As a musician, audio engineer, and listener, I would like to define beauty in sound. What is it that makes something sound good? What is my favorite kind of music? If there could possibly be such a defining measuring stick, how would one quantify the magnitude of a given piece of art or music, the depth of beauty, or the absolute weight of meaning in the artistic gesture or statement?
I would like to call this magical sweet spot the location of power in music.
Where to start the map? I like music that’s slow; too fast and there is a kind of cheap adrenaline element which is easy to fake. I like soul music with feeling; pushing the boundaries between pain and pleasure, sweet and nasty, and never giving too much overt attention to technical elements or even thought. If it’s consciously preoccupied with technique, then it will lack the profound commitment and conviction of the intuitive, the power of the duende, the transcendent edge of higher powers guiding the artistic act. Virtuosity is a wonderful thing (don’t get me wrong -- some of the DIY excitement in the 1980s created a cult of mediocrity that really sucked) as long as it doesn’t come at the expense of soulful expression.
The best music also has to have a pocket. in terms of location as power, let’s say the latitude and longitude if it was a geographical metaphor.
It doesn’t matter if it’s a raw funk groove, a meditative sitar improvisation, an organ fugue, or a majestic horn solo; it’s got to swing, or it don’t mean nothin’ -- and rigidity or stiffness is the kiss of death. Finally, it has to have an integral, textural, *complexity* which engages the ear in and of itself. This timbral element ideally evokes the sense that something is “smooth,” “raw,” “juicy,” “fat,” “warm,” or any number of vague but pleasing abstractions; hopefully it’s not “harsh,” “brittle,” “sterile,” or anything else that doesn’t soothe the earhole. The sweet guitar tones of BB King, the sound of a perfectly balanced string section in an orchestra, the rasp of an old blues singer’s voice, and the timbre of Tuvan throat-singers or the overblowing of a sufi flute [see kudsi erguner, cmp records or peter gabriel “so”] are all examples of profoundly textural sounds. Textural sounds resonate in our aesthetic receptors in ways that can be likened to the appreciation of tactile sensations, like touching velvet, glass, granite, or a peach. Tone, timbre, and texture are elusive elements found in varying degrees in any sound.
There are two common technical definitions for “texture” in music. The first has to do with compositional ideas of arrangement, density, intervals between notes, and choices in instrumentation. Scholars of European music refer to the differences in texture between, say, the Baroque and Romantic eras. There is a wonderful overview on the history of Western music called Listen, which is written by Joseph Kerman. I highly recommend the “second brief edition” (1992), from which the following description is taken:
Texture is the term used to refer to the blend of the various sounds and melodic lines occurring simultaneously in a piece of music. The word is adopted from textiles, where it refers to the weave of various threads -- loose or tight, even or mixed. A cloth such as tweed for instance, leaves different threads clearly visible. In fine silk, the weave is so tight and smooth that the individual constituent thread are hard to detect.
Some ideas of texture in composition are related to ideas about space in a piece of music as well (the space between threads in the fabric analogy, perhaps representing the notes in a chord or amounts of silence between consecutive notes, for example). The different kinds of threads in a fabric will each have their own respective textures as well, as exhibited by the difference between wool yarn and cotton string, a rope made of nylon or one of hemp, or the mesh of a window screen as opposed to that of a spider web.
Dig the tactile changes in each of these examples when they are wetted with water or oil; the common use of the term “wet” in recording studio jargon refers to the application of reverberation or delay effects to a “dry” (untreated) sound.
We are now in the location of power.
Typically the use of these spatial reverberant effects gives a sound a natural ambiance within the sound field. Moisture in the air in the sky -- water in space -- refracts the white light of the sun into a rainbow if the conditions are right. The second widely-accepted definition of texture has to do with the presence of overtones, which
Kerman introduces in the following way:
The timbre or quality of sound, also called tone ‘color,’ depends on the amount and proportion of the overtones. In a flute, the air column vibrates strongly along its total length and not much in halves or quarters, so there are few overtones. Violin strings, on the other hand, vibrate simultaneously in many subsegments, so that violin sound is rich in overtones. This is what accounts for the relatively thin, “white” tone color of the flute and the warm, rich tone color of the violin.
This statement touches on a lot of ideas, including the notion that sound can have a “color,” which can be related to the amount of overtone elements in a sound. White light is the result of all colors of light appearing in simultaneous and equal amounts.
