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Exploring the World of Music

Timbre: The Color of Music

The tone color of music — or "timbre," as we call it in the Western tradition — is influenced by both technical and aesthetic factors. This program examines the creation and effects of timbre in jazz and Indian, West African, Irish, Bosnian, Indonesian gamelan, and Japanese music.

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Exploring The World Of Music Program# 7 “Timbre: The Color Of Music” Transcript



What is it that distinguishes the sound of one instrument or voice from another? What accounts for the infinite variety of sounds that can be produced? The quality of sound of instruments and voices are influenced by a number of factors that taken together produce what is called tone color or timbre.



Timbre is tone quality, you know when you listen to a sound, when you listen to a musical  note, you hear several things.   You hear the basic note but you also hear some overtones. You hear some other sounds that are generated. The particular combination  of  overtones  that you hear gives each musical instrument  it’s own sound.  You could  play a note say a G on a guitar and you could play that same note on a flute. The fundamental frequency of the note, the G, is the same but the timbre is not. And what makes the timbre is the is the mix of the overtones that you hear along with the fundamental note.



Timbre for me is the very essence of a particular sound and the way that it can be developed or changed in it’s smallest part so that it becomes something else. It can be a very pure sound like for instance (sings “o”) which  is in a timbre is very pure and if  we start applying different  things  to it, for instance, we can change the timbre of the sound by just changing the way that we create the sound (sings “o” “oh” “ah”). And in fact what I was just doing actually just opening up the vowel sound to explore the harmonic make up of that sound.



We take instruments to be things that produce tones, but each one of those tones in an instrument  is actually a huge complex of smaller tones  which we usually do not hear. And many musical instruments  take advantage of the overtone series in order to produce musically useful tones.  The overtones series is really quite simple. Behind every acoustically generated tone there is a series of other tones which are happening simultaneously.



Musical timbres are made by combinations of overtones and you can do with a synthesizer what’s called additive synthesis. You can build many overtones together piling them one on top of another different two times, four times, eight times the frequency. Then you make sounds in that way . And you begin to see that there are actually many more frequencies besides the fundamental frequency. When we change the overtone structure we change the sound or the timbre of  what we’re listening  to.  Every instrument has it’s own timbre, it’s own  color, and it’s  based  on it’s overtone structure.



The most crucial way that timbres are distinguished in instruments is by their general type. Most musical traditions have some kind of arrangement for classifying their musical  instruments.  In European  traditions  there have been certain time honored divisions between musical instruments.

The most significant were set up by Erick Von Hombostel and this system generally divides instruments into membranophones: those are the skin which are rubbed or struck with the mallet or the hand. Aerophones which set a column of air in vibration  by splitting  an air column  over  a sharp edge or by the movement of a reed. There’s also chordophones which have stretched strings. Those of course can be set into motion by bows or by plectra or picks.  Chordophones  have all sorts of different  timbres depending on what you bring to the instrument. Another category is idiophones. Those are those instruments that sound like themselves like a bell. It’s entire structural material  is it’s acoustic  material.  We don’t  hear the steel in a piano so much as we hear the string  and  the felt  hammer itself. Idiophones sound like themselves and there’s some other categories too. Of course the new category is electrophones.



Any wave form that you can make in the air you can make in a wire an analogous wave form and so you can make music, you can make sounds electronically. An early example of the electrophone  was the theramin where the player moves his hand further and closer to an antenna and changes the pitch of the sound that way. And a second antenna over here changes the amplitude of the sound that way. As the century developed the electric guitar came into very general use. Taking the sound of  the guitar and picking up the sound on little pick ups which are like tiny microphones behind the strings and putting those sounds into an amplifier and back  out of a speaker. And then of course after that you begin to come to electronic music synthesizers and on into the future, who knows what will be next.



Timbre is connected with musical instruments mostly by structure of the instrument and the materials that the instrument is made from. It’s significant that musical instruments use precious natural materials from all over the world and many times these were living materials like the sinews or guts from different animals. Wood is my main medium, I’ve been working wood most of my life. And an instrument  maker  tries  to figure out which of the design aspects of an instrument are mutable and which have to be preserved. And an instrument maker will change something about an instrument every time they build that instrument. But they will leave certain other things alone.  In making  my own  neys I experiment with wall thickness, with the size of the tone holes, with the shape of the embouchure, with very small tiny little measurements in order to generate different kinds of tone. Ney is a Persian term meaning simply pipe. And neys in various forms appear from North Africa all the way to Western China in very many different kinds of forms. And the ney that I play is associated with Turkey.  It is this shape, this  profile here, that is said to give the Turkish Ney it’s particular tonal timbre. But the real place where timbre lives is inside the instrumentalist’s heart and head. If the instrumentalist doesn’t hear the timbre in the instrument  and the  music, then the audience won’t hear it either.



While materials and construction are critical in determining the timbrel capabilities of an instrument, it is the musician who makes the instrument come to life. In essence the instrument becomes the unique musical voice of the player.



