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    Timbre in Aural Skills Curriculum

    I'm in the process of revising the theory curriculum at my school (who isn't these days!). One big change I'm instituting is placing much greater emphasis on timbre and color, right off the bat in "Music Theory 101." I piloted this unit last year, with around two weeks dedicated to a simplified physics of sound, extremely basic synthesis, and some lessons on analyzing evelope and spectrum -- including teaching how to use visualization software like Sonic Visualizer. I'm pleased with how this went, and I plan to expand the unit next Fall. Inevitably, that'll mean less time given to harmony, but it strikes me as a fair trade-off.

    One thing I haven't yet figured out is how to incorporate timbre into the Musicianship/Aural Skills component of the curriculum. We do have a lab, taught by another instructor, that currently covers the classics: dictation, sight-singing, and piano skills. Has anyone had any experience developing activities or assignements relevant to timbre in the context of a musicianship class? And have you found ways to integrate them with activities related to the other musical skills that we tend to cover in freshman aural skills?

    I did a quick perusal of JMTP and couldn't find any articles specifically on teaching musical color; apologies if I have indeed missed anyone's prior work in this arena!

    One idea that comes to mind immediately is some sort of game involving the recognition of different orchestral instruments and instrumental blendings. This is a talent that has (perhaps not surprisingly) atrophied for incoming freshmen. However, as we move away from a strict Western Art emphasis in our program at large, I don't feel as though precious time in aural skills lab needs to be spent helping students make fine differentiations between, say, oboe, English Horn, and bassoon in comparable ranges (as fun as that would be!). More valuable, I'd think, are activities that get students to hear and recall timbre generally, and articulate its quality systematically in many different contexts. A related goal is to be able to specify the subtle differences in performance (esp. vocal technique) that make the sound of specific musicians unique.

    [For those that know me well: I confess my interest in identifying and recording birdsong may be influencing my curricular goals here! I'm almost thinking of adopting parts of the wonderful recent Peterson's Guide to Bird Sounds as a "textbook" of sorts. Certainly, if you can teach a freshman to distinguish between a Chipping Sparrow and Worm-Eating Warbler by vocalization alone, identifying an C4 on an oboe vs. English Horn will be a piece of cake!)] 




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    • Great question and thanks for making space to discuss this. I’ll post (and in some haste so please forgive anything scatter-brained) my thoughts but these are by no means comprehensive or definitive or even particularly battle-tested by me, and so I’m looking forward to reading responses from others and to learning of new techniques and resources.

      I’ll say at the outset that, as with anything, I found it helpful to start by asking what my learning objectives were for the students—particularly in the unique context of an ear training class (vs an analysis course; a private lesson; a course on studio recording + music technology; etc.) What did I want them to be able to do at the end of the unit? With that question in mind I’ve approached teaching timbral ear training two ways:

      1) Teaching aural recognition of equalization techniques. I dropped some clean recordings of a cello and a voice into Ableton (but pretty much any audio DAW will work) and used a basic 5-band equalizer. They watched me attenuate lows, mids, highs with peak filtering; then I showed them low-pass high-pass band-pass and shelf filtering, and we discussed in qualitative terms how the samples changed under various kinds of filtering. The next class we did an ungraded quiz where I played a few samples that had too much attenuation of high, mid, or low frequencies and asked them to write down which one they felt. Generally they got it — our students are in general very sensitive to nuances of recording timbre.

      There are some much more refined resources for this; for instance, Dave Moulton’s “Golden Ears” series: http://www.moultonlabs.com/full/product01 . I also found this page a helpful intro: http://www.recordinginstitute.com/da154/ARP/chap3Sig/asp3.html

      I am of the opinion that we do an *immense* disservice to our students if we let them graduate from a school of music without knowing how to ask a recording engineer to make their instrument sound better, and I think an aural skills class is the right place for this. There are lots of resources on YouTube for instructors to develop these basic skills and it really would only need as little as two 1/2-class periods. I encourage you to try it! The lesson I just described I taught in an integrated theory/skills music fundamentals course.

