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Blog // Creativity
September 20, 2012

Timbre – The Most Musical Characteristic

What’s the most important aspect of a song? Is it the beat, the rythmn, the melody? Current science suggests something else – a song’s timbre.

There’s a little ripple pulsing through the music world, as more and more musicians, composers and producers get hip to the latest insights from the field of music psychology. There’s some fascinating books and articles being written about the way we hear, perceive and understand music. The latest insights from the medical and scientific community are fascinating.

For example, music cognition was influential in the making of Gotye’s Somebody That I Used To Know,

“The song’s mixer, François Tétaz, had a vision for it from the beginning. He also thought long and hard about aspects of the mix that are likely to have greatly contributed to its appeal, like the way in which the dynamics of the song are shaped, with the intensity increasing at several points, his refusal to engage with the loudness wars, the imperfections that he retained in the vocals, and the way he managed to make the track sound modern without losing the idiosyncratic character of the many lo-fi ingredients of Gotye’s arrangement. Tétaz was and is inspired by two books written by neuroscientists, This Is Your Brain On Music by Dr Daniel Levitin and Sweet Anticipation: Music And The Psychology Of Expectation by professor David Huron (both published in 2006). His main focus, and that of Gotye (who was assisting him with mixing the entire album), was on feeling.”

Your Brain on Music

That quote comes from a fascinating article in Sound on Sound entitled François Tétaz: Mixing Gotye’s ‘Somebody That I Used To Know.’ As Gotye himself, AKA Wouter (Wally) de Backer puts it,

“The arrangement of ‘Somebody’ is reflective of me moving towards using sounds that provide me with inspiration for a texture or a platform for an idea, and then through sonic manipulation and coming up with original melodies and harmonic ideas to make it my own…

When you see the ‘Somebody’ session, you realise that there are many more sounds in there than is apparent on first listen. It may sound like quite a minimal song, but there are many different small things happening at key moments that provide minor accents for the lyric.”

Many small moments is something of an understatement. There are 26 vocal tracks and the more you listen, the more you realise how much is going under the surface to make the song live and breath. Somebody That I Used To Know is a great song, it plays with your expectations, tells a story, has a strong melody, creates a real sense of emotion and wraps that all up in an instantly recognisable sonic package.

In fact, having recently checked out the two books Tétaz mentioned, This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession and Sweet Anticipation: Music and the Psychology of Expectation it’s clear the song has managed to bring together the ideas both books develop about what makes music work.

The Most Musical Characteristic

In This Is Your Brain on Music, Daniel Levitin begins by explaining and demonstrating the importance of the various characteristics of music – pitch, melody, rhythm, harmony and so on. Levitin suggests that from the middle of the last century and onto today, one characteristic has become key to the way we experience music. And, it’s not one that most people, or musicians, normally think is central.

It’s not melody and it’s not rhythm. It’s timbre.

If A Timbre Falls In The Forest

Timbre (pronounced tahm-bah and not tim-ber) is the sonic quality of a note or piece of music. Imagine the same note being played at the same pitch and volume on both a violin and saxophone. What makes one sound different from the other? The difference is timbre.

Levitin suggests the earliest music was largely based around rhythm. Then for thousand years or so (in Western music) pitch became prominent. Then, in the last two hundred years or so, timbre has become more and more important.

Composers, arrangers and orchestrators work with timbre, making music sound different depending on which instruments play and where, in their range the play. This little piece I composed last week is a simple example, a short melody that changes and evoles as it is played by different instruments.

Levitin’s point is not that melody and rythmn no longer matter, but as popular music continues to evolve, we are moving further into an era where timbre is what gives a song (and even a genre) its distinctiveness. I certainly believe the rise of EDM, DubStep and Americana is as much about timbre as anything else, with the first two being all about the sonic possibilities of new electronic instruments and the latter about a return to a pre-digitial (retro) sonic aesthetic.

Middle School Reality Check

To test this theory I decided to enlist my eleven year old daughter. Asking her about the songs she listens to it’s not surprising she mentions lyrics and melody a lot. But, more often, she will talk about the sound of a song.

No More Demos Or Cheap Acoustic Guitars

If this argument about the importance of timbre is right, then it has big implications for musicians and performers who are tyring to get noticed. The old approach was to record a demo or play a live performance of your songs with a simple backing, maybe just you and a few strummed out chords on an acoustic guitar. The world full of cafes and open mic nights with singer-songwriters singing their songs to simply strummed acoustic backgrounds. I hear it everyday on SoundCloud and in clips people email to me.

And, after a while, those demos all sound the same. Actually, they all sound the same because they all sound the same. Mid range acoustic guitars, played the same way, with singers pitching their songs in the comfortable middle of their vocal register and recorded on the same kinds of digital devices. There’s no sonic uniqueness.

My suggestion would be to ditch the idea of the acoustic demo altogether and start work as early as you can on giving your music an original sonic signature. Think about your gear, think about your audio tools and think about the music that really moves you. Then go about creating something that stands out as different, unique and hopefully, emotive.

What’s you sound?


Great post. I’ve read Levitin’s book, but not the other, will have to check it out. I love the Gotye song and had no idea it was so layered. Will have to listen again. One thing the song has that i did notice, though, is vocal imperfections. How refreshing. Perfect music is perfectly boring to me and there’s way to much of it these days what with pitch/beat correction and all.

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