One of the easiest ways to bring humour to music is with timbre. It’s cheap (literally) but still funny to play Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” or Richard Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra” on kazoo, as the Temple City Kazoo Orchestra did in the 1970s. Most things played on kazoo are funny. It just has a comical timbre.
Such performances inadvertently make a serious point about timbre, which is that it can matter more than the notes. This is overlooked when music is considered as notes on paper. Yet musicologists have largely neglected it, for the simple reason that we don’t really know what it is. One definition amounts to a negative: if two sound signals differ while being identical in pitch and loudness, the difference is down to timbre.
One feature of timbre is the spectrum of pitches in a note: the amplitudes of the various overtones. These are quite different, for example, for a trumpet and a violin both the same note. But our sense of timbre depends also on how this spectrum, and the overall volume, changes over time, particularly in the initial “attack” period of the first few fractions of a second. These are acoustic properties, though, and it might be more relevant to ask what are the perceptual qualities by which we distinguish timbre. Some music psychologists claim that these are things like “brightness” and attack, others argue that we interpret timbre in terms of the physical processes we imagine causing the sound: blowing, plucking, striking and so on. It’s significant too that we often talk of the “colour” of the sound.
Arnold Schoenberg thought it should be possible to write music based on changes of timbre rather than pitch. It’s because we don’t know enough about how the brain organizes timbre that this notion didn’t really work. All the same, Schoenberg and his pupils created a style called Klangfarbenmelodie (sound colour melody) in which melodies were parceled out between instruments of different timbre, producing a mesmeric, shimmering effect. Anton Webern’s arrangement of a part of Bach “The Musical Offering” is the most renowned example.
There’s one thing for sure: timbre is central to our appreciation of music, and if we relegate it below more readily definable qualities like pitch and rhythm then we miss out on a huge part of what conditions our emotional response. It would be fair to say that critical opinion on the music of heavy-metal band Motörhead, led by the late bass guitarist Lemmy Kilmister, was divided. But if ever there was a music defined by timbre, this was it.