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Timbre: The Color of Music
Timbre is one of the fundamental elements of music and depends on the method of sound production, instrument construction, playing technique, and aesthetics. It can be referred to as color in music since sounds of the same pitch played by different instruments are distinguished by their coloration. Speaking about this music element, it is possible to describe timbre in such words as “dark”, “light”, “soft”, “rough”, “metallic”, “smooth”, “velvety”, etc. (Hast, Cowdery, & Scott, 2010, p. 140). This difference in timbres of various instruments stems from the acoustic difference in the overtone series: the individual timbre of instruments depends on the particular overtone structure generated by them. Emphasis on particular partial tones in different instrument timbres is placed by the instrument shape, material, and size.
In addition to purely physical factors forming timbre variations, the difference in timbre is by large predefined by cultural norms and standards. The same instrument may sound differently played by different performers in various cultural contexts. Being the most personal element in music, timbre reflects the “tradition, technique, structure, individual expertise and sensitivity” (Stubbs, as cited in Hast et al., 2010, p. 141). The timbre characteristics of certain culture’s musical aesthetics find their material realization in the instruments, the range of which depends on the available natural materials and skills of instrument-makers.
A basic classification of all the diversity of timbres is grounded on the categories of sound production which can be string, wind, percussion, and electronic. Accordingly, instruments are divided into chordophones, aerophones, membranophones and idiophones, and electrophones in Sachs–Hornbostel system mostly used nowadays. Different musical cultures feature various musical instruments in each of the four categories and attach different meanings to the instrument timbres depending on the cultural context.
Like silk or woolen cloth is woven from threads, so is music made up of certain melodic parts that interlace with each other in various structures. The notion of musical texture refers to the way music is organized in a combination of one or more parts sounding simultaneously or alternately. It also refers to the ways those parts relate to each other in an equivalent or subordinate manner. Since musical texture consists of musical parts, the key notions connected to musical texture are those of timbre and melody. Depending on the number of parts and the kind of sound they result in, one can speak of the textural density: rhythm, tempo, and dynamics are the decisive factors for the latter.
The most universal way of describing musical texture is by classifying it into four basic categories. Monophony is one-part music devoid of any supporting accompaniment. Due to its simplicity, it is most common in mass religious practices. Heterophony refers to one melody simultaneously performed in different ways by several musicians. Traditional Irish dance music is a good example of this kind of texture. Polyphony emerges when two or more different melodies are played simultaneously. The important feature of this kind of texture is that each part is equal in its importance for the overall piece. Homophony includes multiple parts of which one is dominant and the rest are subordinate, accompanying the main melody. This is the most widespread kind of texture in Euro-American classical and popular music.
All of the four aforementioned types of texture can be illustrated by precise examples. However, there exists a big quantity of works that do not fall exactly into one given category. Therefore, when analyzing musical pieces it is advisable to consider the dominant, prevailing texture as the main one (Swain, as cited in Hast et al., 2010, p. 188). Such a flexible approach facilitates understanding of the complex phenomenon of musical texture.
Harmony is a powerful instrument of social influence since producing harmonious combinations of several musical parts promotes the ideals of cooperation, accordance, and consonance. Harmony is a vertical combination of two or more simultaneously sounding pitches, and therefore it is inseparable from the notion of musical texture (Hast et al., 2010, p. 194). In different textures, the focus of harmony varies but in any case, it concerns individual intervals that occur at every given moment as a result of simultaneous tone combinations.
The two major classes of intervals are consonants and dissonance: the former sound agreeable to the ear, while the latter may provoke the feeling of restlessness and demand a resolution to a consonant. The distinction between consonances and dissonances is based on the overtone series. The lowest ratios in the series form intervals that sound consonant (octaves, fifth, fourth, and thirds); the lowest ratios form dissonants (seconds, seventh, and tritones).
The views on harmony differ throughout the ages and cultures, with the most comprehensive analytical system formed in Western musicology. The basic harmonic practice is considered to be the drone, one or more pitch that is repeated unchanged throughout the piece and provides a background to any melodic formations. In the Middle Ages, the rudiments of harmony appeared by doubling the melody in fifths and fourths in a so-called organum and by creating three-note chords of fifths and thirds, the so-called triads. In the Renaissance, four-voice harmony was established with the emphasis on the triad and the subordination of dissonance to consonance. Baroque witnessed such harmonic innovation as the seventh-chords which used the dissonant interval of the seventh as an expressive device. At this time the first concepts of tonality appeared, further developed to the notion of the key with all the triads organized around the tonic.
