What’s That Sound?

“If a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

We could have that dialectic all day, but that’s a can of worms I would rather save for another discussion. This post focuses on a particularly intriguing element of sound, timbre.


“The basic elements of any sound are loudness, pitch, contour, duration (or rhythm), timbre, spatial location, and reverberation,” says Daniel Levitin, author of This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession.

I find timbre to be one of the most moving elements of sound. Timbre is not what lumberjacks yell when a tree falls. Rather, timbre (pronounced “TAM-ber”) is the element of sound that distinguishes one instrument from another. Listen to an electric guitar and acoustic guitar playing the same pitch. Regardless of the instruments playing an identical pitch, the two guitars will undoubtedly sound distinct. This results from inherent differences in the composition of the instruments. The variations in density, shape, and size of materials cause different vibrational patterns, especially in the attack and the overtones signature.

When one plays a tone, we define that tone by the fundamental frequency, or the lowest frequency produced. The vibrations that accompany the fundamental frequency are called overtones. Overtones relate to the fundamental frequency by an integer multiple. For example, if our fundamental frequency is 220Hz (A) then the overtones will be 440Hz, 660Hz, 880Hz, and so on. We find varying intensities of each overtone. Overtone signatures play an important role in determining timbre.

Levitin claims timbre is ecologically the most significant element of sound. In his words, “The timbre of a sound is the principal feature that distinguishes the growl of a lion from the purr of a cat, the crack of thunder from the crash of ocean waves, the voice of a friend from that of a bill collector one is trying to dodge. Timbral discrimination is so acute in humans that most of us can recognize hundreds of different voices.”

Voice recognition interests me a great deal. I can hear one “uh” and immediately know whether I am listening to Notorious B.I.G. or Jay-Z. For that reason, I feel ad libs are incredibly important for any rapper. You might be able to immediately identify the rapper when you hear “Ayyy,” “Boiii,” or “Burrr.” Those ad libs belong to Young Jeezy, Big Sean, and Gucci Mane respectively.

As timbre evolves, people invariably react. According to Levitin, “Bob Dylan dared to play an electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, people walked out and many of those who stayed, booed.”

Developing a new instrument proves to be one of the sure fire ways to develop a new timbre. Have you ever heard the eerie sounds of Ben Franklin’s invention, the glass harmonica?

The zeitgeist regarding electronic music, particularly autotune and dubstep, reminds me of the role the electric guitar played in later half of the 1900s. Remember when autotune was introduced, the world of music was taken by storm? Certain artists like T-Pain made autotune an integral part of their signature sound. Other artists like Lil Wayne experimented with autotune to mixed reviews. Good or bad, regardless, people had an opinion on autotune. Personally, I identified with the anti-autotune faction until I went to The Business of Hip Hop/Urban Music Symposium at Berklee College of Music. Prince Charles Alexander, a professor at Berklee who worked as an audio engineer for Diddy during the founding days of Bad Boy Records, related the autotune phenomena to that of scratching in the 80s and 90s. Scratching produced fresh sounds that inspired many musicians – like Herbie Hancock for instance – who experimented with these sounds in all kinds of combinations. Some listeners perceived scratching as noise devoid of musical skill. Meanwhile others, like those involved in the DMC World DJ Championships, took the art as far as possible.

The later half of the 20th century also brought about sampling. According to Wikipedia, “In music, sampling is the act of taking a portion, or sample, of one sound recording and reusing it as an instrument or a different sound recording of a song or piece.” Hip-hop emerged as the first genre to base itself on the art of sampling. As hip hop evolved and artists experienced difficulties with copyright holders, hip hop (especially commercial hip hop) turned to original beats composed with sounds from a variety of digital sources.

Nowadays, the computer has replaced much of the need for elaborate studios with thousands to millions of dollars in equipment, including hardware samplers. For example, Ableton and it’s integral time-stretching capabilities enable artists to mix and mash sounds from all over the place. Artists like Bassnectar, Pretty Lights, and Skrillex have used these tools to develop their own signature sounds. Bassnectar adds a distinct, heavy bass sound to all of his songs. His deep and fluctuating timbre creates a feel reminiscent of major events like earthquakes, avalanches, landslides, volcanic eruptions. These natural-disaster-like sounds trigger our adrenal centers and provide people with a unique high. Pretty Lights primarily recaptures soul, classic rock, and hip hop sounds with a glitchy/electronic element. Listening to Pretty Lights, you will likely hear lazers, familiar rappers, and   Skrillex’s combination of screamo/hardcore sounds with electronic sounds created new sounds that make his music both unique and moving. As a result of his innovation, he is now one of the most in demand producer/DJs around the world.

“I don’t care much about music. What I like is sounds,” said Dizzy Gillespie.