONICA is a wide (bright) sound. This makes the HARMONICA  a good candidate for the extended solo that replaces Turner’s vocals for the instrumental. It also allows the sound to better compete with Turner’s voice when it improvises in the last choruses of the song.

E. PIANO 1 is a core sound, and it  is also wide sound, like the novelty timbre HARMONICA. E. PIANO 1 does not sound as aggressively loud as the HARMONICA, however. This is due of course to the volume of the two sounds, but also due to another timbral property: non-spaced/spaced. Most sounds have partials that are regularly occurring at certain frequencies. In hertz, the relationship  between the fundamental and partial 1, then partial 2, then partial 3, etc. is 1:2, 1:3, 1:4, etc. A sound that follows this general rule would be a non-spaced sound: all the expected partials are present. But not all sounds do this—some sounds skip some of these partials. E. PIANO 1 is one such sound. E. PIANO 1 has the first 5 partials above its fundamental as expected, but after this there is a big gap. The next sounding partials would be partials 11 and 12 if it followed the ratio pattern explained above. Aurally, a spaced sound is darker than a non-spaced sound, but can still seem somewhat bright if the sound is also wide, as E. PIANO 1 is.

 There are some problems that are inherent with spectrogram analysis; basically, the issue is what is most visually apparent in the spectrogram is not necessarily what is most aurally apparent. But I think in order for a theory of timbre to catch on, for other music theorists to want to do it, a visual medium is basically required. Visual aids are really useful for the kinds of analysis that music theorists like to do: we like to ponder music deeply and slowly, at our own pace. We like to be able to point to things that we can publish in a paper. This isn’t a bad thing, but it’s a limitation to be aware of.

This analysis above is, as of now, fairly basic. It was only meant to explain how my theory is supposed to work; it doesn’t provide any great insight into “What’s Love Got to Do with It” as a track. But there are many questions that I’ll investigate in my dissertation that an analysis like this might answer.

As I stated, the novelty sounds vs. core sounds designation doesn’t inherently have anything to do with timbral qualities. Nevertheless, there are often commonalities. In songs I’ve analyzed, core sounds are almost always 1) steady (not wavering) in pitch; 2) their partials conform to the harmonic series; 3) they don’t have a synthetic undertone; 4) they are sustained sounds (not clipped). Novelty sounds cannot be generalized, but in a way this is also distinctive: while core sounds are generalizable, novelty sounds are not. Are there songs where the core sounds have the opposite qualities from those I listed above? What happens if this relationship is somehow transgressed? It’s my suspicion that breaking this “rule” will sonically represent some kind of Other Thing. I know that the DX7 was used in sci-fi TV soundtracks of the 1980s, such as Dr. Who and The Twilight Zone. I want to look at which sounds are used as core sounds or novelty sounds in those soundtracks, compared to the way sounds are used in pop music.

Another question, one that relates more to my last post, is how does the timbral profile of the DX7 compare to other (analogue) synthesizers being used in the 1980s, or in other decades? How do these oppositions define that 80s “sound” that is so distinctive and polarizing? I’ve been looking at issues of Keyboard Magazine and New Musical Express from the mid-1980s. Discussions of the DX7 abound, and one theme is recurring: digital FM synthesis (the technology used in the DX7) sounds “cold” compared to the analog synthesis used in other synthesizers. What features of the DX7 (and by extension, FM synthesis) are contributing to this consensus? 

I can also expand the instruments I’m investigating. Another major component of the 80s “sound” was the prevalence of drum machines like the Linn Drum and the legendary Roland TR-808. Like the DX7, these drum machines had pre-programmed sounds that users relied on, and which I could easily reproduce. How do the “fake” drums and bass sounds of these machines compare to “real” sounds produced on acoustic instruments and non-synthesizer electric instruments? This would also work toward a precise definition of an 80s sound. For now, I’m leaving all these questions unanswered. In the future, as I make cool conclusions based on this method of analysis, I hope to share tidbits on this blog.

WHAT is the DEAL with TIMBRE?

After reading roughly 10,000 articles and books about the analysis of timbre, I can say with confidence this is how all of them start out. So here’s my own explanation of timbre’s DEAL. Timbre is more colloquially known as “tone color.” Imagine two different instruments, e.g., a violin and a trumpet, playing the same exact note at the same exact pitch, the same exact volume, and the same exact duration. You can still tell them apart, because the instruments have different timbres. You don’t need to have special training to tell that they are different; timbre is something that we intuitively understand.

In terms of how timbre relates to music, or specifically to popular music, it’s what gives each band their “sound.” It’s often said by music theorists that timbre is one of the most important aspects of popular music (e.g., Tagg 1982), while in classical music it’s maybe not so important. Even though this is generally agreed upon, music theorists still focus on things they focused on when dealing with classical music: pitch, rhythm, harmony, form.

In other words: even though timbre is highly intuitive, and so central to our experience of music, music theorists still don’t really talk about it! It’s my assertion that this is just because there is not a clear methodology that’s been established for the analysis of pitch, at least not one which is as accessible as theories of pitch/rhythm/form. I want to try and fill this gap with my own work.

Timbre is a big topic that affects every kind of music, but I’m focusing on 80s music. This is a body of music that definitely has a “sound,” created partially through the timbres being used. It’s a very polarizing sound; people either say “80s music is so terrible” or “I love 80s music!” when I tell them about the repertoire I’m focusing on. One unique aspect of this music, which likely contributes to this love/hate reaction, is a heavy reliance on synthesizers throughout almost every track. One synthesizer in particular, the Yamaha DX7, was particularly pervasive, and so this synthesizer is the focus of much of my dissertation work. Crucially, the DX7 provides the bass line in many iconic 80s tracks, like “Danger Zone” and “Take On Me,” rather than an actual electric bass guitar. In my eyes, this sound, along with many other famous timbres that came from the DX7, is a major part of the “sound” of the 80s.

I’ve always loved 80s music—I think this is because I’m a keyboardist, and the 80s is the one decade where keyboards were more pervasive than guitars in popular music since the 1940s. And everyone knows that you have to really, really love the repertoire you study in your dissertation. But my choice of repertoire and instrument has more to do with issues of convenience. The DX7 is special because the sounds for which it’s famous are actually presets, sounds that were pre-loaded onto the machine when it shipped out to buyers. (The DX7 was notoriously difficult to program yourself, so the presets were to help make it more accessible.) This means that I can duplicate these sounds exactly in my own home with my own DX7 by simply pressing a button. If I wanted to study, for example, the Rickenbacker 12 string guitar that the Beatles used in “Hard Day’s Night” and other tracks, I’d not only have to acquire that same guitar, but also the same amplifier that the Beatles used, and then use the same settings on the various knobs, before I could adequately duplicate the timbre.

Now that we all know the DEAL with TIMBRE, in my next post, I’ll talk about how I actually go about analyzing timbre myself.