The phenomenological aspect of sound and vision

Lunar Eclipse by Keith Burns - courtesy NASA

Lunar Eclipse by Keith Burns – courtesy NASA

In the interim from my last entry, a great deal has happened – the submission of of my honours research (which you can now read here), graduation from the B.Mus. at UWS, a university medal and now the commencement of a PhD, which is something I’d never dreamed of undertaking a few years ago. Really though, this all seems to be a continuation of a very long journey I’ve been pursuing, unconsciously sometimes, over many years. Trying to tie down this ‘in-between’ quality in music has actually led me back to where it all started in the first place, the nexus point where music and the visual seem to coalesce in this suspended state that I’m so fascinated with.

Although the main interest has always been with music and sound, I have a similar relationship to visual phenomena that appears to share the same ‘in-between’ quality, which I’ve documented in previous posts. Arnold Van Gennup, who first posited the idea of a liminal state in Rites de Passage (1908), noted that “the universe itself is governed by a periodicity which has repercussions on human life with stages of transition” (Van Gennep, 1960, p. 3). Although Van Gennup’s observations were based on human behaviour in rites of passage, it is the idea of liminality as a “nameless, spatio-temporally dislocated and socially unstructured” state (Thomassen, 2006, p. 322) that I believe has application for both music and imagery. Victor Turner expanded on Van Gennup’s ideas in the 1960s “to include both a personal and collective liminality, temporal as well as spatial” (Thomassen, p. 322) and in this respect Turner’s definition of liminality relates to both time and space. Van Gennup acknowledged that ritual often accompanied “celestial changes, such as the changeover from month to month (ceremonies of the full moon), from season to season (festivals related to solstices and equinoxes), and from year to year (New Years Day)” (Van Gennup, 1960, p.4) and it’s often in these transitional periods that I observe liminal occurences at play, i.e. the transition periods between day and night, namely twilight and dawn, when the quality of light and colour are changed so markedly from the pure tones of daylight. I seem to derive this sense of ‘in-between’ particularly in these periods, and use this quality in creating both my sense of a ‘liminal aesthetic’ in my work and attempting to bring about a ‘liminal state’ in the creative approach.

Phenomenological approaches to sound and vision

In my honours year research, I investigated what I believed to be liminality in popular music, especially music that sidestepped conventional notions of time. Looking at elements such as drone, repetition, metrical ambiguity and different forms of harmony all informed the practical component of the research. The examples I used were from my background in popular music, in particular 1960s pop and psychedelia, the ambient work of Brian Eno in the 1970s and the ‘shoegaze’ movement in the late 1980s, although I recognised precursors in the music of Debussy, Stravinsky and Copland, and in the minimalist work of Steve Reich, Terry Riley and Phillip Glass. I also acknowledged traditional musics such as the Indian classical music tradition (which was a direct influence on psychedelia and several of the minimalist composers), Georgian and Bulgarian vocal music and Scottish and Irish traditional music, all of which use drone and metrical interplay.

What many of these had in common, to my ears, was an interest in what Eric Tamm refers to as “verticality” in music, in this case referring to the music of Brian Eno (Tamm, 1995, p. 4). I read this as a focus on phenomenological aspects of sound in music, rather than a linear, narrative-driven unfolding of events still very prevalent in western music, especially popular music. I also observed that literature concerned with this kind of music often uses terminology with visual connotations, for example, Sheila Whitely’s description of the ‘codes’ evident in psychedelia (my italics):

the manipulation of timbre (blurred, bright, overlapping), upward movement (and its comparison with psychedelic flight), harmonies (lurching, oscillating), rhythms (regular, irregular), relationships (foreground, background) and collages which provide a point of comparison with more conventionalised, i.e., normal treatment (Whitely, 1992, p. 4).

The use of visual art terminology to describe music is nothing new, but it’s a reminder that in both music and visual arts there is a phenomenological aspect to how we see and hear music and art, and I believe the approach to be useful in the analysis of the visual and auditory aspects of my project, as it applies readily to both. Phenomenology, a philosophy founded by Edmund Husserl and expanded upon by Heidegger in the first half of the 20th century, is explained rather nicely by Wayne Bowman:

As a philosophical approach to music, the phenomenological method typically resists efforts to explain what music is ‘about’, resembles, symbolises, or is useful for, preferring instead to describe as richly as possible what music itself says, how music is experienced… its concern is not so much to establish absolute or universal truths, but to help recover the richness and fullness of the experientially given. (Bowman, 1998, p. 255)

Although Bowman is referring here to the musical experience, phenomenology I find is readily transferable to the visual, and is a very useful approach in creative practice.  F. Joseph Smith states that “phenomenological philosophy is an attempt at openness and true listening. Openness in this case means not just open eyes and sight but open ears and hearing” (Smith, 1979, p. 17).  Don Ihde also observes the use of visual metaphor in describing the musical experience and notes that “the intimate relation between animation, motion and sound lies at the threshold of the inner secret of auditory experience, the timefulness of sound” (Ihde, 1976, p. 82). Mikel Dufrenne explains that both temporal and spatial factors are present in all artforms, in that time and space “become correlative and even continuous, so that the space of every aesthetic object is temporalized and its time spatialized” (Dufrenne, p. 241). Clearly, a phenomenological-based approach has some advantages in tackling an area that has both auditory and visual dimensions and deals specifically with time and our apprehension of it. Bennett Reimer also observes the idea of a “lived or virtual time” opposed to “real or clock time” in the music listening experience, and this idea of the suspension of time is fundamental to my perception of the liminal experience, both in the work and creative practice.

Evidently there’s much interest in the subject of liminality, judging from the amount of hits I receive through – there may be something in this after all. More on other theoretical approaches as I work through theories on perception – watch this space.


Bowman, W. D. (1998). Philosophical perspectives on music. New York, NY, U.S.A.: Oxford University Press.

Dufrenne, M. (1973). The phenomenology of aesthetic experience. Northwestern University Press.

Ihde, D. (1979). Technics and Praxis. Dordrecht. Reidel.

Reimer, B., & Wright, J. E. (1992). On the nature of musical experience.

Smith, F. J. (1979). The Experiencing of Musical Sound: prelude to a phenomenology of music (Vol. 1). Routledge.

Thomassen, B. (2006). Liminality. In The encyclopedia of social theory. Ed. Harrington, A. Routledge, Taylor and Francis: Abingdon, UK.

Turner, V. W. (1967). The forest of symbols: Aspects of Ndembu ritual (Vol. 101). Cornell University Press.

Thomassen, B. (2006). Liminality. In The encyclopedia of social theory. Ed. Harrington, A. Routledge, Taylor and Francis: Abingdon, UK.

Van Gennep, A. (1960). The rites of passage. University of Chicago Press: Chicago.

