Space, Time and Timbre

There are many ways to create in every domain and music is certainly no exception. One reason this is so is the very many types of musicians who bring music into the world. One would imagine singers and players of other monophonic instruments usually begin with a melody, percussionists and drummers with rhythm, and bass players with progressions of chord changes. The majority of composers are able to play polyphonic instruments, capable of simultaneous notes or chords, with the two most prevalent examples being piano and guitar.

When playing an instrument capable of melody, harmony, and rhythm one can start with any of them. Less obviously powerful, composers can also begin with space, time or timbre. Sound is a function of the three spatial dimensions and time which is why listener and source location can profoundly impact the listening experience. Directionality or lack of directionality and immersiveness, the quality or degree of being immersive can add tremendously to the emotional engagement of music. The acoustics of the listening environment (architectural acoustics) and psychoacoustics (two listeners perceive physical sounds) are two more variables a composer can control to a meaningful extent as can how sound varies as a function of time. Notes produced by different instruments bloom in a range of time-varying manners which also contribute to timbre or tonal quality. Another extremely important attribute, of not only pieces of music, but the places within which it is performed and the instruments upon which it is performed, all in combination impact tone or timbre.

Included are several (or the many) definitions of timbre. My Mac’s dictionary says the character or quality of a musical sound or voice as distinct from its pitch and intensity. And the Mac thesaurus says the timbre of the reeds: tone, sound, sound quality, voice, voice quality, color, tone color, tonality, resonance.

Wikipedia has a long definition the first paragraph of which is; In music, timbre is also known as tone color or tone quality from psychoacoustics) is the perceived sound quality of a musical note, sound or tone. Timbre distinguishes different types of sound production, such as choir voices and musical instruments, such as string instruments, wind instruments, and percussion instruments. It also enables listeners to distinguish between different instruments in the same category.
And finally The Acoustical Society of America (ASA) Acoustical Terminology definition 12.09 of timbre describes it as “that attribute of auditory sensation which enables a listener to judge that two nonidentical sounds, similarly presented and having the same loudness and pitch, are dissimilar”, adding, “Timbre depends primarily upon the frequency spectrum, although it also depends upon the sound pressure and the temporal characteristics of the sound” (Acoustical Society of America Standards Secretariat 1994).

Suffice to say timbre is such a big deal as to be considered another dimension of music and this is one of the main reasons composers study orchestration just as painters study color. It is so critical that some instruments can cost millions of dollars and others are worthless. There are some popular musicians including both vocalists and instrumentalists who can be identified by hearing a single note. Timbre can also be extremely subjective.

The next to time you listen to, perform or create music loosen for timbre, it can be just as important as melody, harmony or rhythm.