Hearing Timbre at the Crossroads


  • Landon Morrison


I recently taught a graduate music seminar titled “Timbre at the Crossroads,” which focused on how the idea of timbre has been constructed across disciplinary frames, in various times and places, by many different actors. A grounding premise was that timbre is best understood as a relational entity, a name placed on a set of sonic parameters, the bounds of which lack clear consensus and are constantly being negotiated. Listening in multiple directions, we engaged with a wealth of cross-disciplinary scholarship that has come to define the contemporary field of timbre studies, including sources from music theory, (ethno)musicology, composition, psychoacoustics, history, linguistics, sociology, and science and technology studies. Likewise, we moved freely between time scales, making macro-historical connections between eighteenth-century organological treatises and twenty-first-century assisted-orchestration software, while also tuning into the micro-temporal aspects of timbre as a multidimensional aspect of sound and musical expression. This broad spectrum of methodologies revealed the extent to which timbre is entangled with a vast range of epistemic instruments, cultural practices, and listening techniques, yielding numerous, often incongruent, answers to even the most basic of questions: what is timbre? Against this backdrop, Nina Sun Eidsheim’s book The Race of Sound: Listening, Timbre, and Vocality in African American Music (2019) makes a significant contribution to timbre studies by undertaking a critical examination of timbre, race, and identity.





Symposium on The Race of Sound, by Nina Sun Eidsheim