Last week we talked about affect affects the way we hear music. While on the topic of music and how it makes us feel, we got to talking about what music really is and what elements make it music. We learned how volume can create a mood and how changing the volume can affect the overall experience of listening to the music. This week we’re going to keep the discussion going and focus on timbre.
What is Timbre?
To put it simply, timbre is how a sound, well, sounds. From a technical standpoint timbre is the shape a sound makes in the form of a soundwave. If you look at images of soundwaves side by side, you’ll notice that sound waves are smooth and curvy while others may be jagged and sharp.
Waveforms for a tuning fork, clarinet, and trumpet. (Simplifying Theory)
If you look at the image above you will see the soundwaves of the tuning fork, clarinet, and trumpet. The first thing you’ll notice when looking at the waves is the overall shape of the waves. The tuning fork is a smooth curve that undulates with no sharp edges. The clarinet is much more jagged and spikes up and down frequently and at different amplitudes. The trumpet, while not as severe as the clarinet, still has a varied shape with sharp peaks.
But what does this mean in terms of what we hear? What it boils down to is that every sound has it’s own distinctive wave, kind of like a fingerprint, and with each wave comes it’s own tone. This means that you can play the same notes on different instruments but get completely different sounds. For example, listen to the C Minor pentatonic scale on the piano. Now listen to the same scale on the guitar. Do you hear the difference? Both musicians are playing the exact same notes, but they sound completely different.
How does this affect the affect of music?
Last week we talked about how affect is the way we experience music, so what does timber have to do with it? Because timber can vary so greatly from instrument to instrument, the instruments we hear can affect the way we hear the music.
Take the theremin, for example. If you’re not sure what that is, the theremin, invented by Léon Theramin in 1928, is an electronic instrument that is played without any kind of physical contact. The instrument works by creating electromagnetic fields from two antennae to control pitch and volume.
In this video, Grégoire Blance performs in a theremin/piano duet with Orane Donnadieu covering Dubussy’s “Claire de Lune.” The theremin is a stark contrast against the soothing piano music. While it does lend a somewhat peaceful tone, the electronic sound of the theremin adds an otherworldly sense that would be not be present in the instrument’s absence.
Think about your favorite songs and then think about how they would sound if the instruments were replaced. Would the song feel the same way if the guitar in that rock song was replaced by a flute or a violin? Go to YouTube and try to find different versions of your favorite songs with different interests and let me know how they differ in the comments below. I look forward to reading what you find.
Simplifying Theory. What is Timbre? n.d. https://www.simplifyingtheory.com/timbre/. 23 February 2021.
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