The Sound of In-Between

IMG_1285aAs you could probably surmise by lack of posts of late, it’s been busy; the UWS honours submission date has been looming and it’s been all go, go go. Thankfully, I’m almost across the finish line, and the investigation into liminality in music is all but complete, for now anyway. It’s been an interesting journey, and one that continues, as music tends to do – I’m fortunate to have a chosen a pursuit that never ceases to surprise me, there’s always something new about music to discover, and this project has been no exception.

If you haven’t been following my posts so far, I’d invite you to go back a few and see where I’ve been coming from – and for those who have and are curious to hear the results of all this liminal investigation, I’ve posted the final mix on Soundcloud. If you like music that’s a little ambient, uses space, repetition, drone and alternate forms of harmony, this may be right up your alley.

Once I’ve submitted, I’ll post a summary of what I’ve discovered – better let the examiners have a look first. But for now, enjoy some explorations of liminality – happy listening.

Liminality: a state of ‘in-between’


I’ve recently been floating around a new concept that may very well tie all of my creative work together, and in the scheme of things makes a whole lot of sense in relation to the music I’ve been trying to create, the ‘spectral’ quality that I’ve been seeking

The concept of liminality (drawing from Greek work limin, meaning ‘a threshold’) describes a state of being that is between things, inter-medial, in transition, suspended… and in many respects, this is very good fit for the quality I’ve been looking for. Although the term itself is drawn from anthropology and refers to a transitional state in rituals and rites of passage, between casting off a previous identity and adopting a new one, it has applications in many areas, and for myself this applies especially to the time-based aspects of my work. Whereas I had been preoccupied with the methods used to produce the ‘spectral’ quality I was observing, namely the use of timbre, drone, repetition, quartal harmony approaches etc., what I’d been after all along was a suspension of time in music; being in ‘a moment’ so speak, and trying to make that last as long as feasibly possible. Liminality perhaps defines this, as an overarching concept or idea, which up until now I didn’t have a name for. It makes a lot of sense – quartal harmony is really an in-between approach to composition, in comparison to more conventional tertial harmony approaches, as I’d been searching for an suspended quality in harmony that didn’t feel a need for resolution. Emphasising timbral aspects in composition over harmonising a melody is perhaps another example of liminality, looking at composition with a more ‘vertical’ approach to sound. Using repetition to focus upon the phenomena of sound (a phenomenological approach) I believe also emphasises this quality, and my recent use of polyrhythms to further disrupt a sense of absolute metre in a piece also contributes to a sense of being ‘in-between’, the potential in what may be, a kind of ‘becoming’… the moment between sleep and waking, the nexus between day and night (twilight), the midpoint between conscious thought and daydreaming…. well, that’s pretty much what I’ve been after all along, really.

IMG_1256What I’ve created thus far has been, in a way, meditative, but not in the conventional sense that ‘meditation music’ usually is, replete with washy synthesisers, distant vocals and pan pipes. I’ve avoided using synthesisers up until this point, which I suspect is something to do with not using ‘real’ instruments, it feels a little like cheating. But really, I’ve been disguising the nature of the instruments or sounds that I’ve been using all along, so in this sense I seem to be striving for a state of unreality. I’ve been unsure up until this point whether to take this all into the realm of the fantastic or surreal, which is what synths seem to do, but working with natural sounds and timbres and seeing what I can do to enhance, or perhaps extend, the normal listening experience of these instruments seems to be my primary working method, so…? Perhaps this project is more about creating a mood, or ambience, or perhaps a state of listening – a place in-between the real and the unreal aspects of sound, taking something that you already recognise and then bending or twisting it, taking it into another realm or world. It seem there’s no point in starting with a sound that’s fantastic to begin with, because there’s no semiotic meaning or reference one can ascribe to it – it appears one has to take an existing, recognisable sound first, establish its significance and then take it on a journey elsewhere. Which is what I seem to have been doing, perhaps inadvertently…

I believe this is it, the quality I’ve been looking for – it’s the nexus, the liminal state between the everyday and the other… and I suspect it’s something I’ve been looking for in music for quite a long time.

The joys of looping

IMG_0151aAs I’ve noted in previous posts, a core aspect of my honours year project is based upon the idea of extending ‘vertical’ aspects of sound (borrowing from Eric Tamm’s observations of Brian Eno’s approach to music creation), insofar as using timbre and texture as a source for music creation, rather than a linear, time-based approach. Although our perception of music in the broadest sense is usually based upon a series of sound events occurring over a given period, I believe it’s entirely possible to create the impression of time being ‘suspended’ – as I’ve previously suggested, the use of quartal harmony, drone and the use of repetition all go some way to creating a feeling of suspension in music. What I haven’t discussed in great detail up until this point is my working methodology, which is integral to this process and which I have only arrived at through through a degree of trial and error, from trying out several different compositional approaches and software applications.

What was impressed upon me early in this investigation was that in exploring timbral qualities, the use of notation was perhaps not advisable, insofar as detailing musical ideas – it would be difficult for example, to notate a guitar with a number of audio effects applied, such as reverb, reverse echo and phasing. As I’m looking equally at the quality of sound as well as pitch material in music composition, or more specifically a phenomenological approach to sound, using conventional notation seems cumbersome and limited. What became apparent in adopting this approach to sound, that not only would a recording technology necessarily be my prime compositional tool, but preferably also one that somehow negated, or at least relegated a sense of time passing. As readers would be aware, most modern recording software such as Avid Pro Tools and Apple’s Logic and Garageband employ a window-based interface with a time line, usually scrolling from left to right – it’s aimed principally at recording engineers, and although simplified for the domestic market (as in Garageband) these interfaces are both visibly crowded and make the user constantly aware of a time-based approach, in keeping with conventional recording practices. There are numerous editing tools, controllers, menus and plug-ins competing for your attention, and what I often found was once an idea was recorded (after the rigmarole of plugging in iLoks, connecting an audio interface and booting up the software), there was a tendency to try to make the recording ‘sound better’, by using effects plug-ins, or editing a sound with various tools, or employing time-stretching or pitch-correction – the sound could not be accepted for its own intrinsic quality and had to ‘fixed’ somehow. This tendency to ‘fiddle’ also tended to kill off any creativity fairly quickly and I found myself mostly frustrated and irritated by the process. Although an experienced Pro Tools user for the last ten years, I was finding that a different approach to composition required a different type of technology, and I was in a way yearning for the simplicity of the tape-based recording methods I had use back in my art-school days. Enter Loopy…

