On the Psychology of Timbral Development in Western Music
by Maxwell Steer
A lecture originally given in 1989 at Soundscape at the University of East Anglia,
updated October 11, 1996.

The perception of music can be broken down into three elements: Narrative Content, ie melodic or harmonic material attracting the consciousness to an unfolding 'logic'; Pattern Recognition, which functions at both conscious and sub-conscious levels in establishing and maintaining coherence, or familiarity, for the listener, and the psycho–acoustic affect of Timbre, a potentially-wide range of semi-conscious responses, some of them physiological, to phonemé, the timbral quality of sound.

These elements are filtered by the cognitive process thru the listener's cultural background and affinities. As in other aspects of life, the ability to perceieve Pattern is relatively limited in lower intellect groups but becomes progressively more acute the higher the intellectual group. The world rolls past our eyes continuously. In order to simplify daily life, which would otherwise be overwhelming we categorise experience, and one of the tools we use is Pattern Recognition. By indexing experience into hierarchies we code our knowledge into levels of awareness, thereby economising on cognitive effort. Curiously this is the reverse of artificial intelligence where better the 'lock' the more exactly the 'key' must fit.1 (footnotes at end of document)

The average person calls sounds which are ordered, culturally relevant and attractive 'Music': others s/he dismisses as noise. This distinction is an intellectual & cultural construct. Like a spoken language, a sequence of sounds is checked against the memory by the brain: if it falls into a familiar pattern it's accepted: if unfamiliar dismissed. (Unless it's the brain of a critic – in which case it's programmed to do the reverse!)

The 20thC phenomenon of international Mass Market Music (MMM)2 is best explained by instinctive popular reaction to a very limited bandwidth of Pattern comprising simple melodic/harmonic Narratives and an equally simple repertoire of rhythms. Perception of Timbre is generally limited to stereotypical subconscious cultural triggers, eg the 'people like us' familiarity of a singer's voice, a 'country' guitar, or a particular sound-world.

Since WWII the MMM industry has devoted considerable ingenuity to intensifying Pattern Recognition. By the use of cliché and a restricted tonality the threatening uncertainties of a dislocated and bewildering existence are nullified for those whose ability to decode pattern in other life-contexts is often very limited.

Each cultural affinity-group forms what might be called a semi-tribe. Each has its own distinctive combination whose repetition act like religious liturgy to reinforce its identity. Clichés offer instant genre recognition. In popular culture musical traditions evolve surprisingly slowly despite frenzied attempts by the music industry to foist novelties on the consumer market-place.

The picture is different in more intellectual and socially privileged music-lovers: given a greater ability to decode pattern considerably greater weight is placed on the perception of timbre. (To confirm this simply compare classical and rock CD reviews!) Between these 2 extremes –the predominantly emotional and the predominantly intellectual– lies the broad range of 'average' musical awareness.

Elective Bonding

But within contemporary society pluralism has added to the complexity of this equation by the education, cultural fashions, and the enhanced awareness of alternative lifestyles – with the result that youth cultures in the capitalist world are effectively hybrids espoused on an eclectic transient basis, usually as a result of an elective bonding – that is to say a cultural experience sufficiently strong to create a common emotional reference point among participants: the semi-tribalism I mentioned earlier.

This need to 'belong', to exercise intuitive functions formerly the domain of religion (telepathy, extra-sensory perception, non-physical ecstasy) I would argue plays a vital role in maintaining a healthy psyche. For wherever an intense psychic fusion of energies takes place at some cultural or sporting event it creates an emotional 'benchmark' resulting in, and creating, the elective bonding of those participating. (Readers will doubtless be able to recall at least one such 'definitive experience' which transcended explanation or defined the very nature of sublimity for them.)

Where these phenomena are audio-visually recorded they exhibit the same characteristics as medieval reliquaries, even to the extent of attracting 'secondary' adherents, ie those who never experienced the phenomenon at first-hand but are 'converted' by encountering the fervour of the faithful. An excellent, if bizarre, example is the socio-cultural phenomenon of Elvis Presley, one of the first truly transcultural icons of music. It would require a subtler mind than mine to determine any qualitative difference between Elvis's 1957 performance of Mystery Train and that of the song's composer Arthur 'Big Boy' Cradup – yet that extremely modest single was a turning point of cultural history and even became the unwitting spearhead of racial integration. Since had it not been for the archetypal, hysteria-inducing power of Rock & Roll to reduce the inhibitions of white audiences, fusing them with black audiences in a common emotional bond the history of the 60s would have been very different.