The analogue to white light in sound, “white noise,” is, likewise, the presence of all frequency bands across the audible spectrum in equal amounts. From the shrillest squeak of a mouse to the lowest rumblings of a subway through layers of concrete, with every frequency between, white noise sounds like a full-spectrum hiss/hum. It might be best represented in nature by a perfectly balanced combination of roaring surf, crashing thunder, buzzing rain forest dusk, and howling wind: pure noise.
Kudzu Erguner and “noise” components of wooden flute/ney sounds respectively are variations on fairly broadband noise, serving a textural purpose similar to the presence of harmonics in the violin tone by adding something to fatten up the pure sound of the instrument with harmonic overtones which work to generate texture.
The sound of an acoustic guitar can be very rich and warm, especially if the right voicings of chords are played and allowed to ring freely and sustain. The textural qualities of note clusters, or even just double-stops, generate overtones which lend to the timbral quality of each note. If an open string is stuck hard, and allowed to vibrate for a few moments, the overtones (typically the octave, then the fifth, then the fourth, etc.) will ring.
Brushing a finger lightly down a string of my viola (or violin, ‘cello, etc.) from bridge to nut, while bowing the string lightly, generates a series of “overtone” notes. This is the same series of harmonic overtones, unfettered, in the case of a stringed instrument, by the “corrective” influences of just intonation. It is the amount of these overtones, blended with the pure root tone of each note, that is a primary contributor to the characteristic timbre of a given instrument. In this case, timbre is synonymous with texture, which is sometimes referred to as the color of a tone.
Because there are defined spectra of human capability to hear and see, it is possible to create a direct mathematical relationship between the frequencies of sound and light. Most often, references to the color of a sound are abstract and subjective, and don’t serve to get us any closer to defining or quantifying texture. This by no means is
to say that color is not important or a very real way to talk about sound, however [Machlin, The Enjoyment of Music: p.34-35]:
...an idea may come to a composer’s mind clothed in a definite instrumental color, for which none other will do. In essence the composer is motivated by the same principle that makes the painter choose now oils, now water colors or etching. The nature of the thing to be said demands one medium rather than another...tone color is not something that is grafted on to the musical conception; it is part and parcel of the idea, as inseparable from it as are its harmony and rhythm. Timbre is more than an element of sensuous charm that is added to a work; it is one of the shaping forces in music.
Ask anyone what timbre is and they’ll tell you it’s how something sounds. The timbre/texture of a note is technically defined by the amounts of partials, or overtones, characteristically generated by the particular instrument, but this knowledge does little
to satisfy the intuitive sense that there exists such a thing as textural richness. Robert Erickson, in Sound Structures in Music (1975) discusses sound in abstract ways that suggest subconscious perceptions: “fused ensemble timbres,” “sound masses,” “rustle noise,” and “spectral glide.”
Pierre Schaeffer’s Traitè des objets musicaux (1968) attempted to justify musique concrëte’s way of dealing with sound, early 20th century, by suggesting a system of analysis for timbre. Borrowing from biology and physics, Schaeffer creates criteria which are fun and descriptive: “[a given sound] might have a ‘reiterating’ dynamic, a ‘resonant’ grain, and a ‘mechanical’ allure. The class of the same might have a ‘knotty’ mass, a crescendo dynamic profile, a ‘matte’ grain, and one of three fluctuating allures.”
Some of these terms suggest terms used in other media such as visual art, film, writing, and especially photography. Degrees of graininess, matte versus glossy finishes of paper, contrast, brightness, and the relative strengths of black & white versus color photography are all useful signifiers in discussing sound. Pure white light, furthermore, could be referred to as “noise” in photography or any visual art (and black could be silence, or the absence of any light/noise) in a meaningful way which might bring insight (especially for those of us focused on soundwaves) into the minds of painters and photographers. It is also worth noting that when, in visual art, one describes “the tone of a color,” it is on an intuitive level the same idea as describing “the color of a tone” in music.
If white light is useful in defining broad band white noise, then what does each constituent color sound like? The familiar sounds of Jimi Hendrix’ wah-wah guitar, the sweeping squirts and bleeps of acid house, the effect achieved by slowly closing a door in a well-sealed house on a raging storm outside, and someone whispering “wow” are all examples of relatively narrow-band sweeps through the broad band noise spectrum. These sweeps through the spectrum, emphasizing different colors as they pass through different wavelength frequencies, suggest a direct relationship between the spectra of sound and light. Arguably a lot of this noise/light business operates at sub- or post-conscious levels, which might indicate that the closer we get to definitions of texture the farther we get from words and intellect.