The Loopy interface

The Loopy interface

Loopy is an iPad and iPhone based app that employs a simple interface consisting of a series of circular ‘loops’ – to record a sound, you simply tap one of the circles, and when you’re finished, simply tap again – the waveform of the sound appears in the circle as it records, with each loop ending up looking somewhat like a peppermint Life Saver. Being loop-based, the recorded sound simply cycles around and around – it can be as short or as long as you wish. Many musicians use loop stations to lay down repetitive elements in music, such as rhythm tracks and simple harmonic structures that exploit the synchronised features of the application, usually so users can improvise a performance over the top, and the loop station effectively operates as a self-made backing track for performance. However, the most attractive element to me of Loopy apart from its visual interface and simplicity, is that it can also record unsynchronised – this feature alone is worth its weight in gold. You may wonder at this point why on earth I would wish to unsynchronise each track – surely I would wish each track to be in time with each other? Well, no…

Part of the attraction of the Brian Eno approach to music creation is allowing for music elements to evolve gradually, almost imperceptibly over time. Eno uses a number of methods to bring this about, but principle among these is the tape-based approach that he employed with Robert Fripp in the making of No Pussyfooting (1973), developed further on Discreet Music (1975), his initial foray into ‘ambient’ music. Utilising two tape recorders, Eno created a tape delay system that repeated elements at varied lengths of time, continuously overlapping and reconfiguring in myriad combinations to create random generations of the original source material. Although repetitive in nature, no one point in a piece is exactly like another; musical interest is generated by placing emphasis on both the repeated sound itself and upon the phenomena it arouses, holding the listener in a kind of suspension: the effect can be mesmerising. This ‘generative’ approach would be developed by Eno in the ensuing years in a number of forms, but I have have used this as both a source of inspiration and a method to use in conjunction with Loopy, which in many ways is already set up for this purpose.

As Loopy is inherently designed to repeat elements over and over, and by de-synchronising its tracks, it allows me to create music in a way that approaches Eno’s methodology. By using a combination of short and longer loops, and by using quartal harmony as a template, I’m finally beginning to bring about some of the ideas that have existed only in my head up until this point. Using a combination of ‘found’ environmental sounds, mixed with instrumental improvisations based on quartal motifs, I’m beginning to find the ephemeral, timeless and ‘spectral’ quality that I’ve been looking for. Using Loopy in conjunction with Audiobus, which allows you to ‘chain’ sound generating devices and effects together, I can introduce audio effects such as reverberation, echo and phasing to introduce new textural possibilities and further remove sounds from their original context, building on a phenomenological approach. The simplified interface allows me to start recording virtually straight away – I can use the internal microphone or plug into an audio interface via the lightning connector, and be ready to go within seconds, without all the visual clutter and myriad buttons and choices of Pro Tools or Logic.

For sheer spontaneity, it’s a magical application to have, and for this particular project, improvisation and spontaneity are paramount to the creative process. This is not a project of contemplation, though the process itself has been: this is a project born of creating a mood or feeling on a particular morning or afternoon and working with the materials I have available to me at any given time. And all this on an iPad, with very little external equipment  – it can be done with as little as the iPad itself and a pair of headphones.

I’ll be posting a number of my efforts as I go, but you can hear some of the initial experiments here: these are all works in progress, but I’m pleasantly surprised by what I’ve come up with so far. All are based on quartal four note clusters, hence the titles:

Enjoy… more discoveries as they come to hand.


Quartal harmony… or the search for the grail

Debussy's opening to 'The Sunken Cathedral' (La Cathedral Engloutie) employing the use of parallel fourths, also known as 'planing'.

Debussy’s opening to ‘The Sunken Cathedral’ (La cathédrale engloutie) employing the use of parallel fourths, a technique also known as ‘planing’.

I’m following on from a previous post, Harmonics, Fourths and Fifths, where I had discovered that I was inadvertently drawn to a particular type of harmony based on intervals of perfect fourths and fifths, especially when these intervals are ‘stacked’ and become the basic unit for constructing harmony. In the Western tradition, our sense of harmony is usually based upon stacked intervals of a third, which gives western music its particular ‘colour’ or sound characteristic, and leads us to label chords as having either a ‘major’ or ‘minor’ tonality. Over many years of playing and listening to music, I’ve found that as well as the Western harmony that I’d grown up with, I was also often drawn to what I perceived as a more intriguing and interesting sound, that of the open and more ambiguous harmony of fourths and fifths. I found this in the most diverse of places – in medieval music, sometimes in British pop music from the 1960s, sometimes in Scottish bagpipe music and Irish traditional music, in Georgian and Bulgarian vocal music, and more recently in some of the music of Debussy, Bartok and Copland. Quite often this music would be underpinned by a drone or continuous tone, against which these intervals would be stacked to form odd sounding but rather compelling harmony. I enjoyed the sound of these chords, which in conventional western harmony usually had exotic names like C7sus4 or Gadd69. But of course, these are seen as aberrations in harmony based on the principle of thirds, and it’s been only recently that I’ve discovered that this type of harmony indeed has a name, and is a perfectly legitimate (and alternate) method of writing music.

Known as quartal or quintal harmony (as opposed to the Western tertian harmony approach), as a writing system, quartal harmony has been around in various forms since the Middle Ages (though in traditional musics throughout the world it appears much longer) and interestingly, a fourth was considered a consonant interval up until the common practice period (from Baroque through until late romanticism in western European music) when it became to be considered as dissonant, as a suspension that necessarily need to resolve to the third degree of a scale, unless it was the interval between the fifth degree and the octave. I’d actually like to believe that the fourth can be recognised as an interval worthy of constructing a system of harmony upon (and the fifth, being inverse intervals of each other) in it’s own right – it has a purer tonal characteristic and of course is more naturally related to the natural harmonic series and just intonation, as opposed to the thirds and sixths of 12 tone equal temperament which have had to be adjusted (albeit notionally) to accommodate changes in key. It also has an ambiguous quality that seems to hang indeterminably in air, like sunlight or activity, life itself – the opening to Stravinsky’s Petrushka is a good example of this, but other composers such as Bartok and Copland have also exploited this quality.

It was quite a revelation to discover all this only recently: after 30-plus years of playing and listening to music, it was almost a holy grail moment to discover what I thought I was imagining actually did exist, and indeed had a name. I’d been hearing snatches of quartal harmony for years, darting fleetingly in and out of the various musics I thought possessed  the quality I was looking for – I almost stumbled across it last year through my research into the harmonic approach of the Beatles (see my essay “The Harmonic Series in the Music of the Beatles“) where I thought this phenomena had to do with relating tones back to natural tones within the harmonic series – as it turned out, I wasn’t that far off the mark. But now I have a name for this, and it makes sense in so many ways in relation to what I’m investigating, the idea of composing a ‘vertical’ music that negates the sense of time passing

The sound of quartal harmony is very different to tertian, or thirds-based harmony – without the notion of a third, there is a very open quality, conveying almost a bell-like ‘ring’ to chords built upon this interval. It also makes for some interesting chords: dominant7 suspended4 chords are the most obvious example (for example, C, F, G, Bb, low to high) but by logical extension using fifths, you also get add 6/9 chords (C, G, D, A, low to high) and the various inversions of these. Of course, by using this kind of terminology (suspensions, ‘add’ chords), it implies that these are chords that would normally fall outside standard Western harmony standards, and herein lies a problem: what do we call these chords if we aren’t relating them back to a western system based upon thirds? Musicologist Phillip Tagg has very recently addressed this problematic in an entire chapter devoted to quartal harmony for an upcoming book, Everyday Tonality 2. He suggests that if we are to use quartal harmony as our approach, that we need to think of chord names in particular in quite a different way. As he puts it:

“if there’s nothing suspended, added or omitted about a chord, it’s perverse to designate it as if there were” (Tagg, 2014, p. 259).

