Music is one of the various sonic projections of who we are as humans (language being another one). Although all sonic projections are symbolic, music represents the more emotive side of human experience. The basic emotions of happiness/sadness, attraction/repulsion, courage/fear, love/hate, anticipation/despair, affection/anger, pleasure/pain (and any of these can be combined with surprise) can all be expressed using music. There are also emotions that serve as a subset of these, for example:
Love (affection, longing, lust)
Joy (cheerfulness, contentment, pride, optimism, relief, anticipation, hope)
Anger (irritation, rage, hate, dislike, frustration, disgust, envy, torment)
Sadness (disappointment, shame, neglect, sympathy, hopelessness)
Fear (horror, nervousness)
The systematized expression of these emotions are what can be called the beginnings of a language. Obviously the symbols in language can go further than these basic expressions.
It has been said that language is related to the word tongue. “Strategic interactions of the tongue with other components of the vocal tract, particularly the teeth and the palate, lead to the living synthesis of human speech.” I believe that initially languages and music developed out of the same root, patterns of gestures and sounds, and eventually the intonation and articulation of the sounds were more specifically described and developed. Eventually various methods of transcription of these sounds and gestures resulted in written notation systems, including phonetic transcription for spoken languages and pitch and rhythmic transcription for music.
However, whereas the guiding principle behind the development of spoken languages seems to have been the communication of ideas, and followed the available physical options available to the human voice, the development of music seemed to be linked to both the need to communicate ideas and also acoustic considerations. We need to keep in mind that much instrumental music has traditionally be performed as an accompaniment to vocal music. Therefore, the spoken word and the musical sounds are present, and there is a greater chance of the listener associating the musical sounds with the ideas being expressed.
Early in the history of the spontaneously composed music in the United States (the Armstrong-Parker-Coltrane continuum, and probably in most music) there seemed to be more emphasis on expression, therefore things like timbre and phrasing were the most important elements. However, rhythm and pitch (when and how high/low) are the basic elements of any music system.
I have spent most of my career concentrating more on the rhythm/pitch/form aspects of music versus timbral considerations. I have certainly not ignored timbre, but I have not really delved into a systematized study of it either. And the musicians that I favor tend to be those that have highly developed and specific rhythmic and tonality languages. With these musicians I feel that the timbral elements are aids for expressing the sophisticated rhythmelodies. Of course there would be those who completely disagree with me and that is why their music would tend to run in directions that stress timbral qualities. For myself I prefer a more subtle expression of timbre.
I feel strongly that the younger generation that is involved in creative music today are foregoing the detailed rhythmic and melodic developments demonstrated by the older masters (which take an incredible amount of concentration to develop) in favor of more ‘effects’. These trends tend to pendulum back and forth, as each generation reacts to the excesses of the previous generation by moving in the opposite direction. However, the concept of Orchestration (as distinct from composition) is largely concerned with the timbral combination of instrumental (and sometimes vocal) sounds. The preeminent Danish composer Per Nørgård once told me that the composition of a piece takes him a short amount of time, but the orchestration and arranging can take years. He thus distinguished timbral concerns from composition proper, using timbre more as a means to ‘amplify’ his expression.