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Psychology of Music
40(3) 301323
An exploration of musical The Author(s) 2011
Reprints and permission: sagepub.
communication through
DOI: 10.1177/0305735610388898
expressive use of timbre:The

performers perspective

Patricia A. Holmes
Trinity College of Music, London, UK

This study explores the sound world of the performer, building on increasing evidence that timbre is
the most salient variable performance parameter and can also be the primary source of inspiration
and structure in composition. Psychological, psychoacoustic, musicological and aesthetic literature
is reviewed, to establish the connection between existing (listener focused) research and potential
performer motivation and affect. An interview study with one elite performer/composer (classical
guitar) was undertaken to investigate timbre in live performance, specifically as part of the
communication process. Results show that timbre salience varies according to style: in Baroque
music it mainly enhances other performance parameters and in contemporary music it is integral
to composition and interpretation. Emotional affect in the performer appears to be related to inner
drive towards optimal representation of musical understanding, which then generates the evolution
of extended instrumental techniques, allowing ever more imaginative use of timbre. Parallels with
aesthetic and philosophical theory are offered as explanation for some of the more intangible elements
of performance, particularly in relation to the main priorities and motivations of the performer.
Further research might synthesize psychological and philosophical reasoning in this respect and
establish whether these findings are common to other instruments, performers and cultures.

communication, motivation, performance, perception, structure, timbre

Varying timbre is one of the principal ways through which performers communicate musical
structure, ideas, emotions and musical personality (Gabrielsson & Juslin, 1996; Juslin, 2003;
Juslin, Friberg, Schoonderwaldt, & Karlsson, 2004). Timbre was held by Seashore (1936, p. 24)

Corresponding author:
Patricia Holmes, Trinity College of Music, King Charles Court, Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, London SE10 9JF.
302 Psychology of Music 40(3)

to be the most basic attribute of all music and more recently by Levitin to be the most impor-
tant and ecologically relevant feature of auditory experiences (2006/2008, p. 45), assertions
that have been echoed by other researchers. Timbre has also been shown to be fundamental to
human communication in both speech and music (Patel, 2008) to the extent that even very
young babies distinguish and remember timbres (McAdams & Giordano, 2008; Trainor, Wu &
Tsang, 2004; Trehub, Endman & Thorpe, 1990; Rudy, 2007). These observations are sup-
ported by increasing evidence that, unlike other performance parameters, timbre is processed
in both right and left hemispheres of the brain (Menon et al., 2002) which is in accord with
findings that it is perceptually more salient than pitch (Huron, 2001; Patel, 2008).
The ecological significance of timbre (its relationship with the immediate environment) is of
particular interest to the performer, for reasons summarized by Evens:

the sound, the total timbre of an instrument is never just that instrument, but that instrument in
concert with all the other vibrations in the room, other instruments, the creaking of chairs, even the
constant, barely perceptible motion of the air. (2005, p. 6)

Dynamic manipulation of sound is critical in performance not least in the need to adjust to
different acoustic conditions. However, despite scientific support and increasing acceptance
that tone colour is at the heart of expressive musical performance, it remains less researched
than other performance parameters, particularly in a musicological context (Johnson, 1999).
Under-represented in existing literature is the subjectivity and artistic value of timbre (Boulez,
1987, p. 161), specifically its function as one of the most potent elements of emotional com-
munication (Hadja, Kendall, Carteret, & Harshberger, 1997/2002; Padova, Santoboni &
Belardinelli, 2005). Similarly, its critical role in composition has not been widely investigated
(Boulez, 1987; Krumhansl & Iverson, 1992; Lerdahl, 1987; Schnberg, 1911). This is despite
continuing advances in empirical research that include substantial progress in the analysis,
modelling, auditory processing and perceptual organization of sound (for illustration and
implications see McAdams, Depalle & Clarke, 2004; Peretz & Zatorre, 2005; Tsang 2002).
There have also been notable advances in measuring physiological arousal induced by
emotional responses to music (Gabrielsson, 2001; Panksepp, 1995; Rickard, 2004) and the
significance of this phenomenon in terms of the wider aesthetic experience (Konecni, Wanic &
Brown, 2007). Such research, although providing a wealth of valuable information, does not
recognize that the performers perceptions and responses might have a different foundation
from those of the listener. The musicological and emotional implications of timbre have been
identified (McAdams, 1989; Padova et al., 2005; Pressnitzer, McAdams Winsberg, & Fineberg,
2000) and because it is both physically and aesthetically under direct control of the performer,
it seems a suitable medium through which to investigate performers subjective experiences. In
this article I draw on and apply existing scientific timbre research within the context of live
The article is organized as follows. First, I address the lack of precise terminology for timbre
and respond by offering some clarification. As a sound basis of investigation I then draw on
existing literature to suggest why timbre, though significant, has received relatively less atten-
tion than other performance variables. The apparent dichotomy between quantitative and
qualitative timbre research is addressed by some artistic and philosophical discussion regarding
the employment and effectiveness of timbre. This is followed by a brief exploration of listener
perception of timbre, intended as a backdrop for the investigation of performer perception.
Next, recent studies on timbre as part of the communication process are discussed in relation to
Holmes 303

the aims of the current study. A qualitative (interview-based) study of the aims, strategies,
imaginative influences and employment of advanced techniques in respect of tone production
of one purposefully chosen elite concert performer/composer is then undertaken. Finally, I
analyse the interview data, draw out and discuss emergent themes and suggest further lines of

Background and research context

Definitions of timbre
For timbre research to be meaningful, the inherent problem of absence of a timbre language
must be addressed (cf. Kanno, 2007; Wessel, 1979). Words such as tone and timbre are non-
specific, leading to a variety of interpretations (Howard & Angus, 2006; Lerdahl, 1987;
McAdams & Giordano, 2008). Nevertheless, formal definitions do exist. For example, McAdams,
Vieillard, Houix and Reynolds describe timbre as the attribute of auditory sensation that dis-
tinguishes two sounds that are otherwise equal in terms of pitch, duration and loudness, and
that are presented under similar conditions (2004, p. 190). This is a generally accepted scien-
tific definition. However, they also admit that this is a non definition in that it cannot represent
the artistic properties and expressive potential of timbre. Although differences in basic sound
between instruments of similar register and volume range can be distinguished and described
in this way (Levitin, 2006/2008; Marozeau, de Cheveign, McAdams & Winsberg, 2003),
these definitions do not specifically recognize ongoing expressive, performer-generated changes
of sound within the basic spectral parameters of each instrument.
Timbre can also be regarded as synonymous with tone colour or tone quality (Wessel,
1979), yet these terms are equally vague and the latter could actually be perceived in judge-
mental rather than objective terms. Menon et al. include the words tonal color and texture (my
italics) when defining timbre (2002, p. 1742), which together with the concept of acoustic
richness (Sacks, 2007, p. 107) begins to breathe life into description of timbre in a musical
context. Seashore used the term sonance for the successive changes and fusions that take
place within a tone from moment to moment and recommended that this should be the
accepted understanding of the term in a musical context (1938/1967, p. 103). This might be
described as the evolution of timbre (cf. McAdams et al., 2004; Patel, 2008) and it is this
dynamic interpretation of tone quality within performance that forms the backdrop for the
current study.