He suggests ‘sus’ and ‘add’ are clumsy and should not even be used in a quartal harmony context, instead labelling chords simply ‘C4’, ‘C2’ and using up or down arrows to indicate the direction of stacked fourths, i.e. G4↑ would indicate G, C and F, with G the lowest note of the triad: F5↑ would indicate F, C and G, with F the lowest. (p. 260).

The most interesting aspect of quartal harmony from a compositional perspective for me however, is that modulating, or changing key, dictates a completely different, and quite subtle approach. Being based on fourths, it naturally relates closely to the circle of fourths or fifths, and allows for quite understated, sideways movement into a new ‘key’ (for want of a better word) by altering only one note. Moving this way in western harmony would dictate that two notes would need to change, and the shift is far more obvious. There’s nothing of course in standard harmony that would stop one from changing key by changing only one note of course (i.e. from C major to A minor, or perhaps C Major to C minor) but this is usually fairly obvious – there is a distinct mood change. In quartal harmony, this change is quite subtle, and given the ambiguous quality of this harmony, it becomes almost imperceptible – there is a sense that something has changed, but you’re not quite sure what it is.

Of course, if we include five notes of stacked fourths, we now have the notes of a pentatonic scale, and we can hear the relation back to many traditional folk musics throughout the world, which, given the harmonic materials we’re working with here, makes a lot of sense – this relates back to Pythagorean theory on the construction of early musical scales. But if we limit ourselves to only four notes in a chord, the sense of ambiguity and suspension is retained – and for a project that centres on a ‘timeless’ approach to composition, I believe I’ve stumbled upon a very useful and appealing system of harmony to use, at least to my ears. Like the proverbial elephant in the room, it’s been staring at me for many years, enticing me with an enigmatic quality that I never entirely recognised or understood, and now it’s been handed to me like a gift. A holy grail indeed…

More musical developments as they come to hand. Until next…


Tagg, Philip (2014). Everyday Tonality II; provisional text, 2014-05-07; [accessed May 21, 2014]

The harmonic series in the music of the Beatles

The Beatles during the 'Revolver' sessions, 1966

The Beatles during the ‘Revolver’ sessions, 1966

This is a paper I wrote last year, which as it turns out now has relevance for my honours year project. Although some of the points I raised I would probably regard now as a little (ahem) adventurous, it still has some interesting observations now that I’m examining ‘spectral’ or timbral quality in music as a form of inspiration, as it relates back to the harmonic series. At the time, I was seriously convinced that the music of the Beatles had unconsciously absorbed aspects of the series in both their compositions and sound, and though I doubt now this was entirely the case, I still see relevance in their exposure to Indian classical music traditions via George Harrison interest and his tutelage via Ravi Shankar, as of course Indian music is largely based upon the harmonic series. If nothing else, it’s an interesting read… I hope you enjoy. (Please excuse the lack of footnotes, I’ve yet to discover how WordPress does this: there is a detailed bibliography at the end).

Tell Me That You’ve Heard Every Sound There Is – 
 The Harmonic Series in the Music of the Beatles

The Beatles as both a musical and cultural phenomena of the late 20th century has been well documented, and their music of late has been examined thoroughly in music journals and academia. However, despite the detailed analysis of their music, a more fundamental principle comes to mind in regard to their overriding sonic qualities: could the appeal of the quartet’s music be attributed towards a harmonic richness, unconsciously based upon the overtones of the harmonic series? This research project aims to explore this claim by way of examining both the harmonic and melodic detail of a number of key songs from their repertoire, consider the Beatles evolving use of instrumentation over their career in regard to timbre and tonality, and also investigate studio techniques, especially in regard to harmonic exploration. I expect these findings will help to shed light upon the allure of the Beatles music, not only in terms of songcraft, but in regard to providing us with a recognisable ‘sonic template’ which has implications for both music production and the creation of popular music in years to come.

Literature review
The initial ‘spark’ for this investigation came from an essay by Emeritus Professor of Music, Sir Peter Platt, in which he examines the music of Debussy in relation to the harmonic series, noting that in conversation with his harmony teacher Guiraud, Debussy felt his harmonic sensibilities lay somewhere ‘beyond a frontier’. Platt clearly believes that Debussy’s ‘quiet revolution’ can be explained through a ‘template’ of the harmonic series ‘governing our innate and general sense of pitch relations’. He also recognises that using harmonics as a template allowed Debussy to ‘break down the typically western V-I (Dominant-Tonic) mind-set’, and submerge it within:

a procedure based on a more general confluence of melody and harmony—a confluence that potentially anyone accustomed to listening to harmonised music could understand precisely because it is strongly related to the harmonic series to which the human ear/brain mechanism seems specially responsive.

This notion resonated with my own thoughts on the harmonic series as a ‘template’ for much of the worlds music; I was also reassured to note that Platt recognised the concept has often received ‘mixed press’, as my own investigations had initially met with a need for rigorous scientific validation via an examination of Pythagorean theory, ‘just’ intonation and various anomalies between the well-tempered system and the harmonic series. Although relevant, I feel my research is primarily musical in nature (in the same manner as Platt’s essay) and do not feel anything more than a cursory acknowledgement of the physical attributes of the phenomena is warranted in this instance, and only in regard to aspects of melody, harmony and timbre.

