The paradoxes of timbre : musical epistemology between idealism and materialism

van Elferen, Isabella (2017) The paradoxes of timbre : musical epistemology between idealism and materialism. In: MPSG 2017 : 6th Conference of the Royal Musical Association Music and Philosophy Study Group; 13-14 Jul 2017, London, U.K.. (Unpublished)


Timbre is simultaneously one of the most powerfully immersive and one of the most ungraspable properties of music and musical aesthetics. And yet there is no critical idiom to assess timbre. There are not even adequate words to describe it, nor is there a definition that is more precise than one ex negativo: timbre is “the difference between two tones with the same pitch and volume”. The synonym “tone colour” is synesthetically muddled: it is a visual metaphor used to describe an auditory phenomenon. This paper analyses the double dualism that pervades the musicological and critical assessment of tone colour. First, timbre is either considered in an idealist way as the expression of the inexpressible (Schoenberg, Stockhausen), or in a materialist way as the manipulation of sound waves and instruments (Chion, Eidsheim). Second, there is disagreement as to whether timbre does or does not signify anything more specific than this “incommunicable” (Boulez, Dolan). Timbral dualism, however, separates matters that are – and cannot be but – inseparably entwined. Timbre is both an unstable object and an ungraspable Thing: in fact it resides in the space between those opposites. A theory of timbre, therefore, has to be inclusive rather than dualist: timbre bridges the gap between material origins and immaterial effects, between the ontology and the phenomenology of music. In this sense timbre epitomises the idealism/materialism debates in music epistemology. I argue that an inclusive theory of timbre would have to be based on vibration and vitality (Bennett). Timbre is a vibration of sound waves crossing over from instruments to our listening bodies; a vibrating theory of timbre can cross over from ontology to phenomenology. The aesthetic experience of timbre is active and participatory (Rancière): hearing timbre is interacting with musical epistemology itself.

Actions (Repository Editors)

Item Control Page Item Control Page