Kicking Classical out of the Classroom, Part 1: Timbre

Kicking Classical out of the Classroom, Part 1: Timbre

Roll Over Beethoven

Roll Over, Beethoven

Almost everyone listens to music in some capacity; whether you’re an avid fan of just one band, you ‘listen to a bit of everything’, or just like sticking on the radio to fill the void. So why is it, when so many of us have this lifelong shared interest, that teachers often feel unequipped to talk about music in the classroom? Perhaps this is because our conception of what type of music is best to learn from, and which skills make a good musician, are still tied up with classical music! 

My classroom experience with music, growing up, would have led me to believe that the only type of educated musician was one sitting in an orchestra who could read/play music from a sheet of paper, despite the fact that the musicians I was actually interested in did nothing of the sort.

Music, in all its forms, stimulates the brain in amazing ways. Wouldn’t it be great, then, if we could talk about the kinds of music we actually listen to, and what’s going on in music today, rather than hand out another copy of Ode to Joy? Music still takes all of the skill and has all of the creative depth that it did 300 years ago, and neither you, nor your students, should stay trapped in the past.

Over this mini blog series I want to provide you with ideas and perspectives that are (1) fun for kids and gets them thinking about sound in creative ways, (2) you can attempt no matter how musical you are, and (3) helps legitimise studying pop music in education in a way that isn’t gimmicky or cringe.

Today I want to talk about timbre.

If a Tree Falls in the Woods, Does it Have Timbre?

As well as being the most misleadingly spelt word in the English language (pronounced ‘Tam-Buhr,’ as in tambourine), timbre is the characteristic and quality of a particular sound. For instance, we could play the same note on a piano, a guitar, and a xylophone, and although the pitch of the note would be the same, what allows these instruments to sound different from one another is their timbre.

I like to think of it like a more personal description of a sound than just recognising the instrument. For example, the timbre of an old, honky-tonk piano that spent a few decades in a saloon in the Wild West would be quite different to the timbre of a well-maintained piano in a concert hall. Likewise, when two people sing together, both voices are still distinguishable from each other by a timbral difference.

Timbre also applies to non-pitched sounds, like percussion, drums, or could simply describe the difference between tapping a metal surface and a wooden surface. 

Textures: wood vs. aluminium

To try this concept out, create some sounds of your own. Try a range of materials, objects, and surfaces - or whatever’s on your desk - and pay attention to what is similar or different about each sound, maybe make some notes about if it’s properties (if it’s sound is gentle/harsh, soft/hard, short/long etc.).

The bottom line is: if something makes a sound, it has a timbre! You'll notice that things made of the same material often have a lot of the same sonic properties, and this is true of instruments as well. However, no two surfaces will sound exactly the same, and realising the infinity of possible sound is a big part of today’s lesson.

Timbre is just as important as harmony or rhythm in informing how we might feel about a particular piece of music, but we don’t often think about it beyond what we hear in classical music and from traditional instruments. That’s because these timbres have been fixed and limited to the sounds that physical materials are capable of producing for hundreds of years.

In pop and electronic music, timbre is even more important because the range of sounds we now have - made possible by computers - is so vast and different. How artists express themselves has, unsurprisingly, changed with technology and we now have the freedom to make new sounds!


The Shape of Sound

So, what is actually going on here? The answer is going to take a little bit of physics.

As you may already know, all sounds are just vibrations travelling through the air, interacting with tiny hairs inside your ears. You can think of it like having your own mini radio antennae that wiggle in response to any vibrations strong enough to register and be heard.

All of the sound experiments we did earlier sounded different because they literally produced different shapes of vibration. As these travel, the shape and pattern of each vibration is mimicked by the cochlea (our ear-hair radio) when they interact, and the brain converts this shape to an electrical signal which we can understand as sound. So, fascinatingly, that means we’re translating these shapes into sounds and experiencing music in a far more tactile way than we might first imagine. We are always ‘feeling the music.’

How this ties back in with pop and electronic music is to do with how this music is made.

The vibrations from the materials in our sound experiments will have had quite complex and inconsistent shapes compared to what it takes to make a pitched note:

Noise vs. Tone

Meanwhile traditional instruments have been designed for hundreds of years to try smooth these random shapes out and make them more pleasant to listen to:

Music is pleasant to hear

What modern technology allows us to do now, is to have complete creative control over these shapes, and thus control over their timbre. This can range anywhere from the incredibly simple shapes used in 8-bit video game music, to the absurdly complex ones used in dubstep and EDM, or even copy an existing instrument’s shape to create a digital version.


Food For Thought

The common critiques of pop music - that it’s simplistic, repetitive, or that it’s less authentic - have always bored me. The truth is that music has changed a lot, and timbre - controlling how sounds sound - is far more relevant in music today than a traditional music education teaches. Even if you are not a musician, you and your students deserve not to be alienated from something that we can all enjoy!

Next time I’ll be delving into some specific tunes and seeing how we can put this knowledge into practice and become better music listeners.