Although Platt highlights Debussy’s writing including Prelude a l’ Apres-midi d’un faune as relating to the harmonic series up to and including the 12th partial, I am inclined to look at the series as it relates to the Beatles more as a gradual unfolding awareness to the possibilities of harmonic extension. This appears to be most apparent around the time of the albums Rubber Soul (1965) and Revolver (1966), and perhaps unsurprisingly, around the time of George Harrisons exposure to classical Indian music and the influence of Ravi Shankar. This is seen by K.G. Johansson in his essay The Harmonic Language of the Beatles as an ‘exploding (of) functional harmony’ and Ger Tillikens in his essay A flood of flat-sevenths, who notes the use of flattened seventh chords (bVII) in the Beatles music from this period as an indication of an extended harmonic language. Although seen as early as 1963 in compositions such as ‘P.S. I Love You’ and appearing more adventurously in the opening to ‘Hard Days Night’ (1964), the chord is particularly in evidence around the time of Revolver (1966) in no less than half of the albums songs, notably in material by Harrison and Lennon. The presence of the flat seventh is usually an indicator of modal harmony, and Tillikens notes the prevalence of what he refers to as ‘Neapolitan’ chords (bIII, bVI and bVII chords), indicating that this may be a hangover from blues inflections, but also emphasizes the microtonal differences in the 7th scale degree delivery depend on the underlying chord (whether relating to the tonic, sub-dominant or dominant), highlighting the ambiguity of the 7th and its respective differences in the harmonic series and even-tempered scales.

In The Beatles as Musicians, Walter Everett notes George Harrison’s increasing use of added sixth and added ninth chords, drawing attention again to the ‘Hard Days Night’ opening chord (bVIIadd9) as an indication of an emerging harmonic awareness, but also points to the ringing tones of his Rickenbacker 12-string guitar, “four of its courses tuned in brilliant octaves”, as a instrumental extension of this – he also observes that

the vibrant Fender Stratocaster (guitar) introduced in early 1965 became a staple of the Beatles sound two years thence and can also be seen as a precursor to the exceedingly brilliant waveforms of the sitar that Harrison introduced in Rubber Soul and used as his main instrument in 1966-68.

The Beatles awareness of Indian classical music via Harrison, although in a manner that to Indian musicians would be considered simplistic, was nonetheless important to their expanding harmonic awareness. Again, according to Tillikens;

In combination with the tonic, the flat-seventh proves to be a good chord to imitate an Indian sound, at least to Western ears, as both variants of this chord offer some of the same microtonal distances that are familiar to the idiom of Indian music.

In Revolver’s closing track ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, the single C chord accompanied by a mixolydian melody, appears to confirm an embracing of the harmonic series, by reducing the harmonic material to its most basic, but within a spectrally dense arrangement employing crashing cymbals and drums, droning tanpuras, a pulsating bass, organ, distorted backwards guitar, tape loops, sweeping scalic arpeggios and above everything, Lennon’s heavily distorted vocal. The overall effect is hypnotic, trance-like; as Ian MacDonald indicates in Revolution in The Head, the sonic and timbral considerations of this recording were as important as the song itself, with Starr’s mesmeric drumbeat “performed mainly on a pair of slack-tuned tom-toms – damped, compressed, and recorded with massive echo – it created the image of a cosmic tabla played by a Vedic deity riding in a stormcloud”. MacDonald’s assessment captures how far the group had come both in terms of songcraft and production in the three short years since the release of ‘Please Please Me’, with allusions to Indian ragas and scales, sophisticated harmonic language and experimentation with new technologies, instrumentation and timbre.

Andy Babuik’s exhaustively detailed Beatles Gear offers insights into the Beatles choice of instruments and, not unimportantly, amplification, for the sound of an electric guitar is the sum of both the instrument and the amplifier it is run through. Apart from Harrison and Lennon’s choice of Gretsch and Rickenbacker guitars, notable for their ringing tone, the British AC30 Vox amplifiers, later with added ‘top boost’, complemented the Beatles sound, adding further high-order harmonics to the already bright soundscape. Once overdriven (further gain added at the amplifiers input stage) these amplifiers distort in a warm, harmonically-saturated tone, more evident in later tracks such as ‘Paperback Writer’ (1966), adding further harmonic complexity to the Beatles sound palette. Already well versed by this stage in techniques designed to extend the guitars timbre (for example, the use of buzzing guitar feedback, droning on the 1st harmonic on the A string in the opening to ‘I Feel Fine’ in 1964), the Beatles with the aid of producer George Martin and recording engineer Ken Townsend, developed another recording technique to further enrich their sound – ADT (artificial double tracking) was employed at first on voice and later instruments, but had a remarkable sonic effect, according to Mark Lewisohn in The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions;

In photography, the placement of a negative directly over another does not alter the image. The two become one. But move one slightly and the image widens. ADT does this with tape. One voice laid perfectly on top of another produces one image. But move the second voice by just a few milliseconds and two separate images emerge.

The technique effectively describes what later became known as ‘flanging’ or phase-shifting, an auditory effect resulting in combining of two identical signals, with one modulated by a variable oscillator – at its simplest, a simple doubling of the existing signal, at its extreme, an audible sweep of the frequency range in the sum difference of the two signals, clearly evident on songs such as ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ and ‘Blue Jay Way’. Another similar ‘phasing’ effect was derived from running a microphone through a Leslie speaker cabinet, containing ‘a rotating horn’ with which ‘the speed of the rotation could controlled by the player’ according to Babuik – though designed to be used in conjunction with a Hammond organ, the Beatles would put vocals and guitars through the cabinet to provide the sweeping, atmospheric effect. All of these recording techniques added to the spectral content of their recordings and no doubt helped to extend their harmonic language further than ever before.

K.J. Johansson’s essay The Harmonic Language of the Beatles analyses, among other aspects, the frequency of use of certain chords employed by the Beatles in their songwriting: like Tillikens, he observes the regular occurrence of not only the bVII chord, but also the non-diatonic major II chord. After I, IV, V and the diatonic minors of ii and vi, these are the most frequently used chords in the Beatles catalogue, and if we relate this to the harmonic series, the bVII chord introduces the 7th harmonic (b7 scale degree) and with the II chord, the 11th harmonic (#11 scale degree). He also notes that the bVII and II chords are convenient chord substitutes according to their close proximity within the circle of fifths (the II being the dominant of the V chord, the bVII being the subdominant of the IV chord) and that the idiomatic nature of the guitar and its tuning lends itself to the open major chords of C, G, D, A and E, and the minor chords of Am, Em and Dm, again, located in relatively close proximity in the circle of fifths. Wilfred Mellers in Twilight of The Gods: The Beatles in Retrospect, also writes that

the wide-eyed, open-eared effects created in Beatles songs by mediant relationships and side-stepping modulations are the empirical product of the movement of melody, modally conceived, and of the behaviour of the hands on guitar string or keyboard.

This aspect of the Beatles music should perhaps not be forgotten: for all its apparent sophistication, the instrumentation of Beatles (and many rock bands) is at its core a simple confluence of vibrating string instruments and drums, derived from early folk instruments, yet amplified and distorted, which only increases their harmonic content. Mellers also writes “the amplification, in more recent pop, tends to intensify the primitivism, because electronics may create a nightmarish inflation of the pitch distortions expressively endemic to folk music”, and given the Beatles choice of instrumentation, in a simplistic sense we could link the harmonic series purely to the physical nature of their instruments.