All such popular icons emerge consensually as a projection or focus of aspiration of a social group. These are analogous to the processes by which any cult or sect emerges, fosters traditions and may, if it is lucky, grow in time to a full-blown 'religion'. Suffice it so say that the widespread hysteria aroused by Elvis created a popular elective bonding over a remarkable social range of adolescents that created/ became foundation of contemporary popular music consciousness. Incredibly, it persists 40 years later in the myth that 'Elvis is [still] alive' .

The Role of Harmonics

Strange as it may seem, my thoughts on these issues were first thrown into focus by listening to the Bow Gamelan Ensemble, who improvise on percussion instruments created from items of scrap metal that produce an energetic sound. One could not argue that these sounds are strictly musical, or indeed always pleasant, but there is a definite 'suchness' to them. Even tho unable to identify any rhythmic coherence in the BGE's performance I found it a perfectly satisfactory evening. What then held my ear? (Or obversely why is my ear often not held by conventional acoustic instruments even tho I find the pattern recognition, 'music', perfectly satisfactory?)

It was, I concluded, that on a sensory level the extremely varied and extended harmonic spectra of the various items of percussion they employ supplies a density of timbral information to the ear which substantially occupies the brain in decoding the complexity of the sound, thereby satisfying our need of cybernetic stimulation. And that consequently, like the harmonic self–sufficiency of a church bell, at a certain level of timbral density 'musical' organisation becomes superfluous.

If unfamiliar sounds are of sufficient timbral density, and we cannot immediately recognise the idiom we have no option but to absorb (or reject) the experience on a sensory level. There is simply too much to decode initially. It is only when our brains have become sufficiently familiar with those new timbres that there is spare mental capacity to apply to the more cerebral function of Pattern Recognition.

The historic role of Timbre

The harmonic spectrum of all instruments of the baroque period is extremely rich in upper partials. Prior to the adoption of equal temperament there was no universal tuning–system and musicians did what had traditionally been done since drone basses first accompanied monody, they tuned the intermediate degrees of the scale to maximise the harmonic resonance of the instruments. And it is as true today as it was then that the more perfectly this is done the more sensorily satisfying the sound is as 'sound'. (The fact that this is only consistently achieved in Western Art Music by expert musicians has tended to disguise the substantial element which sensory gratification contributes to our perception of satisfying 'musical' performance.)

At this juncture I played two examples of Manuel de Falla's Harpsichord Concerto. The first vividly recorded by the composer in an early, acoustically dry recording: the second, much less interesting musically in a good modern stereo recording. When asked to choose, all but the most discriminating listeners prefered the second as more sensorily gratifying – remarks like 'a richer /warmer /bigger sound' were made, completely overlooking the lack-lustre musicianship.

In my view the general public's current enthusiasm for so-called Authentic classical performance springs principally from the increased sensory gratification obtainable the enhanced harmonic spectrum of the instruments. Recording has 'released' instruments from the need to project a loud volume in order to fill cavernous auditoria just as film 'released' actors from the need to barn-storm

Looking back we can trace from Beethoven onwards a symbiotic process where technical improvements in instrument manufacture and performance progressively reduced upper harmonic partials in order to deliver the penetrative power demanded by the economics of continually increasing hall sizes Ñ which in turn progressively stimulated composers to introduce ever greater tonal and harmonic complexity.

That argument might well be expressed the opposite way round, but my own experience as a composer suggests that the dialectic starts with the composer responding to sound as s/he knows it, followed by instrumentalists' adapting timbre & technique to their perceptions of a score's requirements. At all events, I submit that the evolution of tonal complexity was to a considerable degree an instinctive sensory response on the part of composers to the need for ever-increasing cybernetic stimulation in an sound-world where instruments increasingly lacked an intrinsically 'satisfying' harmonic spectrum.

From the advent of equal temperament until the present day there has been a progressive reduction in every instrument of the upper partials of the harmonic spectrum, and nowhere is this more conspicuous than in the modern piano whose overtones above the 1st (4') harmonic are deliberately restricted.

Much of the expectations of cybernetic stimulation came in the 19thC increasingly to be satisfied by the novelty of dynamic variation, as well as the new instrumental combinations made possible by the convention of equal temperament and the piquancy of an apparently ever–widening range of modulations. This movement reached its apogee in the enharmonic complexity of Strauss & Mahler.

Competing Æsthetics in the 20thC

By the beginning of the 20thC, the absence of harmonic implication in the timbre of individual instruments contributed to the development of two creative responses which have since grown into diverse compositional æsthetics.3 One is structured, exclusive and objective, remaining fundamentally within the Germanic conservatoire framework with its unquestioned assumption that (capital M) Music is the disciplined intellectual organisation of timbres within existing conventions. The other is amorphous, inclsuive and based on the composer's subjective emotional world.

