Weeks 1–3: Foundations

To begin our seminar, we will read sources that were trailblazing in the relatively new field of timbre research: Hermann von Helmholtz, Cornelia Fales, and Stephen McAdams. Each one of these authors brings something quite different to timbre research: Helmholtz is a 19th-c. physician who was able to discuss, for the first time, the physiology of timbre perception; McAdams is a currently-working cognition scientist specializing in timbre; Cornelia Fales is an ethnomusicologist.

Jan 23: Hermann von Helmholtz

Helmholtz was one of the very first people to delve into the relationship between acoustics, timbre, and physiology. The entire book can be found online for free, but we will read a secondary source instead from the Cambridge History of Western Music Theory: .

Please read this prior to our first class so that we can get off to a running start.

We will also be discussing options for what topics will be included in the class.

Jan 30: Stephen McAdams

Stephen McAdams runs a music cognition lab at McGill university and has produce a huge volume of research on timbre and psychology. His work provides important modern updates to the theories put forth by Helmholtz long before such studies were possible.

I’ve picked as our reading because it’s meant as an introduction to the accomplishments and limitations of psychological research on timbre. However, it was published ten years ago, and so further work has now been done beyond what this reading covers.

Feb 6: Cornelia Fales

While I think it’s important to know about the scientific side of timbre research, as a musician, I find myself more interested in the cultural side. is an especially significant work because it represented a counterpoint to the trend that developed through the 1980s and 1990s to view timbre as a wholly acoustic and scientific phenomenon. Fales decisively demonstrates that cultural background has great impact on the perception of timbre.


If articles are not available online, you should find them in the Readings folder.

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