I think the connection that you feel with an instrument is often times beyond literal or verbal description. But I think one thing that really attracted me to the sound of the tenor saxophone was it’s incredible emotional range. The tenor saxophone can be a very very tender and sensitive instrument.


Or it can be a much more commanding aggressive powerful instrument.


And I like having those expressive options and I like having them integrated into the sound of one instrument.



The tabla drums are actually a set. It’s two drums or individually called tabla bayan. Together it’s called tabla. It’s made, the right hand drum is the tabla and it’s the pitch drum, the high pitch drum. The left hand is the bass drum. The skin is held on by use of this camel strap and these wooden blocks are put in to increase or decrease tension. The farther down you hit them, the tighter the skin gets, the higher the tone goes. By pushing on the bayan we are able to get different tones and modulate the tones. Strike it with the first two fingers for what they call the open sound. And for the closed sound it’s a flat hand slap. Some sounds together would “ta – din” small phrases (demonstrates). It’s a very difficult instrument to master and  I still haven’t  mastered  it.  I’m an artist  and I’m a performer,  a professional musician, but my basic view is that I’m studying it . I’m learning it as I go and I feel I have a lot to learn.



The ‘oud is actually the most prominent instrument in Arabic music. It has basically five double strings and one single low string. And it has a fingerboard here that is fretless, open fingerboard, and this is how the quatertone quality is being produced. Because you can slide and produce the sound. Usually the ‘oud is being played in the context of the small ensemble or a larger one as an accompaniment to a vocalist or as a solo instrument. It’s a very old instrument. It comes from the guitar family in Persia, it’s the ancestor of the lute and the guitar family. The ‘oud is  actually the most prominent instrument in Arabic music and it’s as valuable as the piano for the Western composer or performer. As far as I’m concerned this is one of the greatest instruments in the World.  It’s very dear to me.



The human voice is perhaps the most flexible of all instruments. The great variety of vocal timbres found around the world are reflected both in how singers render individual pitches and how they place their voices.



There are so many elements that create a particular type of sound that are much more variable than when  you’re plucking  an instrument  or playing an instrument in which you have an expected sound. There is some aspect of the voice that is unique to each person. When you’re talking about vocal timbre you need to think about whether the sound is coming from your throat, from your chest, from your head, and  it’s  different  from  one culture to the other. Of course if you are a member of a culture you sing a certain way. And you don’t think, “Oh, I am using this much breath, I am placing my voice here or there,” you imitate what you hear. And of course it’s human voice and it will be individual and different from one person to the other. But there are certain aspects of voice culture that are definitely being transmitted within the culture.



Tone color is an important aesthetic component in the music of any culture. Just as musical styles tend to change over time, so does the preference for types and qualities of musical sound. The use of timbre in European Renaissance music was quite different from what it is today.



In the Renaissance there was a great proliferation of instruments of all sorts and instrumental colors tended to be very bold and bright.



Early players as far as we can tell played more instruments then modem players do, in the same way that a modem reed player in a jazz band will play saxophone and flute and bass clarinet maybe. A minstrel in a Renaissance court would be employed to play a stringed instrument but could also double on a wind instrument like the recorder. Some of the early instruments are limited in the range of colors.



A modem oboist can get a full blossomy sound and a very focused sound and a nasty sound, but a player of say a crumhom in the Renaissance, to take an obvious example, it makes this one sound. It’s a very peculiar sound, a very nasal sound.



And so it seems that Renaissance musicians would rely on playing different instruments throughout an evening to give whoever was listening different tone colors or different timbres.



We’re not sure if composers wrote music with specific timbres in mind because they don’t indicate for the most part what instruments are to be played on the music. We know from other sources, paintings showing instrumental combinations and written records, that there was basically two different concepts about instrumental combinations in the Renaissance.

One was having a group of like sounding instruments, for example four recorders all of different sizes, playing together. It’s a beautiful sound, somewhat like a pipe organ because you don’t hear the individual voices as much as just beautiful sonority. The other concept was to have instruments from different families playing together, what sometimes called a mixed concert or broken concert. And this could be a combination such as a violin, a flute, and two different sizes of lutes all playing together, each with a very distinct sound which tends to bring out each individual line. When you have four different instruments playing the same piece you really hear clearly the four different voices.



When we talk about timbre in terms of early music were talking about this palette of tone colors that was available to the people who played the music of the Renaissance or of the Middle Ages. And those of us involved in the “authentic” performance practice of Early music tried to, as a rule, use instruments that reflect these authentic  tone colors or timbres.  And  so when I play the lute I’m playing an instrument that has a much different sound then say the classical guitar, the modem guitar, even though much of the music is very performable. But when I play Renaissance music on the lute, that was intended for the lute, I find that there’s just many more ways that I can express the music.



The Human exploration of timbre is a continually evolving process whether the instrument is hundreds of years old or of contemporary origin, whether a voice is acoustically produced or electronically reproduced. Musicians and audiences are constantly defining and redefining the sounds which we call music.