The former, being conceptually defensible within existing vocabularies, dominated the perception of 20thC intellectual musicians until recently. The failure of Serialism to maintain its pole position as a compositional method is, I submit, due as much to the inherently 'unsatisfying' timbral character of the 20thC orchestral instruments as to any of its totalitarian shortcomings! It is no accident that European acoustic post–serial composition has continued to develop ever more frenzied complexity as compensation for this lack of inherent timbre.

Musical impressionism, on the other hand, represented a reinvention of the primacy of timbre in the context of such instrumental resources as were available to French and Italian composers at the turn of the century. It was probably no coincidence that Stravinsky's vivid timbres were first heard in France rather than anywherelse. There is the apocryphal story that Debussy reacted to Le Sacre by saying that 'if he starts like this, at the end of his life that man will not be writing music'. It is hard to say to what degree either composer anticipated that colouristic ideas could ultimately lead beyond 'music' to an Æsthetic of Pure Sound, since both themselves remained firmly within the literate tradition.

An Æsthetic of Pure Sound, tho much talked of from the Italian Futurists of 1917 onwards, stuttered only fitfully into life in the 1920s. Both Stravinsky & Ezra Pound thought they had found the prophet of this new 'anti–music' in the American George Antheil, especially in his Ballet Mécanique of 1924 whose timbral density and repetition strangely prefigures certain minimalist ideas. If it is not significant, it is at the very least ironic that Antheil's strongest propagandists, including Ezra Pound, subsequently adopted Fascism! – but by then they had long since discarded Antheil following his return to neo-classical tonality.

Yet, as European intellectuals intuited, America was to play a direct role in this revolution – in the person of an immigrant, Edgard Varèse, who eventually succeeded in creating a philosophical beach–head on the shores of this new æsthetic with his experiments in the timbres of 'found' sounds. Amériques (1926), the first of Varèse's pre-war experiments with non–musical sound–sources bears a striking similarity between Antheil's Ballet Mécanique, which was publicly and notoriously premiered in Paris in 1923 and in New York four years later. It is hard to say whether Varèse was aware of the earlier work, but I think there may be an unacknowledged debt here of which few musicologists are aware.

Residual Acoustic Memory

With the benefit of hindsight we can see that the æsthetic of natural sound could not emerge completely until the full significance of 'the recording process' came to be better understood. Once any musical sound is registered on a recording it ceases to be 'music' and becomes mere 'sound' for the purposes of its encoding. Any intermediate technical manipulation is governed by laws of physics rather those of music; and when listeners desire to hear it the 'music' is retrieved by a mechanical process from its mute storage, which in effect re–synthesizes for the listener the emotional affect of the original performance.

I should now like to speak of Residual Acoustic Memory, or what might be called the Tranny Effect. The quality of every loudspeaker holds the music captive to the memory /expectation that listeners have of all the sounds already experienced via similar loud–speakers. In other words the timbral quality of the transduction medium prepares the brain for the appropriate category of incoming information just saliva sends a signal to the intestines to stimulate the appropriate digestive enzymes.

Each listener brings to the act of listening a degree of anticipation based the subliminal memory of similar timbral densities. Your response to the tranny in the kitchen playing a commercial music station will be predominantly similar on most occasions, but qualitatively different to your response to full bandwidth monitors in (say) a studio. It was this very phenomenon that Orson Welles exploited so brilliantly in his radio play TheWar of the Worlds. He played on people's expectations that a drama would not contain the kind of technical hiatus which he deliberately introduced to simulate an emergency broadcast. Interestingly when it was broadcast in the UK for the very first time in 1992 Capital Radio reported more phone enquires than for any other programme that year É even tho it was broadcast on BBCr5!

Music emerging from a loudspeaker may be integrated to any degree with any other sounds, be they speech, atmospheric interference, synthesized or naturalistic sounds (for there can no more be 'natural' sound once it has traveled thru a transducer any more than there can be 'real' music – even the coloration of the recording process contributes a 'comment' which, as in photographic techniques, invariably place a date stamp on it. (At this juncture I invited listeners to date several recordings of Ravel's Piano Concerto.)

For further reflection on this issue, compare your response on entering a familiar music venue to that of entering an unfamiliar one: in the first you have certain positive expectations which if not satisfied may lead to disappointment, even anger: in the second your cultural disorientation serves to dislocate your æsthetic expectation and you are therefore likely to start with a far more open mind.

