Timbre’s un-scorability is a sign

Pitch, melody, harmony, rhythm, tempo … the building blocks of classical music … are all quantifiable, measurable and scorable.

Timbre … the building block of electroacoustic music … is not quantifiable, it is not measurable and it is not scorable.

Trevor Wishart

In his text ‘On Sonic Art’ (1996) Trevor Wishart makes the point that classical music’s vocabulary is defined by its notational system. Quite a few 20th century composers attempted to stretch the traditional notation system, in order to ‘get outside the box’. I know one of Ligeti’s tricks was to score works without bar lines … with the aim of ‘smearing’ sounds in time.

Classical music’s notation system has no provision for notating timbre. So would it be right to say that orchestral works don’t have a designed timbre?

The answer is clearly no. Orchestral works can even be composed with timbre as their primary concern. This is exactly what Ligeti did with Atmosphères. Ligeti’s exploration of timbre was actually inspired by electronic music (Ligeti In Conversation, 1983).

So how the hell did Ligeti design timbre by using notes on paper? I need to find out.

My experiments with just intonation (see previous post) are a clue. Just intonation highlights the phenomena of beats. Beats are a pattern created when 2 tones of very similar frequencies are played together. Beats are not pitches, they are something else… they are, perhaps, the beginnings of texture.

Just as the sine tone is the purest pitch, I wonder if a ‘beat’ is the purest texture? (maybe white noise is the purest texture).

Anyway, what I am slowly starting to understand is that pitch and texture are intimately related. What I need to do is find out how. Perhaps Bill Sethares‘ work can help with that. Bill says:

The key idea is that consonance and dissonance are not inherent qualities of intervals, but are dependent on the spectrum, timbre, or tonal quality of the sound.

Hmmm, what does that mean?

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4 Responses to Timbre’s un-scorability is a sign

  1. Bogus Name says:

    You wrote, “Beats are a pattern created when 2 tones of very similar frequencies are played together.”

    Is this not how a piano is tuned? When you hit a single key, the hammer strikes several strings which have been tuned to be close in pitch. I don’t actually know very much about piano tuning, but the insight you seek may be inside a boring old piano.


  2. Bogus Name says:

    You wrote, “Just as the sine tone is the purest pitch, I wonder if a ‘beat’ is the purest texture? (maybe white noise is the purest texture).”

    You did not define what you meant by “pure” but, in terms of Shannon’s Theory of Information, white noise is extremely complex. In fact, irreducibly so (it cannot be losslessly compressed). A problem with this is that humans perceive white noise as simple (which is why lossy compression algorithms can discard it with little perceived loss).

    Perception of audio random noise is an interesting topic in itself. Humans appear to perceive it as only two dimensional, having colour (white, pink, etc) and loudness (loud/quiet).


    • Hi Martin,

      Interesting points. Interesting that white noise is irreducibly complex whilst being perceived as simple. To me that’s an other confirmation of the dichotomy between the complexity of a system, and how/if that complexity is perceived.

      So white noise should perhaps not be referred to as a texture. Actually, that makes sense given my observations WRT trying to create textures that maintain a strong sense of pitch. I have found that a notch filter on white noise gives a very poor sense texture (but a good sense of pitch).

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