Stephen Valdez, in his essay Revolver as a Pivotal Artwork, also notes that the Beatles unique style of vocal harmonization is directly attributable to

the chords played on their accompanying instruments. Because they principally used guitars to accompany themselves, the resulting harmonies the Beatles sing are often based on the tunings of those instruments – fourths, fifths and thirds.

Certainly, given the dominance of electric guitars in their early recordings, augmented with an occasional piano or harmonica, it should perhaps come as no surprise that the underlying harmonies for many of the Beatles songs would display rich tone colours, resulting from the overlapping and mixing of diatonic guitar chords, extending into the territory of added 6ths, 9ths  and suspended 4ths. But we must also remember that despite this thorough examination of instrument idiomatics, modes and harmonic and melodic interplay, an examination of the Beatles sound environment is almost of equal importance in this enquiry to any analysis of their music. From 1966 onward, the studio and the production techniques of producer George Martin and engineers such as Geoff Emerick and Ken Townshend at Abbey Road, were a crucial aspect of the creation of the Beatles recordings, and their recordings would have suffered under the auspices of lesser individuals. As self trained musicians, the Beatles instinctively wrote and arranged from a sonic palette, not a theoretical one, and were largely trusting their ears, hearts and minds in their creative practice. I would surmise there is a danger in approaching this analysis only from a theoretical point of view, because although it may go some way to explaining why a particular chord change works, it ignores the spectral and acoustic content of the recordings in which the song is placed, which in this examination of harmonic series content in the Beatles output, is our primary point of reference.

To see the harmonic series at work within the musical output of the Beatles, it may be timely at this point to remind oneself of its basic properties (Fig. 1)

The Harmonic Series (in C)

The Harmonic Series (in C)

If we look at the series in purely musical terms, in line with Platt’s methodology of a harmonic ‘template’ governing many of Debussy’s compositions, we can easily see how pitch relationships within the series will lend themselves to a variety of chord colours, notably:

  1. Perfect fifths (2nd and 3rd, 4th and 6th, 8th and 12th partials) and fourths (3rd and 4th, 6th and 8th, 9th and 12)
  2. Major triad (4th, 5th, 6th partials)
  3. Minor triad (6th, 7th, 9th partials)
  4. Diminished triad (5th, 6th, 7th partials)
  5. Augmented triad (7th, 9th, 11th partials)
  6. Dominant 7th chord (4th, 5th, 6th, 7th partials)
  7. Dominant 9th chord (4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 9th partials)
  8. Added 6th chord (8th, 10th, 12th, 13th partials)
  9. Added 9th chord (4th, 5th, 6th, 9th partials)
  10. Suspended 4th chord (6th, 8th, 9th partials)

All of these chords feature particularly to the harmonic palette of the Beatles, though some that Platt has included in his analysis of Debussy I have chosen to omit, namely the Wagnerian ‘Tristan’ chord, or minor triad with an added 6th (6th, 7th, 9th, 10th partials) and a fair portion of the whole tone scale (7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th), as this more sophisticated use of tone colour rarely appears on a Beatles recording, though can’t be entirely discounted (as Walter Everett notes in his whole tone scale analysis of I Am The Walrus). One would also expect, given the progression of notes within the series up to the 7th partial, that there would be some evidence of modal harmony, in particular the mixolydian mode, given the flattened 7th scale degree, and we will see this emerge in the examples to come. It should also be noted that the sharp 11th, or tritone (11th partial), departs most radically from the even-tempered scale, up to -49 cents or nearly a quarter tone, so it also perhaps displays some interchangeability with the perfect 4th. Also note that beyond the 12th partial, in line with logarithmic nature of the series, the tones begin to cluster so tightly together as to become almost audibly indiscriminate, and for all practical purposes of this essay, I have restricted my analysis to the more obvious partials indicated in Figure 1.

Early examples
Although I observe harmonic series content emerging more prominently from the albums Rubber Soul and Revolver onwards, we can see its beginnings in the Beatles very first single, ‘Love Me Do’ (1962). Despite an outwardly simple appearance, the song displays several harmonic tricks that contribute both to its appeal and gives us signposts toward what was to follow. It launches directly into a country swing feel, with acoustic guitars, bass and drums, but it is the searing harmonica motif that takes us to the first glimpse of the series, by jumping straight to F natural, the flattened 7th degree of G major and 7th partial of the series, falling via E and D and arriving on the root of G. This is the ‘hook’ that initially pulls us in, and an indicator that although the tune is largely diatonic, it plays with our expectations from the outset, introducing a dissonance that exposes the songs blues roots and lays bare the first seven partials of the harmonic series. From here, the chords stay within a standard I-IV oscillation, until our second ‘hook’ arrives on the expected V chord, the ‘plea-e-e-ease…’ vocal harmony of Lennon and McCartney, with the lower line of Lennon’s pulling away from the sustained high tonic G of McCartney’s that holds our audible interest. This neat vocal trick, no doubt learnt from the Everly Brothers in songs like ‘Cathy’s Clown’ (“minus the refinement” notes Tim Riley in Tell Me Why) and which recurs in later songs such as ‘Please Please Me’, and ‘Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band’, introduces the idea of a constant tone with a harmony line moving against it, not unlike the drone note that sits underneath Indian classical music or Scottish bagpipe melodies, and the early signs of an inclination towards modal harmony and a gentle nod toward the harmonic series.

The drone
The idea of a constant tone running through a series of chords to provide harmonic colour (Lennon remarked that he would sometimes “grab a note and ram it home”) is a device favored both by Lennon and Harrison and appears early in ‘A Hard Days Night’ (1964). The ambiguous, opening F9/D (or G7sus4/D – this much discussed chord open to interpretation, see Dominic Pedler’s chapter in The Songwriting Secrets of the Beatles) nails its modal colours to the mast from the outset, with the following two turnarounds of the verse positioning the song in G mixolydian (we will examine mode more closely in the following section). Notice the D droning throughout however (G-Cadd9-G-F6-G) emphasized in Lennon’s melody, eventually jumping from the D to the F (b7), on ‘wor-kin’,…’ to drop to B natural in ‘dog’. This early appearance of a drone, or pedal point, would emerge later as an underlying D in the guitar introduction (D-E7-G-D) of ‘Eight Days a Week’ (1964) and as a held G over the G-Dsus4-F9-G-C-F9 verse sequence of ‘You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away’ (1965). However, the drone reaches it’s apex on their next two albums – in the underlying E of the sitar in ‘Norwegian Wood’, the insistent A ringing through ‘If I Needed Someone’, the driving guitar and organ motif throughout the bridge of ‘The Word’ on Rubber Soul (1965), and in many of the songs on Revolver (1966), notably ‘Taxman’ (guitar solo and vocal harmonies), ‘Love You To’ (vocal harmonies and Indian instrumentation), ‘She Said She Said’ (the feedback ‘A’ appearing throughout), ‘Dr Robert’ (the organ pedal tone running throughout the bridge), ‘I Want To Tell You’ (the ostinato A through the guitar motif and ‘Indian-style’ vocal harmonies) and most overtly on the closing track, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, with its pedal point of tamboura and bass seemingly fixed to C for nearly three minutes. Although the only song on the album with a drone that runs for its entirety, as the first track recorded, its presence is felt throughout, and as Alan Pollack notes, “the sequencing of the entire album works toward this song”. Everett also notes a cyclic nature to proceedings, as “the circular wheels in the poetry of the track… are perfectly suggested by cyclic tape loops, backwards tapes and unending drones”, ultimately reflected in the albums title. It would surface later in Harrison’s Indian-laced songs such as ‘Within You Without You’ and ‘The Inner Light’ (1967/68), but also emerges as a harmonic linking device in everything from ‘Dear Prudence’ and ‘It’s All Too Much’ (1968) to ‘The End’ (1969), invariably within a modal context.

