Dissertation Index

Author: Lavengood, Megan L.

Title: A New Approach to the Analysis of Timbre

Institution: City University of New York

Begun: March 2015

Completed: May 2017


Two distinct approaches to timbre analysis exist, with complementary strengths and limitations. First, music theorists from the 1980s adopt a positivist mindset and look for ways to quantify timbral phenomena, often using spectrograms, avoiding any cultural dimensions in their work. Second, writings of the past five years focus on cultural aspects of timbre but make no use of spectrograms. This dissertation builds upon these two approaches by synthesizing them: discussion is grounded in spectrogram analysis, but situated within a broad cultural context, through interactions with listener experience and ethnographic study of music periodicals and other published interviews. The theory is applicable to any genre of music, but 1980s popular music is used as a case study, with a particular focus on the Yamaha DX7 synthesizer, used in much of this music.

Chapter 1 outlines a methodology for timbre analysis and establishes a system of oppositional vocabulary for spectrogram analysis. After contextualizing the DX7 within popular music history in Chapter 2, several hit singles using DX7 preset sounds are analyzed in Chapter 3, in terms of texture and instrumentation, establishing three distinct categories of textural function: core, melody, and novelty sounds. Timbral norms are established for each textural function. Chapter 4 demonstrates the creation of musical meaning through dialectic transgression of the norms articulated in Chapter 3. Chapter 5 focuses on the interactions between acoustic and cultural aspects of timbre through close analysis of one particular DX7 preset, E. PIANO 1, often compared to the Fender Rhodes electric piano. A larger argument about the “’80s sound” is made by interweaving arguments from previous chapters. The 1980s can be retrospectively seen as a genre, created through homogenization of timbre facilitated by the DX7 presets. These studies aim to depict the sound-world of the 1980s and to show the value of timbre study.

Keywords: timbre, 1980s, popular music, instrumentation, orchestration, Yamaha DX7


Abstract iv
Acknowledgements vi
List of Examples ix
Defining Timbre 4
Review of Existing Work 5
Why 1980s popular music? 10
Outline of Dissertation 11
CHAPTER 1 - Methodology 13
Spectrograms 14
Oppositions 16
Binaries 26
Context dependency 28
Markedness 29
Interpretation 33
CHAPTER 2 - The Yamaha DX7 in Synthesizer History 36
The Arrival of the DX7 38
Defining Features of the DX7 41
Reception of the DX7 51
After the DX7 57
CHAPTER 3 - Norms of Timbre and Instrumentation in 1980s Popular Music 59
Textural Functions 61
Establishing Norms 71
Instrumentation and Form 82
Timbre and Instrumentation 84
Conclusion 86
CHAPTER 4 - Timbral Dialogues 88
“Do They Know It\'s Christmas?” 88
“Girls” 97
Doctor Who 99
Conclusion 101
CHAPTER 5 – “What Makes It Sound ’80s?”: The Yamaha DX7 Electric Piano Sound 103
Digital Synthesis and the ’80s Sound 104
Analysis: E. PIANO 1 114
Appendix 124
Bibliography 125
Discography 136



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