9 mar. 2008

Timbre is a qualitative judgment of sound. In fact, it's the best example I can find of what the word "qualitative" means. It has an objective counterpart--timbre as defined accoustically by the components of the sound in question. But that's not timbre. Just like the qualitative experience of seeing bricks of that particular shade of red out the window right now is not defined by the length of the waves of light that produce the experience. There's something irreducible about the qualitative. If you translate into other terms, non-qualitative, you've missed the point.

A lot of what we hear as timbre is the onset of the sound, its duration, and its decay. Think of a piano note that has a percussive beginning and begins to decay almost immediately, in contrast to an organ note, that has almost no "attack" at all and continues at an equal volume until it is shut off. It doesn't fade away but stops. So articulation is a part of timbre.

From the objective point of view, what causes differences in timbre are the harmonics of the overtone series. You don't hear one note but a fundamental at the bottom and various partials at fixed intervals, whose relative strength or weakness gives a unique sound. So harmony is also a part of timbre. A dissonant chord is basically the result of the same cause as a harsh timbre.

Pitch is basically frequency: how fast the vibrations are being produced. Timbre is a combination of pitches; it is harmonic, hence a tempo or combination of tempos.

There's a material aspect too. Just as you can hear a glass crashing on the floor and know what has happened, you can heard the woodiness or plasticness of instruments. You can hear friction and smoothness.

The purest and smoothest timbre is not the most desirable. The vibrato of an opera singer or violinist, the unharmonic noises incident to attack, the rougher sound of a saxophone, seem more satisfying than an over-ethereal flute. You want prettiness, but not too much.

2 comentarios:

K. Silem Mohammad dijo...

This is something I've thought a lot about as an analogue to certain aspects of aesthetic evaluation (with especial regard to poetry, obviously). This is what always vexes those discussions of the "subjectiveness" of taste vis a vis (indeed, versus) "objective" evaluative criteria. As you point out, the qualia that determine our subjective responses are always bound to material considerations of sound, duration, harmonics, etc.; they are functions of these phenomena, but functions that cannot be expressed in terms that render them as definable constants. This is why they are often (only ever?) apprehended in figurative modes: woodiness, plasticness, heroicness, squishiness, goofiness. (It might seem that "woodiness" or "plasticness" are not figurative, but the point becomes clearer when one thinks about the problem of how one would answer the question "how exactly does it sound like wood/plastic"?

Poetry not only raises these issues with regard to the terms of its evaluation, but draws directly on them as a primary principle of its own expression. Metaphor, for example, is a strategy for both exploiting and thematizing the irreducibility of sensual and intellectual experience. Eliot's "yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the windowpane" describes a physical action in ways that not only generate the "timbre" that readers will ascribe to the phrase, but consciously acknowledge its vagueness. One way of thinking of timbre, perhaps, both literally in actual sound and figuratively in aesthetic judgments, is as the realized evocative power of vagueness.

Jonathan dijo...

Yes. It becomes vague when you try to put a word to it. But the tmbre of an image is very specific--not vauge at all. If someone asked "Just exactly why does the the sound of boots squishing in the rain sound wet to you?" you would have two responses: thinking the question crazy, and not being able to answer except in tautology. Does language add a layer of complication that wasn't there originally? Why would you ask that question of a sound but not of a sight? Because sight simply gives us the thing itself and sound only an echo?