Will you join me in this location of power?
Another twist on the idea of sonic colors and textures, however, is the idea that sound waves travel in time and are never static, or frozen in time like a painting. An official-sounding definition of “timbre” by the American Standards Association (1960) (p.19) gives us another dry perspective which nevertheless accounts for the reality that timbre exists only in fleeting moments because most sounds evolve, convolve, and mutate as they travel through the stages of their envelopes. The ASA says timbre is “the term covering all ways that two sounds of the same pitch, loudness, and apparent duration may differ...Even the sounds of musical instruments, with their various attack transients, the variations within the ‘held’ portions of notes, and their many decay characteristics, present a bewildering array of disparate acoustic events.” Just when we felt like we might be getting a handle on defining timbre and/or texture, the flowing, ever-changing nature of soundwaves becomes a new sonic can of worms, the opening of which brings us just about back to zero (or infinity, depending on your definition of the 4th dimension, but that’s another story).
Our power space becomes more abstract.
The ASA’s acknowledgment of the “bewildering array,” however, speaks to us in reality’s terms and reminds us that we are not talking about static sound images. Perhaps this is a good time to update our photography metaphor to that of moving pictures. Breaking the exposure of movement and light onto film into a certain number of frames per second gives us both the “snapshot” views of momentary timbres and a sense of the way that sounds evolve and flow.
This is our location of power. To acknowledge these parameters and find equitable peace is to understand power.
This is not to say, however, that the relationship between tone color and color tone (in music and art, respectively) has any less meaning in terms of texture and other abstract ideas such as hot and cold. Warmth in colors is used to describe music in classical music critiques and new-agey babblings alike. the book Listen again comes to the rescue with a generalized description of 19th century Romantic-era orchestrations as containing “something of the same freedom and virtuosity with which painters mix actual colors on a palette. The clear, narrowly defined sonorities of the Classical era were replaced by iridescent shades of blended orchestra sound.” Later, we are treated to the proto-fractal analogy of impressionist painting in comparing Debussy to Mahler’s contrapuntal sharpness: “Debussy’s orchestra is more often a single delicately pulsing totality to which individual instruments contribute momentary gleams of color. One thinks of an impressionist picture, in which small, discrete areas of color, visible close up, merge into indescribable color fields as the viewer stands back and take in.” Impressionism arguably brings a sense of evolution of sound in time to the two-dimensional canvas. This idea of looking at things closely and from afar also suggests some of the ideas of microcosmic representations in FRACTALS.
German new age sound color theorist Peter Michael Hamel refers to awareness of harmonic spectra as a key to spiritual awareness, lumping the music of many cultures into similar terminology: “The mythical, melodic music of India, the heterophonic music of Indonesia, the modal music of Arabia and the Middle Ages, as well as the rhythmic drum music of Africa -- is all tone-color music to the extent that it makes the harmonic series audible.” We find ideas about timbre/texture overlapping here: on the one hand, overtone content defines timbre; on the other, melodic contour and harmonic density define compositional texture. The result in both cases is something that is often discussed in terms of color, and as it pertains to moods, or atmospheres, both camps are generally in the same ballpark.
In Campbell’s The Musician’s Guide To Acoustics (p. 149), Bismarck’s 1974 collation of possible pairs of terms which could be used to describe timbre include a spectrum of defining adjectives created in an attempt to further our ability to discuss texture in universally-understood terms. It is interesting to note that these criteria scales could also be as useful in describing three-dimensional art forms such as sculpture and architecture, exposing the relationship between texture and spatial qualities. The overlap between these two defining criteria of Ambient will be explored in more depth below, but bears noting in contemplating the following pairs of descriptive qualities:
These words can be applied to musical instruments as well as the sounds of waterfalls, traffic, busy offices, and voices. By way of example in examining the flowing complexities of sounds, compare the two following comments on technique in playing the piano. Campbell breaks down the idea of transients -- as found in the sharp attack stage of a piano’s sonic signature -- in an interesting way. Again we see how significant a factor the first milliseconds of an instrument’s envelope’s attack re in defining its characteristics of texture and bite:
“...the nature of the attack is an important feature of an instrument’s characteristic sound. This is obvious, of course, in an instrument like the harp or piano, whose sound contains no steady state at all; the shape of the amplitude envelope has a strong effect on the perceived tone quality. A striking illustration of this is provided by
playing a tape-recording of piano music backwards (Taylor 1966). The instrument is transformed into a leaky old harmonium, although only the order of presentation of the sounds has changed. The concept of timbre is frequently extended to include such time-varying aspects of the sound.”
