Spectromorphology is the perceived sonic footprint of
a sound spectrum as it manifests in time. A descrip-
tive spectromorphological analysis of sound is sometimes
used in the analysis of electroacoustic music, especially
acousmatic music. The term was coined by Denis Smal-
ley in 1986 and is considered the most adequate English
term to designate the field of sound research associated
with the French writer, composer, and academic, Pierre
Schaeffer’s work at INA/GRM in Paris, beginning in the
late 1940s, culminated in the publication of the book
Traité des objets musicaux in 1966. Smalley’s notion of
spectromorphology builds upon Schaeffer’s theories re-
lating to the use of a classification system for various cat-
egories of sound.
Smalley’s term refers to the descriptive analysis of per-
ceived morphological developments in sound spectra over
time, and it implies that the “spectro” cannot exist with-
out the morphology: something has to be shaped and
that something must have sonic content (Smalley, 1986,
1 Theoretical framework
The theoretical framework of spectro-morphology is ar-
ticulated mainly in four parts:
• the typology of the spectra
• morphology
• motion
• structuring processes.
1.1 Spectral typologies
Smalley defines three different spectral typologies that
exist in what he calls the noise-note continuum. This con-
tinuum is subdivided into three principal elements:
• the noise.
• the node (an event having a more complex texture
than a single pitch).
• the note, which is in turn subdivided into note, har-
monic spectrum and inharmonic spectrum.
1.2 Morphological archetypes
Smalley also designates different morphological
• attack-impulse. Modeled on the single detached
note: a sudden onset which is immediately termi-
nated. In this instance the attack-onset is also the
• attack-decay (closed and open) - modeled on sounds
in which the attack-onset is extended by a resonance
that quickly or gradually decays towards termina-
tion. The closed form represents a quick decay
which is strongly attack-determined. The open form
reflects a more gradual decay where the ear is drawn
away from the formative influence of the attack into
the continuing behaviour of the sound on its way to
• graduated continuant - Modeled on sustained
sounds. The onset is graduated, settling into a
continuant phase which eventually closes in a grad-
uated termination. The onset is perceived as a
much less formative influence than in the other two
archetypes. Attention is drawn to the way in which
the sound is maintained rather than to its initiation.
2 Notes
[1] (Thoresen:2007)
3 References
• Smalley, D. (1986), Spectro-morphology and Struc-
turing Processes, in Emmerson, S. (ed.) The Lan-
guage of Electroacoustic Music. London: Macmil-
lan: 61-93.
• Smalley, D. (1997), Spectromorphology: Explain-
ing sound-shapes, Organised Sound: Vol. 2, no. 2.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 107-126.
• Thoresen, L. & Hedman, A. (2007), Spectromor-
phological analysis of sound objects: an adaptation
of Pierre Schaeffer’s typomorphology, Organised
Sound, 12:129-141 Cambridge University Press.
4 Text and image sources, contributors, and licenses
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