Why is the performers perspective under-researched?

Timbre is undoubtedly fundamental to other co-existing performance variables, but there may
be a number of reasons why it remains the least researched and arguably still the least under-
stood (Hadja et al., 1997/2002; McAdams, Winsberg, Donnadieu, Soete, & Krimphoff, 1995).
First, it is the hardest parameter to measure (Risset & Wessel, 1982/1999; Scherer & Zentner,
2001) and has been aptly summarized by McAdams as encompassing a complex set of audi-
tory attributes as well as a plethora of auditory and musical issues (1999, p. 85). Second, the
technical means by which timbre is created can be difficult to observe as well as to measure. Its
affective potential may then be underestimated, including the degree to which it might be inte-
gral to expressive body movement (as recognized by Davidson, e.g. 1994). Third, timbre can
only be notated in a very general sense, using instrumental performance directions and/or
304 Psychology of Music 40(3)

descriptive metaphor. This, of course, implies that performers have considerable freedom
(despite performance practice conventions), but it also hinders empirical research. Equally (if
not more) significant is the variability in perceptual context due to relational judgements. A
further complication is that expressive use of timbre is an aspect of performance that is particu-
larly individual and ephemeral. Performers use apparently intuitive, often extremely subtle tim-
bral variation to convey a multiplicity of musical messages, both structural and emotional
(Earis & Holmes, 2007; Lindstrm, Juslin, Bresin, & Williamon, 2003). It is therefore pertinent
to the current study to consider why the timbral landscape should be such an indispensable
part of communication in performance.

The significance of timbre in performance

The fact that timbral differences are more easily distinguished than pitch differences (Huron,
2001) lends credence to McAdamss argument that the significance of timbre to the composer
stems from its role as a form-bearing dimension (1989). As such, it should also be central to
interpretative decision-making and projection in performance. Performers tonal intentions
and the necessary management of techniques become increasingly sophisticated over time
but why should this be? A strong motivational factor is a desire, or even need, to find ways to
express music, to express oneself through music (Persson, 2001) and to establish a strong
musical identity (MacDonald, Hargreaves & Miell, 2002). An advanced performer will have
developed sufficient technical command to be able to draw on a wide range of tone colours,
evolving from a continuum of large and small-scale physical movements that embody
Seashores concept of sonance (cf. Howard & Angus, 2006).
Expert performers appear to perceive timbre through the creation of mental images (con-
scious internal representations) that inform and guide technical decision-making as an inter-
pretation develops (Holmes, 2005). Bailes (2007) demonstrates this ability in a study where
listeners participate in timbre-based discrimination tasks, and it is therefore not surprising that
imagery and timbre perception appear to produce similar cognitive representations (Halpern,
Zatorre, Bouffard & Johnson, 2004). Holmes identified this phenomenon in elite performers,
who, before playing, image (either physically or mentally) the character of sound that they
wish to produce (2005). It is clear that, as a vehicle for communicating structural concepts and
interpretative imagination, timbre is vital. Choices will be shaped to a greater or lesser extent by
perception of musical and cultural context, but it is in accordance with Bailess findings (2002,
2007) that the physical production of tone is guided by imagery, followed by degrees of percep-
tion. This also accords with Holmess findings that the desire and ability to create a particular
sound at any one moment is at the heart of expert performance.
While psychologists continue to posit the possibilities of unravelling the elements of expres-
sion so that a working paradigm can be found (e.g., Juslin, 2003; Juslin et al., 2004; Woody,
2002), philosophers generally focus on the more mystical and ineffable qualities of music
(Scruton, 1997; Zangwill, 2009). They also recognize the power within some individuals to
induce profound emotional affect in themselves and others through the medium of music per-
formance. In this context, the elusive but central nature of timbre has been identified by
Scruton, who evokes both the concept of sonance and the tonal innovations of Schnberg
(e.g. Farben, Schnberg, 1909/1922)1 by suggesting that tone is a product of the imagination
and we must distinguish between tone and sound When we hear music, we do not hear
sound only; we hear something in sound, something which moves with a force of its own
(1997, pp. 1920). At elite levels all aspects of tone are carefully considered and nurtured and
Holmes 305

if we can understand how the performer perceives tone moving with a force of its own, it may
help to counter the inadequacy of language as a vehicle for meaningful discussion.
Performers commonly use metaphor to convey an image of a particular quality of tone (cf.
Budd, 1985/1994; Kanno, 2007; Zangwill, 2007), but Scruton suggests that perception
through metaphor is itself dependent upon both imagination and cultural context:

The musical experience is not merely perceptual. It is founded in metaphor, arising when unreal
movement is heard in imaginary space. Such an experience occurs only within a musical culture, in
which traditions of performance and listening shape our expectation. (1997, p. 239).

