Teaching Timbre:
a bit of an explanation

Project URL http://www.teachnet.ie/amhiggins

In the finished project there will be tasks, worksheets, listening assignments and links to other sites. Students will also have a composing assignment in the area of Musique Concrète (creating music from non-musical sounds such as a train sound...).


Subject area/level
Post Primary: Transition year Music (with cross-curricular linkages) and pre-Leaving Cert Music

Timbre refers to the tone colour of a sound. It allows a listener to distinguish between two sounds when pitch, loudness and duration of the notes are the same. At a time when electroacoustic and pop music are appearing more frequently in the classroom, the challenge of teaching timbre as an element of analysis - in conjunction with melody, rhythm and structure - is facing all Music teachers and is one which is not currently resourced. In the conventional music classroom timbral diversity is explained by using literary associations and by making adjectival comparisons with other instruments. This approach may be adequate and useful for dealing with music up to the early part of the 20th century. For an understanding of contemporary composition, however, the area of timbre has to be placed on a par with notation and history. This project enables students to explore and manipulate the elements that cause timbral diversity and allows aural access to the concept of timbre. 


Curriculum Addressed
The three strands outlined in the Leaving Cert Music Syllabus - Listening, Composing and Performing - are built around the analysis of sound, the combining of sounds and the production of sound. Having worked through this tutorial a Transition year Music student will understand why orchestral instruments sound different from each other, will have experience of sounds that may not have been experienced before, will have a proper vocabulary to deal with analysis, will better appreciate the processing of sounds in pop music and will now consider the use of computer-generated and electronically distorted sounds as viable ingredients in a musical work. The Leaving Cert Physics course has a section on Sound and the Biology course includes a study of the Ear. There are links to sites which deal specifically with these related topics. 

Estimated class time to complete the project
Probably 8 to 10 forty-minute classes. 


Internet access, headphones, a reliable MIDI, Wav and mp3 player (downloadable at http://www.winamp.com), the Scorch plug-in which allows the examples notated on stave to be read (downloadable at http://www.sibelius.com), an Audio Editor (Cool Edit trial download at http://www.syntrillium.com or Goldwave trial download at http://www.goldwave.com), a printer to run off a set of questions and to print out any of the included visual examples, a minidisc recorder, minidisc and microphone to record real world sounds for use in a piece of Musique Concrète. All the MIDI and Audio examples are short enough to fit on floppy disks should a student require to work on them offline on another machine. A CD player is needed for the listening assignments and to play the full versions of some of the works mentioned. A CD-writer will be needed to record the Musique Concrète compositions.

The Students
The target audience is post-Junior Cert students in second-level schools who have had some musical training. A deliberately non-mathematical approach has been adopted to make the topic accessible to people who haven't studied Science. Students who would like aural examples of concepts dealt with in their Physics class will also benefit from this tutorial. A basic knowledge of computers is all that's needed.


Aims & Objectives
Present-day musicians are constantly trying to invent new timbres electronically. It is not possible to discuss contemporary music without referring to production techniques such as delay effects - pop musicians deal with synthesis and sound envelopes in all their studio work. This website aims to broaden the scope of musical analysis so that teachers and students are no longer confined to the comfort-zone of pre-20th century works. Students will learn that timbre is influenced by harmonics, waveforms, the material from which an instrument is made and the size and shape of the instrument as well as the method by which it produces its sound. Students will now have an authentically achieved, first-hand experience of timbre. They will put their knowledge to use by completing listening and composing assignments and the more courageous may use their new skills in their own performances. 


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