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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.
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.
...and here's the music.
Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition by Mikhail Pletnev P.1 (9:02)
Links to parts 2 and 3:
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.
Links to part 2,3 & 4:
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)
Heading north. (Great hats!)
Mongolian Show - horsehead fiddle song (2:16)
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)
....let's head to the U.S.
Tom Waits - Blow Wind Blow (3:43)
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:
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.