This may be true, but whatever the cultural influences, the distinctive sound produced by elite
performers is embedded within their musical personalities and is integral to their ability to com-
municate through music (Gabrielsson & Lindstrm Wik, 2003). There is a need to find means
of expressing ones own voice and indeed a particular quality of tone is commonly associated
with a particular performer, irrespective of idiomatic foundations of style (cf. Benadon, 2003;
Johnson, 2002). The instrument becomes an extension of the self and because no two acoustic
instruments have the same basic sound quality, choice of instrument and other materials asso-
ciated with sound production is critical.2 Although identity is not a static state and the quest for
a musical voice cannot be a finite process, even relatively recent research tends to centre on
timbre as an acoustic phenomenon (e.g., Caclin, McAdams, Smith & Giard, 2008; Tsang,
2002), rather than on its role in expressing the musical identity and imagination of the

Perception and structure

There is evidence that timbre can be perceived independently from other elements of sound
such as pitch, and that it can also represent structural features of music (Huron, 2001;
Marozeau et al., 2003; Pressnitzer et al., 2000). This suggests that timbre perception is at least
as relevant as perception of other performance parameters. Progress has been made in the
investigation of perceptual organization and in the interpretation of sound (Krumhansl, 2000;
Krumhansl & Iverson, 1992). In addition to this, there is strong evidence to suggest that timbre
has an important role in music perception. For example, Warrier & Zatorre (2002) have
demonstrated that pitch perception is influenced by spectral variation of timbre, but further
research is needed to show how or indeed, if perception during performing (active) might
differ in attributes from perception during listening (passive). Lack of timbral language inhibits
the transfer of scientific theory to the realms of live acoustic performance, but it has been
shown that, based on the use of descriptive metaphor, listeners tend to find common ground in
objective interpretation of the effects of different timbres (Gabrielsson & Lindstrm, 2001;
McAdams, Beauchamp & Meneguzzi, 1999; Sloboda, 1991). When giving an objective response
to the same musical stimulus they can be in broad agreement regarding timing and degree of
affect (Johnson, 1999; Juslin, 2003). However, commonly accepted metaphors for timbre still
seem far removed from the complex emotional and structural messages with which elite per-
formers work (Waterman, 1996).
Listeners subjective reactions to music can be identified through measurement of physio-
logical response (Steinbeis, Koelsch, & Sloboda, 2006; Thaut, 2009). This shows greater
heterogeneity, contingent upon a listeners complex personal interpretation system (Thaut,
2009, p. 555) than if an objective (verbal) response is sought. Assuming that performers have
306 Psychology of Music 40(3)

subjective and idiosyncratic involvement, measurement of their physiological responses during

performance might support a self-reporting methodology. To what extent do performers con-
sciously consider timbre as significant in inducing affect and integral to other performance
dimensions? Do performers, like listeners, consciously perceive timbre as a framework for music
analysis, adopting an appropriate range of schemata when processing tone (cf. Tsang, 2002)?
Tsang showed how analysis, perception and structure cannot be separated, but it is worth
considering structure to some extent independently, because across a number of related disci-
plines, timbre is acknowledged as significant in defining and conveying musical structure. This
is not surprising, as any musical sound has a timbral quality, but despite recognition, scientific
evidence for this aspect of performance is still limited. We therefore draw on psychoacoustic
studies (e.g., McAdams, 1999) to show how performers might form representations of struc-
ture through timbre and on neuroscience (e.g., Menon et al., 2002) to identify the significance
of timbral processing in this respect. As an example of the former (and possibly because it is
multidimensional) timbre has great potential to contribute to the movement between tension
and relaxation that characterizes western musical structure and expression (McAdams &
Giordano, 2008, p. 77). Pressnitzer et al., investigating roughness as a dimension of timbre,
were able to show that tension and release could be perceived through orchestral timbral differ-
ences alone, in the absence of tonal elements (2000). Of further interest to the performer is that
temporal as well as spectral attributes of timbre appear to feature strongly in auditory process-
ing in practical terms this means features such as attack time (Iverson, 1995, cited in
McAdams, 1999) and brightness (McAdams, 1989). This is highly significant in making tech-
nical choices such as choosing fingerings (Holmes, 2005; Woody, 2002) or indeed any other
means of controlling sound.
It has recently been demonstrated that timbre also has considerable significance in the crea-
tion and violation of expectation (anticipation of structural features that are repeated and
therefore expected), which is a principal source of emotive power in music (McAdams et al.,
2004; Meyer, 1956; Warrier & Zatorre, 2002).

Timbre and emotion

Induction of emotion and emotional response to music have more often been studied in relation
to other performance parameters (e.g., Clarke, 1988; Juslin, Friberg & Bresin, 200102;
Steinbeis et al., 2006) and the potential effects of microchanges in timbre have been underesti-
mated. Yet listeners have identified timbre as significant in inducing emotional affect
(Gabrielsson, 2001; Juslin, 2001; Padova et al., 2005), which suggests that timbre has distinct
emotional valence. Listeners form similar objective judgements when performers play accord-
ing to a directed emotion or mood, but this has an artificial aspect. It does not recognize the
nature or relevance of the performers subjective experiences prior to, during or after a perform-
ance, or indeed the degree to which these might, through interpretative choices, impact upon
emotional communication. Although measurement of physiological responses to musical
stimuli can suggest altered emotional states, induced emotional response is still far harder to
measure or describe than perceived emotion (Juslin, 2005).
Despite forming the basis of little research into emotion in performance (Gabrielsson &
Lindstrm, 2001), timbre is clearly relevant for composers, who recognize its demonstrable
power to induce affect (Boulez, 1987; Lerdahl, 1987). By focusing on timbre, I hope to discover
something of the unique emotional landscape of the performer to what extent his/her percep-
tion of emotional content, and indeed his/her awareness of induced emotion within him/herself,
Holmes 307

is contingent upon the music, or is derived from other sources. I am not aware of existing stud-
ies that attempt to illustrate the existence of, or balance between, perceived and induced emo-
tion within the performer.

