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A Journey into Sound Part V - Timbre (with videos)

by rg Fri Apr 18th, 2008 at 06:07:28 PM EST


Note: If you click to play a video, hear no sound, and the video stops at exactly 00:02 you have come across the firefox/ET video bug.  At present the solutions are: close the window, re-open and try again (not always effective); wait for another time (which sometimes works but involves waiting); view the diary in a different browser; or click the link below the image to view the clip directly in youtube

Timbre is the distinguishing quality of a SINGLE tone.  It is what makes a note on a piano sound different to the same-pitched note on a trombone or a violin.  Technically speaking, timbre is determined by the differing intensities of the harmonics or overtones produced by an instrument.  An A at 440 Hz will produce the same harmonic series on both the piano and the trumpet but certain overtones will be louder on one instrument than the other.  The sound of a tuning fork has practically no harmonics -- in this sense it is referred to as a "pure" sound.  (This lack of harmonics--lack of individual tonal colour--is what makes it so useful when tuning various instruments--it's the most neutral musical element we have.)

You can think of musical instruments as having two parts -- a sound source and a resonator.  The source for a piano is the string and the resonator is the sounding board and body of the piano.  For a clarinet the reed is the source and the body of the clarinet is the resonator.  For a flute it is the air column itself.  The source has some impact on the unique timbre of the instrument but generally the resonator is what's important.  Both vibrate, the source setting the resonator in motion and the resonator only picking up this energy at certain frequencies, depending on the unique physical properties (shape, material) of the resonator.

More about Harmonics -- with a Slinky

Standing waves -- just about any sound source is going to be created by something that can be represented by a standing wave.  For a real life example of standing waves, watch this video:

[hyperphysics standing wave]

Imagine the slinky is a huge guitar string.  It actually vibrates at a very low frequency which is too low for our ears to pick up, but the shapes are the same you'll find for any string.  Note the patterns!  Those extra shapes you see in the slinky represent the extra harmonics that are present with any single note--the volume of each shape (the amplitude of the wave) is what makes each instrument sound different.

When you add various timbres together you get musical "colour".  These colours are what this diary is about.

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Pictures at an Exhibition

Pictures at an Exhibition is a piano suite written in 1874 by the Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky to memorialize his friend, artist and architect Victor Hartmann who died suddenly and prematurely.  The separate sections correspond to ten paintings by Hartmann, interspersed with "Promenades."   It is an excellent example of what Mussorgsky referred to as musical realism, where he attempts to create the sense of himself strolling through an exhibition of his late friend's paintings, conveying in sound the impressions gained from what he sees.

We're going to listen to two version of this piece, first for solo piano (monochrome - only the timbres associated with the pianoforte), then for orchestra (multi-coloured orchestral painting by Ravel)

First, the piano version.

We begin with the opening Promenade.  Note the meter -- 5/4 alternating with 6/4, ending with all 6/4.

This is Mussorgsky's self-portrait, walking through the art exhibit -- not regularly, and not necessarily with no rhythm... he seems ambivalent between dwelling in one place and carrying on.  In some sense this can also represent the inner struggle of dealing with the loss of a friend.

Here's Mussorgsky:

...and here's the music.

Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition by Mikhail Pletnev P.1 (9:02)

Link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KjsH7I9Gs28
Links to parts 2 and 3:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GfhsnUXNNPI
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=44KRVJEFPwc

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Now, what happens if we take the same piece and add--some colour?


(Modest Mussorgsky, painted by Ilya Repin)

Pictures at an Exhibition: Esa-Pekka Salonen (1 of 4) (9:58)

A few program notes on the orchestration

This orchestration (one of dozens of attempts by as many composers) is the most well known, by Maurice Ravel.  His choice of instrumentation brings out qualities inherent in the piano version.  The opening of the promenade is a fanfare, more suited to trumpet than something like violin or clarinet.  This is immediately followed (00:33) by full harmonization with brass choir, and we have ourselves a pretty regal introduction.  At 00:57 strings provide a contrasting, mellower color... an episode of contemplative mood, also latent in the original piano writing, made explicit by Ravel.

Other things to watch for:

The piece alternates between the promenade theme and musical descriptions of the paintings Mussorsgky sees.  For the painting "The Old Castle" Ravel uses the saxophone, the only time it appears in this piece.  Listen from 5:54 -- 6:44 where it alternates with bassoons, and listen for the similarities in their sounds and their differences.

Some characteristics of the instruments...

 - the sound source in a bassoon is a double reed and in a saxophone it's a single reed
 - both instruments have a conical bore
 - the bassoon is made of wood and the saxophone is made of brass

Trumpets played with mutes (3:50) show how the same instrument can produce completely different colors depending on changes to the resonator.

The keyboard instrument at 2:37 is a celesta.  The tone is produced by felt hammers striking metal bars.

Link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k_98452AxFI
Links to part 2,3 & 4:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8hT5NVsQR3Q
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8DsHAptvTGQ
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U-JjNJAkBZc

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Timbres from around the World

Starting in the east.  Truly incredible mix of narrative, attack, subtlety, and I just love the bendy notes.

