Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Perception of Timbre in Acoustic and Electroacoustic Music of the 20th and 21st Century

            In his book “Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy,” Robert Jourdain, in an exciting and accessible way, illustrates and demystifies some important aspects of music and the ways we experience them. Jourdain is determined to inform his readers not only on processes behind consuming music as a listener, but also on dimensions such as composing and performing. As a performer of 20th and 21st century music, what I have found interesting is Jourdain’s designation of timbre as an important organizing force in works of many contemporary composers. However, Jourdain does not elaborate to a great extent on timbre in his book. How some composers understand timbre and utilize timbral properties of sounding models in their music will be a central question of this paper. Special attention will be given to the writings of the eminent scholars and works of renowned contemporary composers, such as Pierre Boulez. Before we start a debate on composers’ perspectives of timbre, a fundamental question should be answered: what is timbre?
            A basic role of auditory perception is to suggest the possible source of sound. Timbre, which is very often described as the “colour of sound,” is commonly perceived as a primary feature in this process.Even though the term “colour” in correlation with sound might be controversial for some, Campbell L. Searle advocates a strong resemblance between visual and auditory perception. According to him, colour-related information processed through the neural processing chain is likely to be apprehended by a very limited number of perceptual channels. He states that, for example, a carpet in three or four shades of the same colour is hardly distinguishable from a carpet in fifty or sixty shades of that same colour. A similar concept can be applied to music; when a note is executed, numbers of over-tone frequencies are also being generated. The brain automatically processes them into a single pitch and this is how we perceive it.
            To a large extent the above conception of colour perception parallels the artistic values of timbre, which Pierre Boulez argues in “Timbre and Composition – Timbre and Language.” He gave a presentation on this topic at the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique in Paris in 1985. For him, timbre is a sound synthesis. From my personal perspective and experience as a performer, the term “sound synthesis” can be understood as a twofold concept. As previously illustrated, a single tone is actually perceived as a synthesis or fusion of a fundamental tone frequency and its overtones. The same approach can be applied to the group of same or different sounding bodies creating a sound texture. Namely, a string section performing a figure or a passage in unison will be perceived as one source of sound because our brain will categorize and group together all of the same or similar auditory stimuli. Furthermore, clusters and blocks created from diverse timbres will also be perceived as a single structure or texture. This is what Jourdain was referring to when he said that timbre is one of the strongest organizing criteria in the writing of contemporary composers. If we look at “Polymorphia,” an orchestral work written by the polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki for 48 string instruments, we will notice organized timbre serving the function of expression. Even though some instruments do not even produce pitched sounds, our brain will register constellations of different timbres as united textures without even trying to classify or discriminate some of them. This approach to composition is called sonorism and it was introduced in the middle of the 20th century.
            Christiane Ten Hoopen, from the University of Amsterdam, has raised another important issue on perception of timbre in composition. In her work “Issues in Timbre and Perception,” she discusses connection between perceived sound and its source in electroacoustic music. Ten Hoopen states that in electroacoustic music, listeners are often uncertain about identifying sound sources due to the prevalent use of electronic gears and installations. Electroacoustic music prompts reassessment of one of the fundamental functions of timbre (identifying the source of sound), and supports the Boulez’ belief that sound sources or instruments should ideally be approached in neutral manner. Furthermore, Ten Hoopen underlines the importance of prior information such as program notes or the title of the work in identifying the implicated sound sources. In my opinion, the influence of prior information proposed by Ten Hoopen is directly linked to experience and memory of listeners, but it is also dependent on the context of its reception (performance/listening). Specific styles of music involves specific instruments characteristic for that style. Instruments such as cembalo or viola da gamba will most likely be recognized while listening to baroque music. Even though these instruments can now be reproduced with electronic instruments, our experience and memory will unfailingly direct our auditory perception to hear their acoustic predecessors.
            Manipulation of the auditory perception of the listener is an important element in the writing of contemporary composers. Modification of sound sources, but also their fusion into the larger formations, is something that composers today constantly investigate and try to implement into their personal language. Electroacoustic music offers vast possibilities in that sense and it is not surprising that some composers do not even reach tonal or tempered solutions. It is certain that timbre occupies an essential space in the writing of composers today.


Boulez, Pierre. “Timbre and Composition – timbre and language.” Contemporary Music Review. Vol. 2, No. 1 (August 2009), doi: dx.doi.org.10.1080/07494468708567057.

Jourdain, Robert. Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy. New York: Avon Books, 1998.

Patil, Kalish., Pressnitzer, Daniel., Shamma, Shihab., Eljilali, Mounya. “Music in Our Ears: The Biological Bases of Musical Timbre Perception.” PLOS Computational Biology, Vol. 8, No. 11 (November 2012), doi: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1002759.

Ten Hoopen, Christiane. “Issues in Timbre and Perception.” Contemporary Music Review, Vol.10, Part 2 (1994).

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