Form: The Shape of Music
Music refers to the group of arts that unfold in time: this progression of a musical piece from beginning to end refers to musical form. The way such musical elements as rhythm, melody, dynamics, texture, and timbre are organized in time and held together comprises the form of a musical piece (Hast et al., 2010, p. 216). The form may be considered at multiple levels of music, from a short melodic phrase to the whole construction of symphony. As a rule, certain types and styles of music (genres) are characterized by individual forms, but it is not infrequent that the same form may occur in various genres.
Among the major principles of form, the organization is the tri-partite structure of beginning, middle, and ending. Beginning and ending may be quite formulaic, including stable patterns and sequences. The middle part is often based on the methods of repetition, contrast, and sequences that serve as structural devices for organizing major musical events and keeping the attention of the listener. With this basic structure, musical forms may be closed — those governed by a strict set of rules and limitations as to the order of sections — or open-ended, allowing the flexibility of improvisation to the performers.
The overall plan of a musical piece is often described in Latin letters that designate sections. A two-part structure, or binary form, can be represented as A section and B section. A three-part piece is labeled accordingly ABA. Various combinations of themes and sections may lead to structures as ABACADA etc. The binary form is one of the most widespread forms in world music and is vividly represented in the “call-and-response” structures (Hast et al., 2010, p. 219). Classical music widely applied sonata-allegro form including exposition, development, and recapitulation. Folk music tends to utilize more flexible open forms that develop through spontaneous improvisation.
Composers and Improvisers
The process of music creation can be referred to in two ways: composition and improvisation. While composition presupposes intentional preparatory work on a musical piece before it is performed in front of the audience, improvisation relates to the spontaneity of music creating exactly at the moment of its performance. The border between those two concepts is incredibly thin since each of them inevitably contains elements of the other. On the one hand, a composer often starts with improvising music to obtain inspirational musical material before he/she sets it down to polishing it to perfection. On the other hand, an improviser can rely heavily on certain background musical standards according to which he/she vents an immediate musical response.
Whatever the case may be, both composers and improvisers base their creative work within an established musical system, and therefore they are “grounded in the past” (Hast et al., 2010, p. 246). Their music is a kind of response to the prevailing cultural rules, norms, and tendencies of the time. The factors defining composers’ and improvisers’ work can be grouped into three large categories. First, the musical system dictates its rules in terms of form, material, and style. Second, a musical piece is a reflection of its creator’s inner world including personal emotions and impressions. Last but not least, the outside world leaves its mark on the musical piece depending on the situation of creation and the interaction of tradition and innovation.
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The roles of composer and improviser in various periods and cultures are characterized by different significance. Classical music recognizes the composer as a dominant figure and authority in professional music creation. Folk music leaves the composer anonymous, while in such traditions as jazz the improviser is the king of the stage.
Music and Technology
Despite the widespread notion that technology only reached the art of music when electronic musical devices were invented, technology and music have been interrelated and inseparable from the very beginning (Hast et al., 2010, p. 271). Technology has allowed extending human capacities in the realm of music-making by creating and improving instruments, as well as by enabling electronic creation, amplification, storage, and transmission of music. The first technological progress in music occurred already when primitive percussion instruments were used instead of humans clapping their hands, and the first wind instruments were devised of hollow bones to extend the possibilities of the human voice. Gradually, musical instruments have been complicated through technological developments regarding effective constructions that benefit sound quality.
With the development of electronic technology, several innovations have been introduced into the world of music. First, sound amplification has been made possible through not echoing resonators but microphones, amplifiers, and loudspeakers. This has changed the aesthetics of modern music since louder sound embodies the idea of power and dominance over the audience. Second, the sound recording has enabled transmission and storage of music samples that can be used both for entertainment and research purposes. On the one hand, music is now more available to the general public; on the other hand, researchers get access to rare samples of music in sonic archives. Third, sound-producing and processing devices make it possible to both play conventional music on electronic synthesizers and to produce special effects unattainable through traditional instruments. Last but not least, studio recordings have brought about unprecedented clarity and depth of sound, as well as new creative potential in terms of recording. An example of this opportunity enhancement is the technique of overdubbing multiple musical layers.
Hast, D. E., Cowdery, J. R., & Scott, S. (2010). Exploring the world of music, 2nd ed. Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt Publishing.