Re: The word timbre: origins

Subject: Re: The word timbre: origins
From: Kevin Austin (
Date: Thu Sep 30 2004 - 08:14:53 EDT

I'm not sure where or whether timbre can be isolated from gesture, or
perhaps they form points along a variety of continua. This thought
for later examination.

I return to the concept of identity (similarity / family) with the
following example.

(1) Flute plays D above middle C. Flute plays C above middle C.
(2) Flute plays D above middle C and is sampled. Sample is transposed
up a minor 7th to C above middle C.

The spectral aspects of the two sounds are different. For the 'naive'
listener, the C (in both cases) is a flute(like) sound. Is the
sampled version (2) perceived as being a more distant relative of the
original sound than the 'played (1) version?

A generation has grown up with sampler-transposed pads (strings,
orchestral hits etc) and (I think) have accepted these as being
closely related timbral family members, shifting some of the

At 16:06 -0500 2004/09/29, John Kamevaar wrote:
>In the old language (of philosophy), we could amuse ourselves by
>entertaining the notion that timbre is the specific attribute of a
>sound, constituting its "essence", if pitch and envelope are
>accidental, that is - formal positions that are intrinsically
>exterior to timbre and universally applicable within a limited range
>of possibility.

I think it was a dictionary which added the qualifier "distinctive"
in the definition. I tend to describe timbre as a "derived function",
that is, it does not exist independently of 'other parameters'.

There is a temporal component that needs to be included, and this
will have an impact. The temporal component being the size of the
window which is used as a basis for delimiting (segmentation in ASA
terms) the sound.

A simple example of the flute would be to have the flute play the D
for one second (1000 ms), and examine the first 50 ms for timbral
parameters, then examine the period from 250 to 750 ms. They are
markedly different -- the 'timbre' of the flute being a compound

Time stretch the flute note to 10 seconds. Determine 'where' the
timbral component is stable enough to be said to be 'characteristic'
(if such a period can be found).

I think that this is where I have always had some difficulty with
Schaeffer, and with spectromorphology -- the attempt to define the
limits of spectrum without a corresponding (and simultaneous)
examination of gesture.

A bus drives by. Its spectromorphology is gestural. The spectrum
(timbre) is not fixed and no one (small) window will provide enough
information to establish the sonic identity, and by the time one has
a large enough window, the timbre has become (IMV) gestural.

>A quality can still be "disinctive" even if it is entirely dependent. Or no?



>Kevin Austin wrote:
>>Whether pitch is a facet of timbre or is 'something else' has been
>>discussed and examined. A high frequency to (9.5kHz) may be perceived
>>as timbral in nature, and most people who have been tested find it
>>difficult to give repeatable pitch information about it.
>>One could consider a simple recitation of the vowels /a/ /i/ /I/ /eh/
>>/o/ /u/, followed by singing the sequence on a mid-range note,
>>followed by singing on a high note, followed by singing on a low note
>>and determine in which cases pitch is more dominant and in which
>>pitch is more dominant.
>>Part of the reference is to the idea that when a flute and an oboe
>>produce the same pitch, which parameter is perceived as varying?
>>While pitch perception has been widely studied, spectral (timbral)
>>perception is still quite poorly understood / codified. While some
>>people have difficulty telling a violin from a viola, others are able
>>to comment on the quality of the violin in relation to other violins.

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