Guzheng - Yuan Sha's Ming shan (8:40)

Link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LJxu0isbvPk

Heading north.  (Great hats!)

Mongolian Show - horsehead fiddle song (2:16)

Link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VLl_d2Xt80Q

South-west, into India.  Two things to note about the following piece.  First, the incredible subtlety (this is a diary about timbre, after all!) of sound he gets out of those porcelain bowls--an example starts at 1:40, the way the note bends at 1:45--; and second, the tabla player!  The tabla has its own particular timbres (two drums)--the players enjoy complex rhythms and then they mix them with other complex rhythms--(and remembering the last diary, this is an example of music with no harmonic progression--the same drone--that's the technical term, honest!--on the sitar, all the movement is in the rhythms and the melodic line.)

Jal-tarang, Very rare indian classical music instrument (9:36)

Link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RCUNfo8ArRI

----------------------------

And finally

....let's head to the U.S.

Tom Waits - Blow Wind Blow (3:43)

Link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7x8Jh6Cm9no

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Special Migeru bonus track

There is a lot more to explore if you are interested in acoustics and physics.  Here is an example of synthetic timbres and how they appear as lissajous curves:

Link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dl507zEkxD0

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Final note: these diaries are designed to be collective productions--please add your favourite videos (instructions on how to post a video into a comment can be found here), one or two per comment with a few words to say how the piece relates to the diary's theme, no words needed, though, if the piece speaks for itself.

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Previous diaries:

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV

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Okay, better late than never.  This was an rg and greg co-production--next week there'll be another one, the theme will be "pitch".

Here's the section of Paintings at an Exhibition that relates to the picture at the top of the diary.

Mikhail Pletnev : BabaYaga-Gate of Kiev

And here's something (slightly!) more contemporary with interesting timbres.  Note that their huge success was based around the two female voices (two different timbres, one softer one sharper--well, that's my take); and then in the background all the different instruments popping in and out, most people probably didn't notice at the time, but the people (Benny and Bjorn) who put them in knew exactly what they were doing.



Don't fight forces, use them R. Buckminster Fuller.

by rg (leopold dot lepster at google mail dot com) on Fri Apr 18th, 2008 at 06:20:24 PM EST
Greg being ET's greg whitman

Don't fight forces, use them R. Buckminster Fuller.
by rg (leopold dot lepster at google mail dot com) on Fri Apr 18th, 2008 at 07:07:44 PM EST
[ Parent ]
...for anyone who fell asleep during the technical discussion
by greg whitman on Fri Apr 18th, 2008 at 09:24:12 PM EST
[ Parent ]
European Tribune - A Journey into Sound Part V - Timbre (with videos)
Timbre is the distinguishing quality of a SINGLE tone.  It is what makes a note on a piano sound different to the same-pitched note on a trombone or a violin.  Technically speaking, timbre is determined by the differing intensities of the harmonics or overtones produced by an instrument.  An A at 440 Hz will produce the same harmonic series on both the piano and the trumpet but certain overtones will be louder on one instrument than the other.

Timbre is also how the overtones change with time. They're not static, and if you freeze an overtone series you get a rather annoying buzzing sound, no matter which instrument it came from.

Also, overtones aren't necessarily harmonic. Woodwind instruments come closest to having a reasonably harmonic overtone series. Pianos don't - overtones are sharp at the bass end and flat at the treble end, which is why it's so damn difficult to tune a piano and make it sound good, and also why the scales are slightly stretched. Most percussion isn't harmonic at all.

And finally - these things

...and some music from them:

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Fri Apr 18th, 2008 at 09:49:29 PM EST
I still only got until Yuan Sha's amazing performance (visually too), but here are two entries in two comments.

First -- guitar bands were ascribed to me, so here is a rather special use of the guitar: beyond the usual stuff with the bow, watch out from 06:15 in:

Sigur Rós: Svefn-g-englar, concert version (11:12)

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Sat Apr 19th, 2008 at 06:30:19 PM EST
The same folk song with a guitar and a singer (plus a hundred thousand throats)....

Freddie Mercury: Tavaszi szél vizet áraszt, Queen Live in Budapest 1986 (02:01)

...and with an organ plus a few thousand throats:

Xavér Varnus: Tavaszi szél vizet áraszt, live in the Budapest Synagogue (01:49)

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Sat Apr 19th, 2008 at 06:56:02 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks for pointing me to Sigur Ros. Excellent music and some beautiful videos.

And BTW, since I see your Queen singing Hungarian, I always wondered if German bands still sound German when singing English.

Who would have noticed?

"If you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles." Sun Tzu

by Turambar (sersguenda at hotmail com) on Sat Apr 19th, 2008 at 11:35:50 PM EST
[ Parent ]
still sound German when singing English.

I hear German intonation in the refrain of this Tote Hosen song, but I'm curious too what native English speakers hear.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Sun Apr 20th, 2008 at 10:43:52 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Slight German, but I pick up more a measure of californian metal band intonation in his voice.

Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out.
by ceebs (ceebs (at) eurotrib (dot) com) on Sun Apr 20th, 2008 at 12:43:46 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Here's another guitar sound--acoustic/electric, sorta blues but with raised fourths at (e.g.) 00:42-00:45.  It's a jam outside someone's house I think.  02:17  



Don't fight forces, use them R. Buckminster Fuller.

by rg (leopold dot lepster at google mail dot com) on Sun Apr 20th, 2008 at 05:44:55 AM EST
[ Parent ]
A discussion on timbre should include that classic portable synth, the EMS 'Putney'. This was timbre deconstructed and condensed into a 16 x 16 diode pin matrix. They still make them.

I had the pleasure of fiddling with a new clone version built into a flight case recently. The only thing missing was the internal spring reverb (Well, I didn't find it anyway). The old VCS3 spring could be induced to do interesting things with a bit of phsyical resonance.

You can't be me, I'm taken

by Sven Triloqvist on Sun Apr 20th, 2008 at 09:03:20 AM EST
back in the 70's someone gave my school a briefcase version, that was fun.

Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out.
by ceebs (ceebs (at) eurotrib (dot) com) on Sun Apr 20th, 2008 at 12:50:38 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Now available in a free version.

(You'll need a VST host to use it.)

The VCS3 had a bigger cousin:

which was sold to universities and TV companies. The BBC had one. It did most of the sound effects for Blake's Seven.

Those panels at the front are the patch matrix, which has thousands of holes.

You'd have no trouble at all getting a modern laptop to copy all of the features of a Synthi 100. You could do it in Reaktor without even blinking - or near offer, because the envelopes on the VCS3/Synthi 100 are a little eccentric by modern standards.

Once upon a time I met the designer of the VCS3 - he said it had been built using some very minimal circuits 'because it was cheap.'

In the late 60s and early 70s, EMS, which was the home of the VCS3, had the the most advanced computer music studio on the planet.

You could do everything they're talking about there on a laptop too. But it would take a little longer, and most people don't seem to bother.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Sun Apr 20th, 2008 at 02:20:36 PM EST
[ Parent ]
This is the VCS3 clone I played with (from Analogue Solutions)

You can't be me, I'm taken
by Sven Triloqvist on Tue Apr 22nd, 2008 at 02:16:50 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Synths--I never did work out how to get sounds out of them.  There was an ARP (?) at school; I couldn't get it to make a sound--envelopes, waves, I can't remember if there were attacks and decays, so.  Hmmm.  VCS3.  Is this it?

Any clips you can offer us?--I'd never heard of it before, but yeah--synthesised timbres make up an ever-expanding field.  I remember this one from way back--(song starts at 00:11)



Don't fight forces, use them R. Buckminster Fuller.

by rg (leopold dot lepster at google mail dot com) on Sun Apr 20th, 2008 at 01:06:10 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Synths, not new? Let's go back to the Franco-German grand masters:

Jean-Michel Jarre: Aero (08:04)

Kraftwerk: Trans Europe Express (04:01) (Yea, I had to take this one...)

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Sun Apr 20th, 2008 at 01:48:46 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Edgar Varese 'Epsilon in Malaysian Pale' contains a nice mystical train pass. Possibly one of the more obscure inclusions of the mythology of the railroad in music.

You can't be me, I'm taken
by Sven Triloqvist on Sun Apr 20th, 2008 at 01:55:05 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Was basically created with a Lowrey Berkshire Deluxe TBO-1 organ, with some ARP 2500 stuff in parts (as I recall, though in the link below someone claims not). I have the original 15 minute demo (before the vocals were written).

Pete played around a lot with his VCS3, and he lent it to me to get to know also. But I don't recall it getting used much in released recordings - more as a kicker-off of ideas. The rest of the band were a little suspicious of what the technology might do for their roles. And they were right to be wary. There were enormous synching probems later live on stage which threatened the life of Mr Who sound, Bob 'Plum' Pridden

You can see photos, by my oldest chum Chris Morphet, of Pete's Tickenham 'home' studios featuring the VCS3 here. I spent many happy hours in that studio.

You can't be me, I'm taken

by Sven Triloqvist on Sun Apr 20th, 2008 at 01:52:18 PM EST
[ Parent ]

Have several VCS3s

Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out.

by ceebs (ceebs (at) eurotrib (dot) com) on Sun Apr 20th, 2008 at 02:14:17 PM EST
[ Parent ]
This is a wonderful series.  It must be a lot of work to put together.  I appreciate it and look forward to more.
by Maryb2004 on Sun Apr 20th, 2008 at 05:25:20 PM EST
Just a quick note to say A Journey into Sound will be back in its Weds. slot this week--the theme is pitch; included will be Messiaen--here's a taster, it has to do with timbre, so it still fits in with this diary.  

Percussion sounds in Messiaen's work (09:53)

(with a gong!)



Don't fight forces, use them R. Buckminster Fuller.

by rg (leopold dot lepster at google mail dot com) on Mon Apr 21st, 2008 at 03:39:05 AM EST


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