      2) Teaching timbre from an embodied cognition perspective. My lesson plan owed specifically to work by Arnie Cox (2016), Zachary Wallmark (2014), and Kate Heidemann (http://www.mtosmt.org/issues/mto.16.22.1/mto.16.22.1.heidemann.html) plus some of my own research. In short, the (not new) idea is that timbre is a catch-all proxy for sonic expressions of material and space as well as affect and exertion (among other things); and (the newer idea) one way we make sense of that information is through comparison with our embodied + ecologically grounded knowledge of real-world spaces, materials, gestures, etc. A quick and super reductive example: a loud distorted electric guitar might sound like a scream, because we know that screaming is loud and somewhat distorted. Part of the enjoyment of that sound may rest on whether we adopt a first-person subject position (I am screaming, via the guitar that I am either performing with or imagining performing; which I could like or not like) or a third person subject position (you are screaming at me; which I could like or not like). I’ve only taught this lesson three times; twice without any reading, once with a reading from Cox (2016). 

      One of those three times I used Lachenmann’s first string quartet (“gran torso”) as an anchor work and thought it worked well. There are something like six pages of performance notes, which I assigned the students for homework. I had them think about how they’d produce those sounds with their voices and with their instruments, and they brought their instruments to class. (So: how would I make overbowed string sounds with my mouth? With my trombone? What does it feel like to make those sounds?) They performed (while I conducted) some snippets of the piece using both voices and instruments, and we talked about what kinds of expressive features started to pop into view. For example, lots of choked sounds in the piece seem to combine high effort with relatively little sound, like slowly forcing a bit of air out between your tongue pressed tight against your palate. More than one initially skeptical student felt that conceiving of the sounds this way helped transform the piece from undifferentiated noise into a more nuanced and textured sound world, one in which they could better track development and draw long-range connections. (What is the goal of an aural skills course if not this?) 

      Lastly we compared our ad-hoc performances to two recordings of “Gran torso” (JACK quartet and Arditti quartet) for a brief performance and analysis discussion. You could go for days this way. 

      (As a related sidebar: I’m eagerly awaiting Joseph Straus’ forthcoming book “Broken Beauty” from OUP which, as I understand it, casts certain modernist musical works as staging or representing disability. That could be another helpful resource for this kind of lesson.)

      I don’t know that a lesson on some aspect of musical timbre will ever leave instructors with the satisfying sense of completion that, say, a well-crafted and compartmentalized lesson on resolving bII6 can give. I think that’s ok and that the unboundedness of teaching timbre should be embraced; simply making space in class to try some weird things and talk about them felt productive to me. (But those tend to be my favorite skills classes regardless of topic.)

      As a quick post-script: In analytic contexts I’ve used the chapter on acoustic timbre from Kostka - Materials and Techniques of Post-tonal music, and I’ve also introduced a number of the visualization tools that you mention. I also teach a lot of material from William Sethares’ book “tuning timbre spectrum scale.” Repertoire focus in these classes has tended to be spectral music and an array of different popular music (recently: Matana Roberts, Holly Herndon, Oneohtrix Point Never). Interestingly, the students I’ve had have tended to steer these lessons towards questions of acoustics and psychoacoustics; they seem to enjoy lingering there and find much explanatory value in that material. I would also definitely mention Megan Lavengood's dissertation in addition to some of the other resources I mentioned, for those looking to incorporate timbre into their theory classes.

      Looking forward to reading + learning more from other posts.

      Best wishes,


    • Hi Frank,

      You might take a look at the book Audio Production and Critical Listening. I haven't read it in detail, but it may give you some ideas. And it comes with software that is supposed to let you try out some of the concepts in the book. Obviously, it's geared towards studying audio production, but this field is particularly focused on timbre. I keep meaning to read it to think about how to integrate these skills into my aural skills classes, but haven't gotten around to it yet.