music 27: SONIC SPectrum and noise

Music 27: Sonic Spectrum -- Seminar on Timbre



Sometimes called “sound color”, timbre is the aspect of sound that tells us that we are hearing a clarinet vs. a violin, a car exhaust vs. water splashing in a swimming pool, your mother’s voice vs. that of a stranger. Timbre is often described as a parameter of sound, like pitch, loudness, or duration, but timbre is more than characteristic of a sound, it is the identity of a sound. In this course, we will investigate timbre as a cultural and historical concept that became a central concern for composers of 20th century music and cultural musicologists. Our approach will combine discussion of critical scholarship on timbre with analysis of music and sound, and composition.


Prereq: Music 25 or permission of the instructor. X-Hour: Tonmeister Lab.



20%     Class Participation

10%     Listening and Reading Reflections The readings in this class are quite challenging. You will learn best if you spend time taking notes and writing questions that arise while you are reading. Please come to every class prepared to discuss the readings for that day, and bring your notes with you. I ask that every Tuesday, you upload a response to the readings for that week so that we can read one another’s responses and keep an open dialog over the quarter.

10%     Project 1: Make a fixed media (i.e.: a “tape piece”) that explores the ideas about timbre we have been discussing in class. This can include spectral morphing techniques of your own recordings. Write a short paper that discusses the ideas you explore in the piece, referencing the readings we have done so far.

10%     Project 2: Make a PureData patch that explores an aspect of timbre. Write a short paper that discusses your idea and the patch. Give a 5-minute presentation to the class about your project.

25%     Final Composition Assignment and Paper

Choose a work that we have studied this semester and imagine that you are going to program it alongside a new composition that you will write. Your composition should respond to or comment on the work on which it is paired. Write a program note to accompany both pieces, discussing them in concert. Your composition should use techniques we have studied.

25%     Tonmeister Lab


Readings and Recordings:

All readings and recordings are available on Canvas. You are responsible for the readings and recordings listed on the syllabus.


Required Software

We will use two software programs in this course: Audacity and Ableton Live Standard. 

Audacity is free software that is great for recording and composing. You can

download Audacity at and follow the instructions. We will begin using this software immediately and it is thus vitally important that you download and install Audacity on your laptops by the start of

class on Thursday, 1/7. If you have taken Music 25, you should already have Ableton Live Standard installed on your computer. If you don’t have this software, let me know asap and we will get you set up to download it. In week 5 you will be introduced to Pure Data, which is a free open source programming language.



An Important Note on Technology

This is not a course in how to use software, nor is it a course in computer programming. The programs we use are merely tools with which you will explore critical questions about timbre and sound. As there is no expectation that you have used these tools before, assessment will not be based on mastery of these tools. Assessment will be based on the critical power of your written and aural presentations of your work.


An Important Note on Aesthetics

This is not a course on music composition. The composition assignments are meant to provide a creative way for you to think about and respond to the ideas we discuss. As such, assessment will not be based on the skill or aesthetic success demonstrated by your compositions.


What to call me.

I am not particularly fussed with titles. Feel free to call me Clara or Professor Latham depending on what feels more comfortable for you. I just ask that you call me something. Avoid emails that begin with the awkward “Hey…” or nothing at all.



You are welcome to email me and our course TA with questions. I will always try and respond as quickly as I can to emails, but I cannot guarantee that I will do so, especially for emails that come between 6pm and 9am.


 Tonmeister Lab

A significant portion of Music 27 will be devoted to building fundamental aural skills specific

to production and sonic arts. The ability to recognize, identify, notate, replicate, and evaluate

what you experience is critical to your growth as a musician.

To develop these skills you will be required to do two things regularly:

1.     Attend and actively participate in the weekly Tonmeister lab.

2.     Devote one hour of practice a week to aural drilling using the listening component of Audio Production and Critical Listening: Technical ear Training. All music majors and all students enrolled in Sonic Arts courses have access to this software. Your Tonmeister Lab instructor Sang Wook Nam will review both the time you are spending and the progress you are making and may recommend ways to improve your performance.


Your work and progress both within the weekly lab and from using Audio Production and Critical Listening: Technical Ear Training will constitute 25% of your grade in Music 25.


