Re: The word timbre: origins

Subject: Re: The word timbre: origins
From: Richard Wentk (
Date: Thu Sep 30 2004 - 11:47:17 EDT

At 08:14 30/09/2004 -0400, you wrote:
>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.

I think this was a very damaging idea. In reality *all* sounds are like
this. You're not going to find a genuinely steady timbral state anywhere
outside of a quartz-locked waveform generator.

>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.

I don't think is different to a flute.

There's a huge difference between the amount of information needed to
recognise a sound as 'flutey' and the amount that's present in a real flute
performance - which will be a collection of disparate timbres connected by
all manner of complex articulations, and continuous and discrete pitch
*and* timbral changes.

The problem with a lot of synthesis theory is that it's based on these
false simplifications, and the mistaken assumption that you can detach
timbre from pitch from other elements.

In practice you can say 'That's a flute' from a single note played at a
single intensity. But it's a mistake to assume that this simplified example
offers a complete and final definition of the flute timbre.

But this is what you'll still find in many textbooks that are happy to
print a certain harmonic distribution with a note that says 'Flute'
underneath it.

For a complete definition of timbre you need a map of timbral changes with
both pitch and intensity, subject to gestural modifiers like the various
different kinds of articulation.

When people hear a flute I think what actually happens is they refer the
sound to the various timbral maps of this type that they carry around
inside their heads, probably aided by some kind of built-in smart-ish
interpolation and sonic pattern recognition. So what you get is a match
*within a map that includes gestural details and possibilities* and goes
far beyond the simple idea of a static, or even a simply varying, overtone


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