Dissertation Index

Author: Reymore, Lindsey

Title: Empirical approaches to timbre semantics as a foundation for musical analysis

Institution: Ohio State University

Begun: January 2017

Completed: April 2020


This dissertation presents empirical investigations of the cognitive linguistics of musical instrument timbre qualia and explores applications of these results to musical analysis. First, interviews and rating tasks, based on imagined instrument timbres, are used to build a 20-dimensional model of timbre qualia. The final model includes the dimensions airy/breathy, brassy/metallic, direct/loud, focused/compact, hollow, muted/veiled, nasal/reedy, open, percussive, pure/clear, raspy/grainy, resonant/vibrant, ringing/long decay, rumbling/low, shrill/noisy, soft/singing, sparkling/brilliant, sustained/even, watery/fluid, and woody. Further analysis of the interview transcripts and comparison with previous studies in timbre semantics suggests five primary response strategies for describing timbre: Adjectival description, Qualia-metaphor, Onomatopoeia, Mimesis, and Association.

Next, the 20-dimensional model is used in a rating task to generate Timbre Trait Profiles for 34 Western orchestral instruments. These profiles contain ratings for each of the 20 dimensions and are intended for use in musical analysis. Timbre varies not only from instrument to instrument, but also within instruments due to the manipulation of parameters such as pitch, intensity, and articulation. Accordingly, timbral variations with pitch/register and dynamics are mapped for two instruments, the oboe and the French horn, using rating tasks. While some shared trends in dimension variance are observed between the two instruments (e.g. ratings of rumbling/low increase as pitch decreases), much of the timbral variation is apparently idiosyncratic, as is the amount of variation for each instrument on a given dimension.

Three studies are reported investigating the relationship between timbre linguistics and cross-modal matching of instrumental timbre to color. Participants’ ratings of timbres on the cross-modal terms high, low, bright, dark, small, big, light (in weight), heavy, happy, and sad were predictive of the lightness and saturation of colors matched to the same timbres. While some differences in instrument timbre were observed, pitch played the most important role in explaining participants’ color choices.

Finally, the dissertation explores techniques for musical analysis using the Timbre Trait Profiles. A close reading of the opening of Barber’s wind quintet Summer Music illustrates how the TTPs can be integrated into theoretical discourse on a fine level of detail. A distant reading of the first movement of Mahler’s Symphony No.1, which relies on computational analysis, demonstrates how qualia related to instrumentation evolve throughout the course of the piece. Instrument qualia changes at formal boundaries and at the Durchbruch, or breakthrough, are examined in greater detail.

Keywords: timbre, semantics, orchestration, form, crossmodal correspondence, analysis


Chapter 1. Mapping cognitive linguistic dimensions of timbre qualia
Chapter 2. Descriptive strategies, cross-modality, and conceptual metaphor
Chapter 3. Timbre Trait Profiles
Chapter 4. Timbre qualia, pitch, and intensity
Chapter 5. Cross-modal correspondences between instrument timbre and color
Chapter 6. Timbre, Instrumentation, Orchestration



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