“Music is the pleasure the human mind experiences from counting without being aware that it is counting.” – Gottfried Leibniz
Most elements of music are measurable and mathematical. Beats per minute for tempo, decibels for volume, degrees of the scale for pitch. Music’s close relationship with numbers makes sense; we humans love repetition, patterns, and predictability. This love manifests itself in the little jolt of satisfaction we get when the beat drops in an EDM anthem, when a rapper finishes a perfect 16 bars with a perfect rhyming couplet, or when chords resolve at the end of a Bach chorale.*
But for all its arithmetic tendencies, there is one element of music which, as Tim Falconer noted in his excellent book Bad Singer, is “difficult to describe, hard to categorize, and so far, immune to measurement.”
That element is timbre, and for many modern listeners, it may be more important than beat, rhythm, tempo, or even pitch.
Timbre (rhymes with amber) is usually defined as “tone colour” or “sound quality” and it plays a huge role in our first impression of a song. Often, if we have a brief and accidental first listen to a song – on the radio in a rental car for example – we may not have time to analyze the chord progressions, the harmonies, or even the lyrics. What we’re left with is just a fleeting impression of the song. A mood created by the instrumentation, recording technique, and post-production effects.
We describe music as sounding “bright” or “warm” or “gritty” which, as Falconer points out, are words borrowed from the tactile and visual senses to describe something auditory. Timbre is what we’re attempting to describe when we use such terms.
So while I agree with Leibniz that part of music’s pull is its ability to engage our mathematical brains, I think there’s incredible power in the way music forces unlikely connections between our senses through the magic of timbre.
In fairness, Leibniz lived in a time before recorded music, before the effect on the listener could be engineered precisely to the composer’s liking. If he were still alive, I think he’d be into Dead Light, a duo on the fabulous Village Green Recordings label, and true timbre masters.
What makes this a beautiful song:
1. It opens with a major chord that sounds…fuzzy.
2. It centres on a piano part that sounds…luminous.
3. It ends on a swelling fifth that sounds….rugged.
Recommended listening activity:
Trying to imagine what a painting of your voice would look like.
*Interesting fact that I couldn’t quite work into the body of this post: Bach and Leibniz lived in the German town of Leipzig at the same time. Although Leibniz was much older, it is plausible that their paths may have crossed some time in the early 1700s. This scenario is not supported by any evidence, but I love the idea that an elderly Leibniz may have been in the audience at a recital given by a young Bach, and that the beauty of Bach’s playing may have inspired the ‘counting’ quote.