The study
There are distinct methodological concerns associated with researching artistic use of timbre,
partly due to vague terminology and the multidimensional nature of timbre, both of which
complicate study of timbre perception. Sounds can be perceived in very different ways
(McAdams et al., 2004) at times startlingly different, as can be seen from the wide-ranging
case studies narrated by the neurologist Oliver Sacks (2007). Personal characteristics and expe-
riences also ensure that subjective responses vary in nature and degree of affect (Thaut, 2009)
and it is reasonable to suppose that this will be as true for the performer as for the listener.
Little research has resulted from collaboration between scientists (psychologists, psychoac-
ousticians and neuroscientists) and elite concert performers (Windsor, 2009; cf. Levitin &
Cuddy, 2004). When writing about timbre in composition, Boulez identified a fundamental
dichotomy between the two groups research interests and objectives, suggesting that quantita-
tive research sits unhappily with the more intuitive, artistic interests of the performer/com-
poser who is not interested in measurement or objective analysis. What matters to them is the
function of timbre, and even more so the affectivity created by the perception of timbre in the
context of the work (1987, p. 162). It is a hindrance to empirical research that the higher
order refinements of technique that distinguish elite performance are not usually obvious and
their true significance can be overlooked by the non-expert. Furthermore, generative processes
leading to choices and production of timbre are not freely discussed, as non-verbal communica-
tion is generally more effective (Davidson, 2005; Davidson & Good, 2002).
The current study differs from research hitherto undertaken in the field of musical timbre in
that it is designed to investigate the role and function of the performer and the composer. Much
research has been concerned with measurement and modelling (synthesizing) of acoustic
properties (e.g., Juslin et al., 2001-02; McAdams et al., 1995; Vlimki, Pakarinen, Erkut &
Karjalainen, 2006) and the perceptual qualities and effects of timbre (e.g., Gabrielsson & Juslin,
1996; Tsang, 2002) but only a few have included live, performer-generated timbres (Earis &
Holmes, 2007; Johnson, 1999).
Recognizing the division of purpose between quantitative and qualitative research identified
by Boulez, the aim of the current study is to allow further understanding of the artistic and
aesthetic function of timbre, from the subjective perspective of the performer. The choice of a
qualitative methodology is also supported by some doubt in the scientific community as to
whether true objectivity, as sought through quantitative methods, is actually achievable
(Patton, 2002). A further reason is that timbre control is multifaceted and continually evolv-
ing, making it challenging to obtain meaningful measurement data.3
The current study is investigative rather than comparative. Insight into personal representa-
tions of emotional and structural communication and other aspects of performance prepara-
tion and experience are central to its aims. From critical examination of other research
methodologies it appeared that, for a phenomenological study of this nature, the most informa-
tion-rich data would come from a performers own description of working practices (cf. Chaffin
& Imreh, 2001) that is, phenomenological as concerned with an individuals personal
308 Psychology of Music 40(3)

perception (Smith, Jarman & Osborn, 1999, p. 218). A semi-structured conversation-style

interview was chosen to allow optimum flexibility and depth of response. The interview was
supported by an interview guide that included topics key to the aims of the study (Patton, 2002;
Robson, 1993/2002). Since the study explores areas of performance preparation that are not
generally articulated, a purposeful sample of one (N = 1) highly meta-cognitive elite performer
was considered appropriate. It has been demonstrated that performers of the highest level are
most likely to have sufficient confidence to be able to focus on the music (particularly emotional
and musicological events) rather than being distracted by issues relating to themselves and
perceived deficiencies in their own playing (Waterman, 1996).
In view of the potential difficulties of exploring some of the more aesthetic, intangible
aspects of expression in performance, analysis is facilitated by reference to Patrik Juslins func-
tional five-stage model of expression in performance (2005) as a paradigm for study of one
specific performance parameter. Based on prior definitions of communication in performance
(Johnson-Laird, 1992; Kendall & Carterette, 1990), Juslin asserts that musical communication
is effected through a chain of events: the composers expressive intentionthe performers
expressive intentionthe acoustic performance parametersthe listeners perceptionthe
listeners affective response. All are necessary elements in performance, but in line with the
aims of this article I focus principally on the performers expressive intention and the acoustic
parameters, with some additional reference to the composers expressive intention.

Refinement of the term elite performer

As with the definition of timbre, it is essential for full understanding of results and implica-
tions that the term elite performer be differentiated from the term expert performer, which
has been widely used in the field of music psychology to describe a player with a good degree of
competence. Expert performer can range from advanced students (Lindstrm, et al., 2003) to
a world-class concert pianist (Chaffin & Imreh, 2001), so the term is clearly not precise enough
to prevent misinterpretation. Since the performer selected for the current study falls into the
world-class concert performer category, I draw on the definition given by Ericsson and Charness
(1994), who describe such experts as exceptional or top-level. Although this is in the context
of discussion on the existence of innate talent, the terms are in accord with the sophisticated
conceptual approach, experience, motivation and dedication to musical communication that
characterizes this level of performer as opposed to other experts.

The participant
The participant is internationally recognized as someone who evinces the highest degree of
technical ability and musicality and is also able to articulate insight and working processes in
both verbal and written form. He is an experienced solo performer and professor of classical
guitar at the Royal College of Music, London. In an attempt to cast further light on the interface
between composer and interpreter in respect of communication through timbre, the partici-
pant is also a composer whose works are both popular and notable for their original and imagi-
native use of sound. His well-documented success in all three fields of professional activity was
considered key to establishing an appropriate degree of authority for the interview data. Guitar
was chosen for reasons of clarity. First, timbre variation is achieved by a number of distinct
techniques that, although functioning concurrently, can be clearly defined (Traube &
DAlessandro, 2005). Second, both hands are in contact with the instrument, giving the
Holmes 309

performer direct control over the sound source (cf. Evens, 2005). Third, vibrato is not central to
tone production and the complication of an extra, primarily pitch-based dimension is thereby
avoided. Full confidentiality was offered, but declined, since the participant did not consider the
material in any way sensitive.

The focus of the study and the specific areas under investigation were explained immediately
prior to the interview. In order to define likely topic areas, an interview guide was prepared but
in practice the discussion took a number of interesting turns that prompted considerable devia-
tion. In most cases deviations concerned timbre (or other aspects of performance integral to
timbre) and have therefore been included in the analysis. Occasional probes were used, specifi-
cally to allow clarification, elicit further information, and integrate responses across different
topic areas (see Appendix). The conversation lasted for 45 minutes, was recorded and later
transcribed verbatim. Participant and interviewer met again after an interval of one week,
during which both had had time to reflect on the previous conversation and further elaboration
of a few specific points then ensued. The second conversation lasted for 20 minutes and was
also recorded and transcribed.
Data from the interview were analysed and interpreted using the technique of Interpretative
Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) (Willig, 2001/2008; Smith et al., 1999). Emergent themes
were interpreted in the light of both literature reviewed and observations made in the earlier
part of this paper. This enabled identification of higher order themes, which were then catego-
rized (see Figure 1), although considerable integration within the interview data necessitated
some cross-referencing between categories as the analysis progressed. As IPA will always be an
interpretation of experiences, analysis was carried out in accordance with the original principles
of grounded theory, which is designed to allow for the generation of theory in a defined area.
The potential for deductive analysis was recognized, but by no means expected, mainly due to
the absence of appropriate language for timbre (cf. Charmaz, 1995; Willig, 2001/2008). A
considerable degree of subjectivity was acknowledged in that although not a guitarist, the
researcher is an expert performer (cf. Finlay, 2009). This was considered an advantage in that
it enabled inductive analysis on a basis of reasonable understanding of both technical and
artistic context.

