Timbre vs Melody, part ii: Timbral Listening

Estimated read time (minus contemplative pauses): 4 min.

I have more thoughts on this that I haven’t sorted out (and all the responses – many interesting ones – I got on the original post were at Facebook/MySpace), but in the meanwhile, here’s a fascinating Wikipedia entry on “Timbral Listening”:


Timbral Listening

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Timbral Listening is the process of actively and correctly listening to the timbre of music, not the musical pitch of harmony

Timbral Listening is used as an alternative to the standard western way of listening to, and interpreting music. Instead of perceiving pitch and harmony, the ear focuses on texture and colour of music and sound. In Timbral Listening ‘pitch is subordinate to timbre’. Instead, the specific quality of a musical tone is determined by considering ‘the presence, distribution and relative amplitude of overtones.'[1] In Timbral Listening the fundamental frequency of a tone is no longer its defining feature and is of equal importance to its overtones. When using this listening technique/ method of interpretation there is ‘a relation between timbre and spectral content which is analogous to that between pitch and frequency in that one is the prevalent cultural construct of the other'[2] Timbral Listening is currently most prevalent in non-western cultures. It is ‘an entirely different approach to the perception of sound than what you have in cultures where the focus is on melody.'[3] In these cultures the perception of pitch as the primary building block of music is replaced by the perception of timbre.

It has been suggested that “timbral listening is an ideal sonic mirror of the natural world”.[4] It is often (but not always) used in association with musics that are based in mimicry of sounds in the natural environment. Valentina Suzukei suggests that ‘it was the nomadic way of life and it’s focus on the timbral qualities of natural sounds that created this kind of musicality’.[5]Through Timbral Listening the listener is given an impression of the reproduced timbre of the sound of an object or place such as a stream, mountain, forest or valley. Nature is also a theme that commonly appears in modern timbral electroacoustic music. This is especially prevalent in Canada where composers such as Hildegard Westerkamp apply the thinking of R. Murray Schafer’s World Soundscape Project to their compositions.[6]

Descriptive Language and Notation
As timbre has ‘no domain-specific adjectives’ it ‘must be described in metaphor or by analogy to other senses’, [7]Phenomenological language is often used to describe what is heard by the process of Timbral Listening. There is currently scholarly debate about the use of this language as it fails to acknowledge the interpretive function of the listener and ‘the weight of extra musical association carried by its metaphoric terminology’. The computer may also be used as a tool for analysis of the timbral qualities of music and can provide graphical descriptions of the music in the form of a Spectrogram using FFT analysis. This method also has limitations.[8] There is not as yet an established universal method of notating timbre-based music, and a variety of methods exist in different cultures.

Traditional music in Tuva and other Turkic cultures of Inner Asia

The composition of timbre-centered music in the nomadic communities of Tuva involves mimicry of sounds heard in the environment.Timbral listening is a fundamental component of listening to, understanding and being able to correctly perform this music using vocal techniques such as throat singing “khoomei” and harmonic producing instruments such as the Jew’s harp, bzaanchy, shoor, qyl qiyak, qyl-gobyz,ku-rai and igil.

Barundi Whispered Inanga or Inanga Chucotée in Africa

This music employs a fundamental drone and overtone harmonics. It consists of “a whispered text, accompanied by the inanga, a trough zither of eight strings. To listen correctly (using Timbral Listening), one must consider “the effect of the combined timbres of the noisy whisper and the inanga” as a whole sound.[9]

Some forms of contemporary electronic music

More recently, computers and synthesizers are being used by contemporary composers to produce timbral-centered music. Contemporary composers state Timbral Listening as the correct technique to adopt in listening to and analysing their timbre (as opposed to pitch) based compositions. ‘Pure timbres’ are explored using methods such as granular synthesis in works such as ‘Dragon of the Nebula’ by Mara Helmuth.[10]

Shakuhachi music in Japan

The music produced by the Shakuhachi end blown flute such as honkyoku, contains timbral variations that are of equal importance to pitch variations. These timbral variations are indicated in Shakuhachi musical notation.[11]

The technique of timbral listening has wide applications:

It is used by those listening to Timbre-centered music as either a conscious, intentional, or natural, intuitive process.
It is used by ethnomusicologists wishing to study the Timbre-centered music of different cultures.
It is used by musicians participating in the composition of Timbre-centered music be it with the voice, acoustic instruments, electronic instruments, samples or recorded sounds in music concrete. Also it is used by musicians in the timbre composition of specific sound objects within Pitch-centered music that are often, but not exclusively percussion based.
It is used by sound engineers to evaluate timbre-difference[12].
It is used in soundscape studies.
It is used by students and scholars of music in analysis and aural skills acquisition.

Some Key Composers of Timbre-centered Music
Barry Truax
GyOrgy Ligeti
Luciano Berio
Glenn Branca
Brian Ferneyhough
John Chowning
Phill Niblock
James Dashow
Giacinto Scelsi
Panayiotis Kokoras
Yves Daoust
Hildegard Westerkamp
John Oswald
Emanuel Dimas de Melo Pimenta
Charles Dodge
Paul Lanksy
Iannis Xenakis
Denis Smalley

Go to the Wikipedia page more references and further reading: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timbral_Listening

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