The Cultural Significance of Timbre Analysis: A Case Study in 1980s Pop Music, Texture, and Narrative

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Megan L. Lavengood


This article is in three interrelated parts. In Part 1, I present a methodology for analyzing timbre that combines spectrogram analysis and cultural analysis. I define a number of acoustic timbral attributes to which one may attune when analyzing timbre, organized as oppositional pairs of marked and unmarked terms, in order to both aid in spectrogram analysis and account for some of this cultural and perceptual work.

In Part 2, building from Allan Moore’s definition of four functional layers in pop texture, I argue for the adoption of a fifth layer, which I term the novelty layer. I study its construction in 1980s hit singles via the Yamaha DX7 synthesizer. The novelty layer is imbued with several layers of semiotic significance: it functions in opposition to the melodic layer, comprises instruments whose timbral characteristics are more resistant to blending with the rest of the ensemble, and often uses “world instruments” in 1980s popular music. This latter point is a reflection of the problematic treatment of world music by 1980s music culture. I use my approach to timbre analysis to define the timbral norms for the novelty layer as opposed to Moore’s other layers.

In Part 3, I create a dialogic narrative analysis of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” by Band Aid (1984) that demonstrates what it might mean to transgress these norms. This analysis, in acknowledging the problematic cultural associations of the song, illustrates the rich discourse that can be produced when timbre is made central to the analytical process.

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