Results and discussion

The purpose of this study was to identify key motivations and working methods in employment
of timbre in elite performance. The data give evidence of the degree of significance attached to
timbre, prime motivations in both performance and composition, and the relationship of tim-
bre with musical structure and other performance parameters. Less predictable insights also
emerged, prompting some discussion in the context of a range of related disciplines. All catego-
ries are illuminated by exemplar quotations, in which italics indicate emphasis by the subject.
Underlining is to draw attention to points of particular note.

The integral role of timbre in performance

The results agree in general with empirical and theoretical research reviewed earlier. However,
some emergent themes have not yet been explored to any extent. It was expected that timbre
310 Psychology of Music 40(3)

Sub-themefunctions of timbre Higher-order theme

Use of timbre to define structureseparate musical


Interaction with other performance dimensions

Timbre integral to interpretation
Awareness of sound and light spectra

Description of timbre as orchestration

Parallels with speech and language

Use of metaphor

More critical in extreme atonal music

Ability to persuade

Artistic intention

Audience perceptions

Sound felt as gesture

Physical (technical) imagery

Evolutionnot always calculated

Ability to surprise (or shock)

A vehicle to convey humour or ambiguity Emotion/affect


Own engagement with the music

Experiments with colour

Artistic intention

Deviations from the score

Figure 1.Thematic analysis

would be employed by the participant to convey musical structure, but of particular interest
was the degree to which consideration and management of appropriate techniques was given to
represent and communicate this aspect of performance essentially, the participant regards the
music itself as his main priority. He repeatedly referred to timbre in performance as tone colour
and from a number of different aspects, made it clear how it is integral to developing an inter-
pretation. Early in the interview he emphasized that timbre is fundamental in guitar playing,
but is also inseparable from other performance parameters:
Holmes 311

somebody navigating on a ship can change the course by a couple of degrees, which ultimately results
in them being 50 miles further up the coast sometimes colour changes are a similar sort of thing it
can be a tiny (change), but can make an enormous difference.

there are in some ways what I call dimensions to it strands like a rope that entwines together.

In several responses he elaborated by making it clear that despite its effectiveness, timbre is not
usually the first performance variable to be considered:

one of the things I stress is that if Im starting off I can get good dynamics and a nice shape before I
add colour the colour in a sense then adds a new dimension and hopefully makes it special rather
than ordinary.

I might experiment with the tone quality of a chord or a line then colours start to emerge.

However, rather than implying that timbre is secondary, these statements suggest that the
dimension of tone colour evolves as a product of the imagination. Reflecting the more philo-
sophical interpretations suggested by Scruton (1997), Hanslick (1854/1891), and others, the
participant continued:

Some of its knitted into the dynamic markings if somethings written dolce for example I would
automatically be thinking of a certain kind of colour in the left hand and something in the right
hand maybe a certain territory that certain dynamic markings occupy.

Cultural traditions inform perception (Huron, 2006) and if this is taken to include expectations
within different musical styles, it can be seen how the structural contribution of timbre varies
according to style:

tonal contrasts (in Bach) would feature a much smaller percentage than if I was playing something
like the Britten Nocturnal, where tonal contrasts are a much more integral part of the structure and
the idea behind the composition.

Timbre, speech and language

In the same context (but specifically about communicating effectively through timbre) the par-
ticipant made numerous analogies with communication through speech and language:

just like speech you know, the way its communicated, or an actor tiny little gestures can suddenly
make the performance seem great and you cant quite put your finger on what it is when you see
somebody whos really brilliant at what they do they might be saying the same words and doing the
same kind of inflection, but theres just that extra you know microscopically different perception
or ingredient that elevates it to something different.

and directly associating verbal language and music:

its very grammatical, opening sentence and then next sentence reflecting on that theres a sort of
left right nature to it. In the same way you might do a slightly different inflection with your voice if
you were repeating something, or stressing something, then sometimes the colour changes kind of
communicate it like that. Colour change becomes a substitute for inflection perhaps.
312 Psychology of Music 40(3)

This is a logical connection, given increasing evidence of significant similarities in cognitive

organization of language and music (Patel, 2008), their evolutionary parallels and possible
integration (Brown, Merker, & Wallin, 2000). To understand the similar communicative func-
tions of music and language is by no means unique, but it illustrates the metaphor of speaking
to people in the same way as a great actor or orator, only conveying a score rather than a text.
Traube and Depalle (2004) suggest that guitarists seem particularly sensitive to correlations
between phonetics and vocal tones, but this may or may not apply to other instrumentalists.
Further analogies to verbal communication were made in the use of the term gesture, in this
case as a metaphor to highlight and separate musical ideas:

you get two ideas into peoples minds and you separate them spatially thats often what the hand
gesture does.

Timbre and gesture

Much has been written about the role of gesture in performance (for a recent overview, see
Davidson, 2009). However, this was more often related to emotional rather than structural
communication.4 Davidson reasonably acknowledges that some instrumentalists gestures
might be bodily representations of structural boundaries (2005), but does not suggest that
they might also embody a representation of the sound itself. Frith, however, does suggest that
musicians bodies embody their art and that the physical creation of music is a representation
of the score on another level (1996). This phenomenon is amply illustrated in the following

on guitar I have a funny term musical bonsai its all very small, but because of the gesture and
where you play, you map what people hear visually, in the same way a conductor might point to the
brass or to the strings or to the percussion the right hand does that as well, so if Im creating a warm
sound I maybe choose to move towards the fingerboard, or turn my hand in that direction To the
listeners looking on from the front, theyre kind of seeing the sound, just in a slightly different place

Feeling sound as gestures when you do a warm sound, its not dissimilar to like Ive said to my
students stroking a cat, or picking something up gently its a hard thing to describe, but with a
thinner sound if Im trying to create a thin tone, theres a certain gesture thats a little bit more claw
like its almost like the upper spectrum the frequency has a gesture that I associate with it

