On The Limits Of Musical Timbre


When you’re working on a collection of music, it helps to have them unified in some way. The surest way to do this is for each piece to have the same instrumentation. I’ve done this with my music in that each of my recordings is scored for a single set of sounds. For example, Piano and Metals Music is scored for piano, kalimba, and gong sounds, and Four Piano Music is scored for four pianos. When each piece shares the same instrumentation you compose using a single timbral palette. At the very least, this palette simplifies my decision-making and gives listeners some sense of what to expect.

Generally speaking, electronic music producers working in popular idioms don’t work this way. Sure, many tracks might use say, a TR-808-type kick drum or snare sound, but most producers neither need this timbral consistency nor advertise it in their track titles. On the contrary, they—and critics—value new sounds. In an ideal electronic music production world, every piece would have its own distinctive set of sounds. One argument in support of this view of production is: If any sound can be created, why keep using the same old sounds? With the never-ending stream of new software and hardware releases, why not keep pushing forward music’s timbral boundaries? Isn’t this one the main points of making electronic music and the key criterion by which to judge its inventiveness?   


But while sounds matter, musical design and process matter even more. I have yet to encounter an interesting sound that made more of an impression on me than an interesting chord, and I have yet fall for a great drum sound instead of a great drum pattern. Prizing new sounds for their novelty often comes at the expense of thinking through interesting things to do with these sounds. As an example of the limitations of timbre, listen to how often TV and film composers rely on single-note, synthesized drones to signal fear, danger, or intrigue. (Oh oh! Something bad’s about to happen!) In many contexts, drones are compositional cop-outs, because no matter how colorful and richly layered their timbres, they do relatively little and there’s little subtlety or enchantment about them. Another example: the gargantuan drum timbres in Hollywood blockbusters. The drums sound a hundred feet tall, but their rhythms are elementary and often plodding. Drumming can be so much more than this. Electronic music producers—include composers for TV and film—sometimes overestimate the power of timbre at the expense of musical design and process.     

As I write, I’m remembering Alexandre Desplat’s excellent score for Wes Anderson’s stop-motion animated film, Isle of Dogs. The score uses very little in terms of timbres, sticking mostly to woodwinds, voices, whistling, woodblock, and few drums. Desplat’s choice of timbres fit with the setting of the film and act as almost transparent vehicles for the composer’s designs. One of the film’s main themes is a simple three note motif that drops a perfect fourth and rises up a minor third: g-sharp, d-sharp, f-sharp. It’s pentatonic but also somewhat melancholy—perfect to express the Japanese setting and the conditions faced by a pack of dogs from Kobayashi city exiled to Trash Island. We hear the theme repeated throughout the action played on a flute (along with a complementary g-sharp-b-a-sharp bass counter melody), and we hear it sung and whistled too. It all works exquisitely well.  

In electronic music production, one of the creative challenges is to reign in timbre’s allure in order to figure out interesting things to do with one’s sounds. While music software manufacturers would have you believe that their sounds are inherently enchanting, that’s not how all musical enchantment works. Music is enchanting as a by-product of what it does. In a way, the task of the electronic musician is to transcend his/her timbres by devising novel ways to structure the music. There are a thousand techniques for doing this, but one foolproof starting point is to keep the music in one’s music making body for as long as possible. This entails: 

Playing your parts instead of sequencing them.
Always relating the part to the entire texture.
Taking the time to refine a part before you record.
Taking advantage of your first run-through or improvisation by recording all the time.
Varying your parts on as many resolutions of detail as possible.

By keeping your parts living in the realm of your playing, you also begin to play through the timbres you’re using. Instead of relying on a sound for an effect, try to create an analogous effect by changing a chord, a melody line, or a rhythm. Timbre contributes a lot to how a music feels, but ultimately we hear beyond timbre—listening musically involves listening beyond timbre. Consider an analogy: you’re having a conversation with someone who happens to have a whiny voice. At first, you’re distracted by her vocal timbre, and you may even erroneously attribute to her various personality characteristics based on this whiny sound. But if the conversation is good and the ideas are interesting, the quirks of her voice eventually disappear as an object of interest, let alone significance. Now you’re hearing beyond timbre. 

Music is just like this. If the music is interesting enough, the sounds of its timbres disappear. 

I leave you with a recording that came to mind while editing this blog post, TM404’s TM404, a recording made exclusively with the timbres of the Roland sequencers and drum machines.


2 thoughts on “On The Limits Of Musical Timbre

  1. I appreciate the variety of your posts, but the practicality of this one really spoke to me this morning. I don’t know if it’s true of composers in general, but musicians in general can fall down the timbral rabbit hole. Those of us who for whatever reasons are both composers and musicians need to remember to let the composer speak to the musician.

    1. Thanks for your comment Frank. I think “timbral rabbit hole” is appropos and maybe the key is to somehow work with one’s familiar timbres without letting them define all the music’s action.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s