Mode and bVII, v and II chords
Another indication of the harmonic series is the increasing emergence of bVII chords, as noted previously by Tillikens. A non-diatonic chord in a major key, the scale degrees align with the 7th and 9th partials (and possibly the 11th partial, see above) and the mixolydian mode, often serving as substitute V or a dominant preparation. Although not an outright indicator of harmonic series content, its tonality suggests its presence, and unsurprisingly, it appears more frequently on the aforementioned middle-period albums. We have already shown the flat seven chord making its presence in ‘A Hard Days Night’, but as Pedler points out, it was “a very specific device at the heart of the revolution”, emerging as an alternate dark flavor in early songs such as ‘All My Loving’ (as the dominant preparation for “I’ll always be true…”: ii-bVII-V7) and as a dramatic undertone in ‘P.S. I Love You’ (‘You, you you’: bVI-bVII-I). However, by Revolver the bVII had become virtually synonymous with Beatles sound, appearing on no less than eight of the albums songs (those noted previously) with addition of two McCartney songs, ‘For No One’ and ‘Got To Get You Into My Life’.  McCartney’s use of a bVII is different in that he uses the chord more as additional colour in transition, preferring to move onward in line with his melodic tendencies, whereas Lennon will happily stay in one mode for the duration, as in ‘She Said She Said’, where the cycle of I-bVII-IV throughout the verse/refrain is only interrupted by a shift, harmonically and metrically, to the dominant minor (v) in the bridge (‘when I was a boy…’), again emphasising the flat 7 scale degree. Despite the economy of chords, the spectrally dense arrangement, with its crashing cymbals, heavily compressed drums and ringing guitars, reinforces the series on several levels at once. The dominant minor would feature again soon in a more sophisticated context as the opening phrase in ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ (‘Let me take you down, cause I’m going to…’: I-v).

Johansson also notes the frequency of the II chord in the Beatles oeuvre, placed just after the bVII in popularity, and this non-diatonic (but harmonic series related) chord with its b5 (or #11) becomes noticeable on tracks such as the aforementioned ‘Eight Days A Week’ and ‘I’ll Follow The Sun’ sometimes as a dominant preparation, but more often moving to the IV chord. This Beatles ‘trademark’ appears on Rubber Soul in ‘You Won’t See Me’ and on Revolver in ‘Dr. Robert’ and ‘I Want To Tell You’.  Although not as blatant an indicator as the bVII chord, the II chord nonetheless draws our ear to an alternate tone colour lying within the upper realms of the series, lending a ‘bright’ colour to an otherwise diatonic sequence.

Guitar sounds and studio technology
To place Rubber Soul and Revolver in historical context, there were exotic flavors apparent in other releases in the UK around this time. The Kinks ‘See My Friends’ and the Yardbirds ‘Heart Full Of Soul’ (both 1965) featured quasi-Indian flavored guitar riffs, and following George Harrison’s use of the sitar in ‘Norwegian Wood’, there was a rapid uptake of what would soon be termed ‘raga-rock’, notably by the Rolling Stones and the Byrds. What should also be recognised however, is that the evolving timbre of electric guitar sounds leading up to this point. Advances in the development of guitar amplification, guitar technique (use of feedback, distortion), types of guitar (12-string electric) effects (such as ‘fuzz’ boxes and echo units) and studio technology (the use of compression, limiting, ADT) all affected the guitars timbre. Compression enables the sustaining of notes on an electric guitar, as does amplifier distortion (lending to drone qualities), and effects such as ADT and phase shifting widen the spectral image, particularly in stereo, and introduce high order harmonics. Following the Beatles use of guitar feedback on ‘I Feel Fine’ (1964), the tonal quality of guitars begins to feature more prominently in their recordings, and by the time of Revolver, guitar timbre is more carefully considered in the overall soundscape, partly thanks to the studio techniques of the newly appointed Geoff Emerick as chief sound engineer at Abbey Road studios. Apart from ADT, manipulation of the magnetic tape onto which recordings were made was becoming more commonplace: the single ‘Rain’ (1966) recorded during the Revolver sessions, features a backwards vocal (lifted from the first verse, adding to the cyclic quality of proceedings) and also displays manipulation of tape speed. Apart from the obvious slowing or speeding up of tempo, this also has the effect of changing the timbre of instruments; as noted by Everett on the former:

Lennon’s distorted Gretsch Nashville guitar… recorded much faster than heard, introducing a subtle but rich tone of queasy hesitation that could be likened to the nausea of an acid trip, in the center (of the stereo image): the composers lead vocal, recorded about a major second lower than heard, resulting in the brilliant iridescence of an acid-streaked sunshine, is heard on the left.

The Beatles introduction of additional instrumentation added to their sonic palette: beginning with the use of string quartet on ‘Yesterday’ (1965), the increasing use of additional instrument colour such as strings for ‘Eleanor Rigby’, brass on ‘Got To Get You Into My Life‘, ‘Yellow Submarine’ and ‘For No One’, a range of Indian instruments on ‘Love You To’ and ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, the Hammond organ, coupled with the Leslie speaker (also used for guitars and vocals) on ‘Dr Robert’ and ‘Got To Get You Into My Life’, and the complex sound collages emerging in ‘Yellow Submarine’ and ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, all contribute to a broadening of the Beatles soundscape. Although perhaps not a direct indicator of harmonic series content, it does however show us, in a more vertical sense, the ever widening awareness of the sonic space they could potentially inhabit as recording artists and not just as performing musicians, as the studio increasingly became the more important aspect of their music creation, reaching an apex in the orchestral climaxes of  ‘A Day In The Life’ (1967) the following year.