These vivid descriptions indicate a clear sequence of multi-sensory perceptual events, from the
performers apparently seamless connection between the artistic concept and playing tech-
nique (cf. Holmes, 2005) to listener affect. It could be that direct contact with the sound source
and the intimacy of the playing position make gestural characterization of timbre particularly
relevant on the guitar, but it is also worth briefly examining psychological dimensions of tim-
bre perception in evidence here. First, it is reasonable to assume that the visual impact of a
continuum of gestures in relation to the sound influences subjective perception of timbre
(Handel, 1995, cited in Hadja et al., 1997/2002), as does the varying location of the sound-
source (McAdams et al., 2004). Second, the relationship between instrumental gesture (the
playing technique) and perceptual timbre space has been explored: Traube and Depalle (2004)
were able to demonstrate that there is a direct correlation between the gesture and the sound
that relates to the plucking position along the length of the string. Furthermore, Earis and
Holmes showed that the fundamental frequency energy is also affected by the degree of nail or
Holmes 313

flesh used in right hand articulation (2007). The angle of the hand and therefore also the
associated gestures vary accordingly,5 which means that more nail in the attack will turn the
hand round into a position that is indeed more claw like. Conversely, to pluck the strings with
flesh rather than nail, the hand will be in a more open position and the gesture correspond-
ingly more gentle:

ultimately to me the nails are a bit like erm it sounds a bit odd, but a bit like frequency filters. If you
play to the side (of the finger) you tend to produce a warmer, fatter sound which lifts the fundamentals
of the note, where if you play with a thin sound, in a certain kind of way, you trigger higher frequen-
cies brighter, crisper, harsher, brittler sounds, so in that sense the gesture is almost like a dial you
literally just turn your hand or change in a particular way that moves you round that spectrum just
literally like turning a dial on a stereo the finesse is sometimes miniscule to produce changes in
colour its to do with nail shape and tiny changes of elevation and angle and things Im tending
to think of a colour in terms of its frequencies

Further perspectives on metaphor

Use of metaphor shows gesture and technique in playing to be in some respects analogous to
speech and language. Both psychologists and philosophers accept that metaphor is necessary
when there is an absence of timbre language. This participant used metaphor freely to illus-
trate specific movements, sounds or character within the music, rather than moods or emo-
tions perceived by the audience, as suggested by previous research (e.g. Panksepp, 1995;
Sloboda, 1991),

a timbre [e.g. ponticello6] can be humorous and witty in one environment and then in another it
might suggest violence or nastiness or sarcasm so in a sense I suppose there may be a very oblique
emotional language that goes with a particular tone.

In fact, he made several references to light and shade (or dark) as opposed to actual colours, and
clearly forms a unified image of both sound and light spectra, thereby apparently translating
metaphor into cross-modal representations of sensory dimensions. This phenomenon was
identified by Marks (1975) in terms of a perceptual correlation between brightness (density) of
both sound and light and is perhaps reminiscent of the well-documented sound/colour synaes-
thesia experienced by a number of musicians, notably Messiaen (Bernard, 1986). Messiaen
also identified an analogy between sound resonance (frequency) and colour (Messiaen, 1986).
The above quotations illustrate Markss argument that synaesthesia emerges from deep
psychological similarities inherent in perceptual experience itself, similarities that provide some
of the raw materials for linguistic extensions of meaning through poetic metaphor (1990,
p. 28). The term synchresis has been coined to describe the involuntary mental fusion of
acoustic and visual stimuli in the context of electroacoustic sound (see Rudy, 2007), but here,
it also seems appropriate in the acoustic sound world.

Timbre and affect

Also significant is the fact that, although speaking in fluent and vivid terms about how he com-
municates music to an audience, the participant found it uncharacteristically difficult (and
apparently irrelevant) to articulate specific emotions in relation to the actual nature of
314 Psychology of Music 40(3)

audience affect, consistently implying that his aim is always to find ways of enabling under-
standing of the music itself.

Its just something you feel in the end that you want to say in the music you cant articulate it.

He also made it clear that the nature and degree of individual listener affect is accepted as infi-
nitely variable (cf. Thaut, 2009) and that this tends to be a positive aspect of performance over-
all. He sees the intensity of affect as the main determinant of effectiveness of a performance, in
other words, the degree of real engagement he has succeeded in generating hence the com-
ment that extremes of timbral colour are the most effective:

sometimes its more at the extreme ends of the colour spectrum very, very thin sound might be sort
of shocking or an incredibly round sound with lots of vibrato sometimes its an incredibly beau-
tiful or an incredibly shocking sound that has the most emotional kick.

on some days inevitably you feel more emotionally engaged in what youre doing than others some
days its a bit more of a day at the office but other days its great its really inspiring when every-
things going well.

This is not entirely consistent with the few studies that have sought to establish the nature and
degree of the performers own feelings (e.g. Lindstrm et al., 2003; Minassian et al., 2003, cited
in Juslin, 2009), where a tendency to try and convey specific emotions was identified in a sig-
nificant number of performers. However, these studies were conducted among sub-elite per-
formers and it is possible that at the highest levels of expertise, the focus is more on the music
itself (a feature that was also identified by some subjects in the aforementioned studies). The
participants own emotional engagement with music is something he cant explain, since it
appears to be an intrinsic part of him as a person and always has been. His principal motivation
in respect of timbre is connected with his drive to represent all aspects of music as he himself
experiences it, and his own emotional responses in performance appear to relate to whether he
achieves his own intrinsically driven musical goals:

theres a certain kind of sound you want to produce and then marking yourself in terms of how
well you produced it if youre thinking I want to produce a really lush colour on this note and
then you play it, part of you thinks yes I got quite close, or yes I got it exactly, or no I got nowhere
near it.

you get a buzz out of a particularly nice acoustic

A number of studies have shown that performers form self-monitoring representations during
performance (Davidson, 2005), but in this statement, a positive affective state also evokes the
element of hedonism in performance identified by Persson (2001). The participant expressed
feelings of pleasure associated with his own accomplishment in respect of tone production (cf.
Kubovy, 1999). This response may also be linked to the dopamine reward system, shown to be
related to emotional self-satisfaction (Levitin, 2006/2008). Furthermore, Salimpoor, Benovoy,
Longo, Cooperstock, & Zatorre (2009) have demonstrated that pleasure associated with listen-
ing to music can itself arise from induced increases in emotional arousal, which they suggest
can be called musical emotions. This term may equally describe the apparently abstract, but
intense emotional engagement felt by performers.
Holmes 315

When asked what makes others performances inspiring for him, the participant immedi-
ately mentioned commitment, and emphasized that, as in other art forms, a rare degree of skill
is also a significant element:

rarity of skill to me thats always been an element of great art its like when youre at a great per-
formance, everybody somehow knows that they might be at something special that they might not see
again for the next five years, ten years or ever or feel in a similar kind of way.