The deliberate organisation of timbre was previously the unique province of Music, but Recording has thrown that role open. Music, king no longer, now has to compete on an equal and unprivileged footing with any other sounds intentionally or unintentionally introduced into the loudspeaker. Because of the primacy of Recording as the medium of Music in the West many new ways have evolved of arousing and satisfying listeners' 'expectations of cybernetic stimulation'.

My central opening thesis is supported by the unanimity with which these new ways have resulted in the development of timbral density within the available bandwidth of transducer systems. In popular music classic examples of this process are Phil Spector's two technical–æsthetic innovations: the first being his empirical discovery that multiple overdubbing of identical material enhances the timbral density of sounds and reinforces their transient harmonics so that when reproduced over limited bandwidth speakers, the illusion is created of full spectrum sounds. The second innovation being to use the facility of stereo to create a 'wall of sound' to absorb the listeners' attention, and that, within this, an even greater illusion of timbral density could be obtained by the stereo (rather than mono) pre–recording of every individual component prior to its precise panned location in the final mix.

The Beatles' own creative development progressed synchronously with the technical improvements that made them possible, such as the introduction first of 4, then 8 track recording. Phil Spector's mix of Let It Be would not have been possible prior to the availability of 16 track recording. Nowadays the only limits are budgetary.

All these technical developments have immense implications for the future of the classical acoustic repertoire, but those implications however have been masked to classically-trained performers by the use from the earliest moment of Recording as an analog of live performance – with the result that the classical music–buying public still favours a 'natural-sounding' acoustic however unnaturally the results may have been obtained.

The Interaction of Acoustic & Electronic

Prior to amplification the only way to create a large volume of musical sound was by the employment of a large number of musicians. In the late romantic period of Strauss & Mahler, the need to provide adequate timbral density in an acoustic situation for audiences accustomed to unprecedentedly sophisticated levels of pattern recognition led to an æsthetic of intense acoustic timbral density, even for so–called Chamber Music – which had, for economic reasons, to be capable of delivering aural gratification even in symphony–sized auditoria. These developments led to ever greater technical demands on performers as composers redoubled their ingenuity to devise ways of enhancing the sonic density of their compositions.

But the development of electric recording rendered such acoustic 'tricks' increasingly irrelevant, and we have reached the point today when –cultural and æsthetic considerations apart– a synthesist playing with one hand can create just as great a density of timbre, and indeed physical volume of sound, as a full symphony orchestra.

To me the implications for the future development of music are clear. Apart from areas of music where cultural, political and/or commercial considerations coincide to preserve traditional instrumentation I foresee an immense expansion of electro–music, not so much for its æsthetic quality as for the ease with which composers can create timbral density in line with current taste without the need for intermediary musicians as 'interpreters'.

The net result is to reestablish the most primitive aspect of music–making within the most sophisticated context. The Pied Piper is back. The traditional role of the entertainer as performer–composer has been reestablished at the expense of the mere performer. In oral musical cultures no division between composer & performer is practicable in the absence of literacy. In electronic music, since those conventions have yet to be established it, too, shares the characteristic of being effectively an aural/oral culture.

A further factor in some experimental composers' attitude to composition is a wish to reflect the innate coherence of chaos theory rather than the hierarchical anthropocentricity of traditionally notated music. Many composers attempt to construct, within each piece, a unique 'sound world' suggested by the nature of the materials with which they are working – just as sculptors vary their approach according whether they are working in wood, bronze or stone. But, altho this approach is often an anathema to conventional musicians who are thereby challenged to consider the epistemology of their actions, it is no more an abdication of responsibility than that of an architect who, having erected a structure, seeks to avoid imposing his own preconceptions on the subsequent uses of his building. Yet within 'direct to tape' composition a composer is, ironically, able wholly to 'control' even the degree of randomisation.

On the Role of Music Colleges

One of my purposes in writing this paper was to place a reasoned argument before my (then) superiors at the Royal College of Music as to why we have reached a point in history where the curriculum of professional music tuition needed drastic revision. I don't know if anyone read it – they certainly never commented on it.4 Two years later I resigned in frustration at my inability to spark any kind of debate on the subject.

My thesis is that while musical development in the West may have thrown up some archetypally communicative works of musical art (masterpieces) since the rise of capitalism its development has been inseparable from the psychosis which itself informs capitalism - namely an insatiable compulsion for novelty. Only in the Western tradition(s) of music is such constant and radical innovation found, and it has arisen almost entirely, I believe, because our cultural perceptions have come to be dominated not by a commonality of language and experience based on the profound archetypes of religion or myth but by the superficial and untrustworthy illusions of salesmanship. Hence the elevation of con artists like Warhol, Schnabel, Koons and Hirst to iconic status.5

And my contention is that this pursuit of novelty has tended to manifest in the constant enhancement of Timbral Density. I have shown, I hope, how this reached a peak in the acoustic era with the Symphony Orchestra. Now, since the advent and development of recording technology, one reason that large scale orchestral writing has largely run out of steam is that it no longer commands public imagination since in the audio environment of today it no longer represents a unique level of cybernetic stimulation Ñ even tho some can still make the medium exciting.

