INART 55

History of Electroacoustic Music

Timbre as a Formal Element


In he early twentieth century, timbre began to take on a new role as a compositional element. Previously, it had a subordinate role, with melody, rhythm, and harmony forming a piece's foundations and structure. Arnold Schoenberg came up with the concept of Klangfarbenmelodie (sound color melody), which he described in Harmonielehre (1911):

The distinction between tone color and pitch, as it is usually expressed, I cannot accept without reservations. I think the tone becomes perceptible by virtue of tone color, of which one dimension is pitch. Tone color is, thus, the main topic, pitch a subdivision. Pitch is nothing else but tone color measured in one direction. Now, if it is possible to create patterns out of tone colors that are differentiated according to pitch, patterns we call 'melodies,' progressions, whose coherence evokes an effect analogous to thought processes, then it must also be possible to make such progressions out of the tone colors of the other dimension, out of that which we call simply 'tone color,' progressions whose relations with one another work with a kind of logic entirely equivalent to that logic which satisfies us in the melody of pitches. That has the appearance of a futuristic fantasy and is probably just that. But it is one which, I firmly believe, will be realized. I firmly believe it is capable of heightening in an unprecedented manner the sensory, intellectual, and spiritual pleasures offered by art. I firmly believe that it will bring us closer to the illusory stuff of our dreams.

This preoccupation with tone color corresponds with the departure from representation in visual art. At this time, many artists were looking to music for inspiration, using it as a justification for abstract art. As painter Vassily Kandinsky said in 1912 -- "colors are not used because they are true to nature but because they are necessary to the particular picture."

One composer particularly taken with the use of timbre as a musical element was Edgard Varese. He felt that the uses of the orchestra had been exhausted. In 1916 he wrote: "Our musical alphabet must be enriched...we need new instruments very badly ...in my own works I have always felt the need for new mediums of expression."