Indeed, witnessing extraordinary skill demonstrated in playing a musical instrument has been
identified as a source of pleasure in itself (Kubovy, 1999), but a dynamic relationship between this
aspect of performance and the outcome of physiological arousal has not yet been established.

Timbre and artistic purpose

Possibly the most interesting and in some ways surprising result was the emphatic and clear
distinction made by the participant between the use of timbre when learning and performing
others works, and when composing. Numerous composers of the last hundred years or so
would identify with the participants unequivocal statement, Im interested in sound for its
own sake. He continued:

I would just play a chord on the piano and find that interesting to listen to, even if its not placed in a
musical environment sometimes I experiment with sounds, extended techniques and things like that
produce a certain kind of timbre and then Ill think ah yes, I can do this with them, rather than
searching for a sound in my head and then the other way round.

This is entirely supportable if it is accepted that timbre can form the basis of musical structure
(as in Schnbergs Farben), or at least function as the principal form-bearing dimension (as in
Messiaens Chronochromie (1960)) as it can do in music of other cultures. It has been shown
how timbre can induce emotional affect, and related to musical expectation, can be fundamen-
tal to its emotive power (cf. Meyer, 1956). The following statement demonstrates a clear artistic
purpose in this respect:

the musical objective in a particular piece is sometimes to produce a sound thats unexpected or maybe
even shocking or surprising thats the nature of what Im sometimes trying to do.

Rudy (2007) argues that recorded media music is unique in that it can represent recognized
objects or events in an ambiguous context; that this challenges listeners perceptions is illus-
trated by reference to Schaeffers tude aux Chemins de Fer (1948), an early example of musique
concrte, based on train sounds. It would seem that the same premise might also apply to
contemporary live instrumental music in that the participants own compositions for guitar
generally tend towards the representational rather than the abstract, drawing on an eclectic
range of sources including the rich traditions of the instrument, but also popular contempo-
rary influences and extended techniques. This reflects a recognized perceptual challenge in
sonic representations of objects or events, being neither the thing they seem to be, nor the
instrument as it is usually heard (Rudy, 2007). The participant deliberately creates such ambi-
guity in that although there is a clearly defined musical context in terms of the instrument,
setting and sometimes the form, a dimension of challenge is apparent in innovative use of
familiar guitar sounds in a blurring of music and sound effect:
316 Psychology of Music 40(3)

I like to get people to re-evaluate a sound so things like string squeaks or extraneous noises you can
twist round so that they become normal sounds people re-evaluate and think instead of a squeak,
it sounds like a bird, or an insect, or some other strange sound

In fact, all these dimensions of timbre in contemporary composition are drawn together in an
extract from the participants own programme notes, which makes an apt concluding quotation:

Junglescape is an attempt to convey a range of contemporary guitar techniques in a simple tonal

world. The harmony is quite limited and static, drawing on the drone from folk music and incorporat-
ing modal elements. Technical complexity and harmonic simplicity combine to balance one another
and an unconventional tuning takes the performer and listener into the relatively unfamiliar [on the
guitar] key centres of Eb and Bb. The intention is to create many layers of sound in the listeners
mind and to change our perceptions of what a sound is. In fact for the first minute or so of the piece
a listener should not even be able to tell what instrument is playing (Ryan, 2009).

Ultimately, if timbre is as significant in structure and perception of contemporary music as this

quotation and other composers suggest, its power as an expressive tool in more classical forms
may be greater than is usually thought, particularly since timbral change can be easily heard,
if not clearly defined.

General discussion
This study goes some way towards bridging the gap between scientific (psychoacoustic) study
of timbre and the reality of timbre employed in live performance. Given the demonstrated sig-
nificance of timbre and also the unexpected content of some interview responses, three areas,
in particular, raise questions that are not adequately explained by existing research. These
relate principally to the emotional and aesthetic roots of performance, both of which feature
strongly in the participants relationship with timbre.
First, the participants intuitive engagement with music appears to account for his strong
emotional responses among the most interesting results were those relating to artistic and
aesthetic motivations for specific timbres. His drive to communicate the music as he felt it
should be represented revealed the strong internal motivations associated with successful per-
forming artists. When musical goals are achieved, his emotional response clearly centres on
feelings of satisfaction and occasionally elation, the intensity of which is generally dependent
upon the perceived degree of task mastery he consistently referred to employment of specific
timbres as a key element in this process. His response is related to the musical outcome rather
than the self, but this is not a simple equation in that (from this study) it appears that at elite
level the musician is the self, which implies a high degree of personal involvement and invest-
ment in sound as a precursor of induced emotion (cf. Evens, 2005).
Second, it was notable that the participant had difficulty speaking in any detail about
timbre in relation to emotion as a dynamic constituent of the communication process,
although he was very articulate about the timbral spectrum in practice. Its strength in terms
of potential emotional affect in both the audience and himself was recognized and valued,
showing that artistically driven manipulation of sound is clearly at the heart of expert per-
formance. However, it is significant that although the participant used vivid metaphor to
describe timbre, he clearly found it superfluous to try to identify specific moods or emotions
that such sounds might induce. He generally regarded it as both inevitable and positive to the
communication process that perception and nature of affect are subject to infinite individual
Holmes 317

