Friday, September 30, 2011

Breaking up is hard to do

One of the difficulties in exploring musical timbre is combating the scriptist-inspired view of music.  This view assumes that the script, in this case the musical score, contains all of the information about the music.  A result of this perspective is the assumption that the smallest musical unit is the note, music's version of the atom.  But just as physicists discovered that the atom was indeed divisible into smaller and smaller sections, musical notes can also be divided into smaller sections. 

The best-known division of musical notes comes from the world of synthesizers, giving us the ADSR.  This system breaks up the note into the Attack, the Decay, the Sustain, and the Release.  The Attack is defined as the beginning of the note, up to the point that the amplitude has reached its maximum.  The Decay marks the drop-off in amplitude after the Attack, followed by the Sustain's consistent volume level.  Finally, the Release marks how quickly the volume drops to nothing after the Sustain portion.  Simple synthesizers could control the timbre of a sound by specifying how long each of these sound portions lasted, with a linear increase or decrease of amplitude for the transient sections.  These sections are determined solely by amplitude, with no consideration of frequency whatsoever.  Fancier synthesizers do allow curves to the amplitude changes, for more subtle changes in timbre.  Any of these synthesizers apply the ADSR amplitude envelope to a specified spectral pattern, either from an analog filter or a digital filter. 

This system was never intended to analyze sounds, so its usefulness is limited.  Acoustic instruments can increase in volume after the attack, or shift in spectral color without changing volume.  In the next post I'll look at a different segmentation system that is better suited to analysis.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Speed of Timbre

Last week I was listening to an interview with guitarist Taylor Levine on My Ears Are Open. In the interview Taylor talks about how quickly rock musicians adopted technological innovations that created new timbres. From the electric guitar of Les Paul, to innovations in speakers and pedals, to synthesizers of all different generations, as soon as a new device was invented, it was embraced by some popular musician and loved by audiences. Why is it that these musical explorations are so quickly accepted in the popular music world, and yet innovations in timbre in the art music world don't find a foothold, either with the musicians or the audience?

I think there may be a complexity issue that hampers exploration in the art music scene. Berlyne's inverted U theory of complexity and arousal states that the complexity or novelty of a piece directly affects the arousal, with the optimal amount of arousal created at a midlevel of complexity, the arousal dropping off in either direction as the complexity increases or decreases. I posit that popular music tends to be on the low side of the complexity curve, when considering rhythm, melody, and harmony. Thus any experimentation with timbre will only aid in reaching the apex of arousal. On the other hand, a string quartet by Webern already has very complex form, harmony, and melodic structure. I always felt that throwing in extra timbral effects like col legno was like too much spice, pushing me well over the hump of the inverted U curve, reducing my arousal. Musical works that introduce new timbres successfully will be conservative in other aspects of structure. Thus popular music, minimalist music, and non-pitched percussion music tends to be the most successful. A Stockhausen piece that serializes timbre along with rhythm, pitch, and dynamics will have to rely on things other than arousal, at least until audiences are more familiar with the structures, reducing the perceived complexity.