Aaron Copland (p. 69), in discussing the compositional sensitivities of various composers to the possibilities of piano interpretations in performance, also takes into account the fact that there are clearly defined attack and sustain elements in the envelope of this well-known instrument.
Referring to Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Debussy, Ravel and Scriabin, Copland describes a shared understanding of the instrument: “All of them took full cognizance of the fact that the piano is, on one side of its nature, a collection of sympathetically vibrating strings, producing a sensuous and velvety or brilliant and brittle conglomeration of tones, which are capable of immediate extinction through release of the damper pedal.”
We have already touched on the resonant and textural qualities of an acoustic guitar. Let us please appreciate this location of power ;)
Upon electrification, the overtones of a guitar are enhanced in direct relation to amount of gain and saturation of the signal. Tubes and transformers are where the magic happens. With enough saturated gain, feedback can serve as a generator of resonance (an amp sends a loud signal back to the guitar, which excites the resonant tones, which are then amplified and fed back to the guitar...). If an electric guitar is amplified and the circuitry of the amp “clips” or distorts (as most guitar amps these days are designed to do easily), the resulting distortion is typically rich in overtones, accentuating the natural tendency of a resonating string to subdivide vibrations up the harmonic series.
By the 1960s, Jimi Hendrix and other guitarists had pioneered new guitar textures in the process of overdriving and eliciting distortion from their amplifiers. Randall Smith of Mesa/Boogie -- in Petaluma, north of San Francisco -- started his company by hot-rodding stock Fender amplifiers with extra gain stages to overdrive the amps easily. Pursuing the perfect tone in the days before pedal boards.
As the rest of the world was enjoying the ultra-efficient, light-weight, low heat-emitting, and low-distortion characteristics of newfangled solid state transistor technology, a cult developed around the “obsolete” tube circuits which needed heavy power transformers and metal chassis, ran hot and inefficient, and distorted beautifully. Tube amp distortion is a religion to many; guitarists constantly search for the holy grail of sweet, liquid, singing, sustaining, juicy tone, and every year new developments are made in this endless search. Ever since the 1960s, transistorized simulations of tube characteristics, iconically emulated by Tom Scholz’ Rockman a decade ago [the sound of ZZ Top’s MTV reign], SansAmp pedals, and, in this new millennium, digital emulations of tube circuitry [which as of printing is completely bereft of dynamic connection as with tube amp -- ha making fun “friends don’t let friends play modeling amps” ;) ]. Variations on the classic old tube circuit designs appear.
The current cutting edge in simulations is a called “physical modeling,” and employs digital technologies to replicate the waveform characteristics of the classic tube amps. Theories and biases (as chauvinist as those of Hog riders against rice burners, or Macintosh proponents versus PC users) about the relative merits of tube vs. transistor distortion have been thrown around for decades: the “even order” harmonics of tubes are supposed to be sweeter and more musical than the “odd” harmonics generated by solid state distortion; the “soft clip” of tubes is smoother than the jagged crap-out of a transistor circuit pushed too hard, etc..... Whatever.
The interesting thing about guitar tone obsessives, however, is that amidst the bombast, high-watt amplification, and hard rock stylings and postures, the ways that “good” tone is described is exactly the same as stuffy classical music critics judge the tone of a concert violinist. Words like singing, glassy, rich, and sweet are all used to describe what is, technically, the same phenomenon: a richness of overtone content.
And so we find ourselves contemplating the actual space. The location of power.
peter wetherbee makes records, plays a lot of instruments, reads and writes a lot, and performs with mama rabwa, a funk and blues band which features virtuoso musicians from west africa. currently he and his cat larry are particularly interested in protest music, bc the world just got much more absurd. check out this song:
© 2020 The Metaphysical Times Publishing Company - PO Box 44 Aurora, NY 13026 • All rights reserved. For any article re-publication, contact authors directly.