variation. This is particularly illuminating, as only recently has the degree of potential varia-
tion in listener perception and affect been reliably demonstrated and accepted (Juslin, 2009).
Third, timbre exemplifies the participants numerous responses that related to the ineffable
qualities of music, for which the natural line of reasoning seems to be more of aesthetics than
a psychological interpretation, although both disciplines recognize likely cultural variables.
Other than the few allusions to philosophical thought already mentioned, this line of argument
is beyond the scope of this article, but in the interests of wider investigation of performer moti-
vations, brief mention is merited. One particularly interesting example is the participants deep
involvement and fascination with sound. While other composers corroborate this phenome-
non, no satisfactory psychological, environmental or ecological explanation exists. Similarly,
his drive to perfectly represent his own understanding of music is a prime motivating force.
Both these observations, together with the participants reported satisfaction (sometimes
elation) when such goals are achieved, seem to resonate with philosophical theories relating to
the will and music as the ultimate expression of metaphysical realities (e.g., Schopenhauer,
cited in Bowie, 2007), at least as much as with psychological theories of hedonism and physi-
ological reward systems. Since much philosophical and aesthetic literature addresses music as
a whole, it would seem promising to take one demonstrably affective performance dimension
(timbre) as a focus for further empirical research.
The sources of the participants engagement with sound are not clear, which begs further
investigation of the origins and nature of musical gift (see Howe, Davidson & Sloboda, 1998
and ensuing literature) and of performers emotional responses to music. Study of timbre as a
medium for expressive musical performance might then usefully inform pedagogical practice
(Johnson, 1999: Juslin et al., 2004; McAdams et al., 2004). Control of a wide tonal range is
technically demanding, but teachers could introduce awareness and development of timbre at
an earlier stage of development than is usually practised. In a nominal hierarchy of priorities
timbre is generally in the shadow of other performance parameters, but it could receive equal
attention from the start, with techniques developing accordingly. Awareness of the potential
interest of an enhanced sound world might then become firmly embedded at an early stage,
developing motivation to explore this dimension further.

Through investigation of key motivations and working methods in elite performance this arti-
cle demonstrates the potential significance and effectiveness of timbre in live music. The
research has corroborated recently acknowledged (but little tested) aspects of emotional com-
munication in music performance, specifically those relating to perception and induction of
emotion as part of the performing experience. It has also given insight into concepts and work-
ing practices relating to the role of timbre in contemporary acoustic composition. The term
timbre is clearly too simplistic to encapsulate the complex synthesis of acoustic properties that
constitute instrumental sound the artists voice in performance. It is central to artistic
purpose, yet as a concept it is impossible to define or quantify in anything but a general sense
(both artistically and in the practice of performance). Perhaps it is its dynamic, ever shifting
nature that makes it such an essential vehicle for the imagination. Scientific study of timbre
continues to provide further definition of its dimensions. However, there is no reason why more
philosophical debate should not be directed towards expanding our understanding of the more
mystical, ineffable dimensions of timbre, particularly its significance to the human condition
as is implied by the findings of this study. A starting point might be that timbre is rooted in
318 Psychology of Music 40(3)

human evolution through speech. As music is another form of communication, both need con-
sideration in a wider frame, suggesting that research should be integrated across a range of
disciplines. Further investigation along these lines might also help to establish more firmly why
sound is such a meaningful element in performance. Cultural, musicological and philosophical
contexts are clearly relevant, but might there also be a fundamental physical engagement with
sound of which we are as yet unaware?

I must express my gratitude to the guitarist Gary Ryan, without whose insight, imagination and enthusiasm
this research would not have been possible. I am also deeply grateful to Jonathan Clark, Noola Griffiths,
Aaron Williamon and Christopher Holmes for their encouragement and help during the later stages of
preparation, and to one anonymous reviewer for clear direction towards future research. Finally, as always,
I am indebted to the staff of the Jerwood Library (Trinity College of Music) for their unfailing patience and
co-operation in helping me to access many resources not normally available in a conservatoire.

1. Schnberg advocated that logical progressions could be created from tone colours alone
(Klangfarben) and demonstrated the power of this technique in his Fnf Orchesterstcke Op. 16, in
which Farben is the third piece.
2. The condition and position of relevant parts of the body are arguably more critical. For a classical
guitarist, the exact shape and length of the right-hand finger nails, optimum playing position and
physical temperature are examples, as all will feed into tone production: a world-class performer
can make a fairly modest instrument sound reasonable.
3. Further research into the organization of neural and mechanical factors that form a musicians
technique (see Jncke, 2006) might allow wider understanding of timbre in this respect.
4. It would be interesting to compare this aspect of guitar playing with music of other cultures, such
as Indian (Davidson, 2009), where gesture is more overtly emblematic of structure.
5. In advanced guitar technique, almost unlimited combinations of nail and flesh are used in right-
hand articulation. The angle of the fingers to the string will also vary to alter both the character of
the sound and the volume.
6. Sul ponticello is a performance direction to move the right (plucking) hand towards the bridge,
which produces a harder, brighter sound.

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Author biography
Patricia Holmes is a Senior Lecturer at Trinity College of Music, UK, where she runs postgradu-
ate courses in Applied Psychology of Performance and Instrumental and Vocal Pedagogy. She
is also Trinitys International Tutor. Research interests reflect her wide experience as a concert
performer and centre on cross-disciplinary study of various aspects of elite concert perform-
ance. These include use of imagery (specifically in relation to the integration of emotion and
technique), investigation of personal characteristics that contribute to the development of
expertise in performance and the significance of timbre as a means of musical communication.
She is currently part of an interdisciplinary team developing a health-screening programme
for music students.
Holmes 323

1. Interview guide listing relevant topics
The overall role of timbre in the performing process
Specific uses in performance
Awareness of its effectiveness in communication
Subjective response in listeners
Degrees of spontaneity
Significance of performers feelings
Assessment of effectiveness
Timbre as part of the sequence of creative events in composition
Significance to composer

2. Principal interview questions with exemplar probes

Interview 1
Is timbre an important part of preparing for performance?
You say that timbre illustrates contrasts, how do you decide where they should occur?
(Probe: You used the term aggressive to describe tone do you think in terms of meta-
phor for tone?)
Are you aware of timbre in space do you think of it as a spatial thing?
Are you aware of using particular colours or changes of colour to induce a particular affect?
Are you aware of how you feel during the performance?
(Probe: Is the image visual or are you feeling the gesture?)
Do you think (tone) colour is an important part of communicating music when you
Can you talk a bit about timbre in the process of composition?
What about the effects of sounds on listeners?
Can you define the reaction you are trying to get in listeners?
On the guitar, can the technical means of producing timbres be clearly observed?

Interview 2
What makes sound dissonant?
Do you see timbre as supporting other performance dimensions?
(Probe: So when you sprinkle colour are you trying to get a particular reaction in people
who are listening why is it there?)
If you play, say, ponticello, why whats the sequence of thoughts?
When you speak to people after a performance, do you ever have the sense that they are
actually picking up on what you intended?
I wonder where your involvement lies in terms of the sound.
Do you think your state of mind, your condition before a performance has a bearing?
What about timbre in relation to tension/release?