The æsthetic consequences of music technology are a considerably less radical development than the introduction of the violin in the 17thC and the speed with which it obliterated the viol, or the piano the harpsichord in the 18th. Within the RCM I argued that what is required is a totally objective look at the whole phenomenon of music, and the methodology of training in the light of the best information about economic trends in future musical employment, followed by an examination of how close to that profile we could feasibly come. What was required, I argued, was a willingness to re-engineer the very concept of music training to take account of contemporary practices and philosophies.

I was certainly not suggesting that conventional classical music training should be abandoned, but I sought to draw attention to the absurdity whereby most music colleges devote 90+% of their resources to producing acoustic musicians, whose training appears designed to address a cultural environment of increasing rarety, whilst at the same time ignoring the major techno-musical developments of recent years, to the degree that, under-funded as they may be, music colleges have allowed themselves to get into a precariously marginal position with regard to current and future trends in music.

By the end of the century, then 11 years away, I predicted that electronically generated music might account for over 50% of the music's 'GNP'. Yet even at a lesser figure the differences in thought demanded by this kind of music must eventually, if belatedly, lead to a radical reappraisal of the function and tuition of acoustic music. Few can any longer deny the need for all musicians to study microphone technique, not as a mere transducer of acoustic performance but as a potential enhancer of all the qualities most cherished by acoustic musicians.

Indeed what would concern me very deeply if I were involved in the management of a music college is that for all but the most esoteric of contemporary Art Music music colleges have already been bypassed. It is already the case that the polytechnic Universities offer a wide range of courses featuring Music Technology, and the equipment they have is far more comprehensive than music colleges can at this stage hope to acquire. Thus, a new musical apartheid has been allowed to develop which can only be as harmful as those which have preceded it.


My decision to resign from the RCM in 1991 was part of a radical reappraisal of my consciousness as a musician. This is not the place to outline how my perceptions have changed but I am currently writing about specific topics in appropriate journals with a view, ultimately in gathering them together into a book. In the meanwhile I am trying to upload pieces as I write them to my website so that people can study them at their liberty. Unfortunately this is more time-consuming and boring than I had imagined and so doesn't receive as much of my attention as it should. If readers are sufficiently interested to respond to me it may encourage me to pay more attention to the site, especially since while I write my computer is downloading Netscape Navigator 3!

1 It is interesting to observe within what a very restricted 'bandwidth' linguistic meaning operates. If you take a sentence and disorder as little as 20-25% the meaning will generally be impenetrable. An aspect of working with film is that when sound and picture are separated in editing they may sometimes accidentally be re-synchronised in an entirely different way which can often suggest intriguing new dramatic nuances where the nominal 'meaning' of the words is completely subverted. Within Art Music the epistemology of Pattern (& Recognition) has always tended to reflect the prevailing beliefs of Western society; from the tightly organised conventions of Sonata Form reflecting 18thC Enlightenment's beliefs in an esoteric 'natural order' of hierarchies where dualism is resolved; yielding eventually to the physical and moral explorations of the 19thC natural sciences which exploded those limitations and were paralleled musically by the extension of Pattern Recognition beyond previously imagined limits in the structures of Wagner, Brahms and Mahler; to the present cultural ferment where much literate music has dispensed with linear narrative, as reflecting the overthrow by quantum physics of the linear certainties of 19thC science. Popular music has rarely concerned itself with extensions to form and even in at its most experimental, eg jazz, its Patterns remain firmly strophic, as indeed they must if they are to function as non-literate memory system. Back to text

2 The term refers to Pop, Rock and most Jazz – ie any music designed to be accessible to the broad consumer public. Any contemporary music not so designed I call Art Music.Back to text

3 Significantly, the origins of the early music revival, now the Authenticity movement, are also to be found in this period: Dolmetsch in England, D'Indy in France, and –rather incredibly– Respighi in Italy. Back to text

4 At one point I complained to an RCM hierarch that we were still teaching music as if the last 90 years had never happened. To which he replied 'How long?'
'90 years' I repeated.
' good,' he said, 'I thought you said 9 years. That's alright.' Back to text

5 These are of course all visual artists, but I believe it is easier to fool the eye than it is the ear.

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