Course Schdeule


Week 1:

Tuesday 1/5: What is timbre? (Good question)


Unit One: Timbre as a Comparative Concept


Thursday 1/7:

Reading: Fales, Cornelia. “The Paradox of Timbre.” Ethnomusicology 46, no. 1 (Winter 2002): 56–95

Listening: George Crumb, Black Angels, movement 1; Burundi Half Whispered, Half Exhaled Chant Accompanied on Inanga, Burundi: traditional music/musique traditionnelles

Download Audacity before class!


Week 2: Culture

Tuesday 1/12

Reading: Schoenberg, Theory of Harmony, (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1978), excerpts, Luigi Russolo, The Art of Noises Futurist Manifesto

Listening: Jonathan Harvey, Mortuous Plango, Vivos Voce

Upload Listening and Reading Reflection Response 1 to Canvas before class


Thursday 1/14

Reading: Tenzer, Michael. Gamelan Gong Kebyar: The Art of Twentieth-Century Balinese Music. Pp. 21 – 69 (Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000)

Guests: Dahka Brahka


Week 3: Instruments

Tuesday: 1/19

Reading: Emily Dolan, The Orchestral Revolution pp. 23 – 52 (Cambridge University Press, 2013).

Listening: Franz Joseph Haydn, Symphony No. 102

Guest: Emily Dolan, Gardner Cowles Associate Professor of Music, Harvard University

Upload Listening and Reading Reflection Response 2 to Canvas before class


Thursday 1/21

Reading: pp. 53 – 89

Listening: Johannes Brahms, Symphony No. 4, Anton Bruckner, Symphony no. 5

Guest: Roger Mathew Grant, Assistant Professor of Music Theory, Wesleyan University


Unit Two: Timbre and Scientific Materialism


Week 4: Tuning

Tuesday 1/26

Reading: Daniel Heller-Roazen, The Fifth Hammer: Pythagoras and the Disharmony of the World, (Zone Books, 2011), excerpt.

Listening: Tony Conrad, Slapping Pythagoras


Thursday 1/28

Reading: James Tenney, A History of Consonance and Dissonance, (Excelsior Music Pub. Co, 1988), excerpts.

Listening: La Monte Young, The Well-Tuned Piano




Week 5: Classical Theory of Timbre

Tuesday 2/2

Reading: Benjamin Steege, Helmholtz and the Modern Listener (Cambridge, 2012), pp. 43 – 79.

Listening: TBA


Thursday 2/4

Reading: Benjamin Steege, Helmholtz and the Modern Listener (Cambridge, 2012), pp. 1 - 15.

Listening: TBA

Introduction to Pure Data


Week 6:

Tuesday 2/9: Synthesis

Reading: Tara Rodgers, “’What, for me, constitutes life in a sound?’ Electronic Sounds as Lively and Differentiated Individuals” (American Quarterly, Sep 2011, Vol. 63(3), pp. 509-530).

Listening: Jean-Claude Risset, Computer Suite from Little Boy


Thursday 2/11: The Voice

Reading: Nina Eidsheim, The Micropolitics of Listening to Vocal Timbre, Postmodern Culture (Vol. 24, No. 1, May 2014)

Listening: Laurie Anderson, United States

Unit Three: Timbre and Aesthetics


Week 7: Musique Concrete

Tuesday 2/16

Reading: Pierre Schaeffer, “Acousmatics”, Don Ihde, “The Auditory Dimension”



Thursday 2/18

Reading: Reading: Eric Drott, “The Politics of Presque Rien”, in Sound Commitments: Avant-Garde Music and the Sixties, edited by Robert Adlington, pp. 145 – 164.

Listening: Luc Ferrari, Preque Rien No. 1; Pierre Henry, “Variations pur une porte et un soupir” (1963).


Week 8:

Tuesday 2/23: Spectralism

Reading: TBA

Listening: Johnathan Harvey Speakings, Gérard Grisey, L’Icône Paradoxale


Thursday 2/25: Rock

Reading: Peter Doyle, Echo and Reverb: Fabricating Space in Popular Music Recording, 1900 – 1960,

Wesleyan University Press, 2005. excerpt

Listening: TBA


Week 9:

Tuesday 3/1: Jazz

Reading: TBA

Listening: Art Ensemble of Chicago, Bap-Tizm

Thursday 3/3: Hip Hop

Reading: TBA

Listening: TBA


Week 10: Final Projects

Tuesday 3/8

Final Projects