Without going into a great deal of further detail, this essay can only hope to serve as the briefest of overviews to harmonic series content in what is after all, a considerable body of work. However, from this initial investigation, I would conclude that additional research will uncover further insights into the attraction of the harmonic series in not only the music of the Beatles, but other popular recording artists of the time and have implications for analysing spectral content in popular music in general.


Babuik, Andy. Beatles Gear: All the Fab Four’s instruments, from Stage to Studio. 2nd ed. San Francisco, USA: Backbeat Books, 2002.

Everett, Walter. The Beatles as Musicians: The Quarry Men through Rubber Soul. New York, NY, U.S.A.: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Everett, Walter. The Beatles as Musicians: Revolver through the Anthology. New York, NY, U.S.A.: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Johansson, K. J. The Harmonic Language of the Beatles. 1999. (accessed April 5, 2013).

Lewisohn, Mark. The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions. London, UK: Hamlyn, 1988.

Mellers, Wilfrid. Twilight of the Gods: The Beatles in Retrospect. London, UK: Faber and Faber, 1976.

MacDonald, Ian. Revolution in the Head: The Beatles Records and the Sixties. London, UK: Pimlico, 1995.

Pedler, Dominic. The Songwriting Secrets of The Beatles. London, UK: Music Sales, 2003.

Platt, Peter. “Debussy and the Harmonic Series”. In Essays in honor of David Everett Tunley. Frank Calloway ed. Callaway International Resource Centre for Music Education, School of Music, University of Western Australia, 1995.

Pollack, Alan W. “Notes on ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ “. Notes on … Series no. 194, 1995. The ‘Official’ Home Page ( (accessed May 23, 2013).

Riley, Tim. Tell Me Why: A Beatles Commentary. London, UK: Bodley Head, 1988.

Sheff, David. The Playboy Interviews With John Lennon and Yoko Ono. London, UK: St Martins Press,1981.

Tillekens, Ger. “A flood of flat-sevenths: Or, what are all those flat-sevenths doing in the Beatles’ Revolver?” In Every sound there is: the Beatles’ Revolver and the transformation of rock and roll, ed Reising, Russell. Aldershot, London, UK: Ashgate, 2002.

Valdez, Stephen. “Revolver as a pivotal art work: structure, harmony, and vocal harmonization.” In Every sound there is: the Beatles’ Revolver and the transformation of rock and roll, ed Reising, Russell. Aldershot, London, UK: Ashgate, 2002.

Timbre and ‘spectral’ colour – just so we’re clear…

I thought it might be wise to actually outline what the point of this blog is, as I’ve actually launched into it without a great deal of fanfare – I also noticed that my last blog received some attention, especially among composers and music buffs, with a few notions about harmonics and music intervals that aroused some interest, though probably posed more questions than provided definitive answers. One supposes that’s the nature of blogs – just thinking out loud and seeing what the world makes of it.

If I haven’t already mentioned it, I’m completing an honours year at the University of Western Sydney, specialising in music – this blog serves the dual purpose of both consolidating my thoughts about my research and also serving as a record for it. This may be an unconventional way to work, but I figure it can’t hurt to put it out there, and it’s been gratifying to receive a response or two from people who are as obviously into music as myself – thanks to John for his feedback on my thoughts about composing in fourths and fifths.

The basic tenet of my research is looking into the importance of timbre, and what I refer to as ‘spectral colour’, in music, especially as a compositional device. Although timbre can be easily defined as the quality which gives an instrument or indeed any sound-making device it’s distinctive ‘character’ (i.e. what makes a violin sound like a violin and not a trumpet, for example), ‘spectral colour’ tends to mean different things to different people. For serious music types, it indicates a school of musical thought that emerged at the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM) in Paris in the 1960s and 70s, usually associated with Gerard Grisey and Tristan Murail. For the uninitiated, Grisey and Murail took as their musical inspiration ‘sound evolving in time’, which appears to be kind of self-evident, until you realise they literally took the information from Fast Fourier Transforms (spectral analysis) of particular soundwaves, and then applied that across an entire orchestra. All well and good – a little bit like extreme macro photography in sound. And granted, some of this stuff is kind of interesting – take Grisey’s Partiels (1975) for example:

In case you missed it, Partiels is based on a FFT analysis of a low E1 (41.2 Hz) note on a trombone. If you can listen to the entire piece (and this is only part 1, incidentally), you’ll eventually hear all the high order ‘harmonics’ appear, all those screechy notes high up, mostly in the upper woodwind section of the orchestra. And there was plenty more where this came from – Tristan Murail’s Gondwana, Grisey’s Transitoires, and later, pieces by Iannis Xenakis, Iancu Dumitrescu and other names I can’t pronounce. But the one thing that stuck in my mind from listening to most of these pieces, was how downright scary and unpleasant many of them sounded, and how little they related to the idea I had in my head to what ‘spectral music’ was. I applaud the extraordinary effort that went into writing these pieces, and the analysis that I’ve read on some of them thus far is impressive, if exceedingly complex (try Francois Rosé’s essay Introduction to the Pitch Organisation of French Spectral Music for a bit of light reading). But I can’t say I enjoyed listening to many of them, and what I interpret as spectral music is a very different kettle of tuna altogether.

Whereas the French spectral school and its proponents seem to prescribe to reproducing the harmonic series to varying degrees by seemingly very complex and elaborate means, what I interpret as spectral colour heads in almost the opposite direction. When I hear the buzz of harmonics high up on say, an Indian tanpura or sitar, that is what I mean when I say spectral; when I hit a key on a piano with the sustain pedal held down, and strings in integer ratios of the first vibrate in sympathy, I consider this spectral; when I grab my trusty Epiphone Casino electric guitar and encourage it to ring and feedback when plugged into an amplifier, that to me is spectral; when I overdub two or more vocal lines of the same note on a multitrack recorder and they slip slightly out of phase revealing higher order harmonics, this is what I mean by spectral. These are all methods, to me, of revealing the harmonic spectrum, or tone colour, in all it’s glory. And this essentially is the gist of what my research is all about – using any or all of these techniques and foregrounding them sufficiently to use as a compositional device. The trick will be whether I can make it interesting enough…

Timbre, of course, is all the constituent harmonics and other bits of audio grit that make up a sounds overall ‘character’, which is of course interesting and relevant – if you wish to take it apart like that. But it’s a bit like the science experiment in high school, when you had to  dissect a mouse, and take out it’s heart, and it’s spleen, and it’s liver, just to see how it worked. It was a perfectly healthy, happy (and alive) mouse, squeaking happily (or perhaps not) and now it’s just a pile of organs. I do understand that initially we have to do this to find these things out… but do we have to keep doing it, again and again? This is how I feel about some of the French ‘spectral’ music – it’s a bit like watching a car crash in extreme slow motion…

I think I’ll just play with the mouse and enjoy it for it’s own company. More soon…