Timbral Improvisation


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.


Steve Coleman

9 Responses to “Timbral Improvisation”
  1. altered7th says:

    “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’.”

    From roughly the 60s onward we see the dichotomy of radically “new” emerge to spawn “neo-isms” that completely reject the radical. This type of schism does nothing to advance whatever artfield it occurs in as one group strives to totally reject its history and the other embraces it all too much. The great innovators are those who are able to temper their radical ideas within the larger framework of their art’s history and traditions. It’s only with this synthesis of old with new that styles can evolve. Coltrane respected and extended a soprano playing tradition that began with Sidney Bichet; Cecil Taylor was a fine bebop player in the Monk tradition but he has extended it and synthesized it from other elements into something totally new; Charlie Parker’s Au Privave very cleverly reworks the main motif of a Bach organ prelude – a synthesis of something very old with something very new. And so it goes on.

    When young players obsess with mimicry of one dimension of an older master’s sound (I’m assuming you’re talking about sax players playing harmonics like Coltrane?) – it’s akin to asking the wrong question about Coltrane and his greatness. It’s relatively easy to figure out “what” Coltrane played. The deeper and more revealing question to ask is “why” he played what he played. Part of the answer lies outside of Coltrane in the context of his times and within the contexts of jazz’s traditions.

    I had the good fortune a dozen or so years ago to attend a workshop with Cecil Taylor. A group of young talented players performed for him. “What did you play and why did you play it?” Responses were along the lines of “free improvisation” and to more esoteric responses like “I envisaged a corridor and rooms in my head”, no doubt thinking Cecil sought to hear something mystical. He repeated the question several times and the answers didn’t progress past the “what did you play?” part of the question.

  2. Brandon says:

    I like the idea you present here, but i think that is slightly incongruous with psychology’s evaluation of music and language. While certainly both symbolic and representative, and as a result expressive, cognitive science, and neuropsychological studies indicate more that language is a distinct, evolutionary, survivalist adaptation, while music is something less well understood, and much later developed. A leading researcher in Harvard University’s cognitive neuroscience lab has the opinion, based on experimental results that, as we like cheesecake, so do we like music. That is, in the way that cheesecake stimulates senses which are primarily used for survival purposes (our sense of taste, normally reserved for sorting out what we eat) so does music stimulate our auditory senses, and cause activiation in language areas of our brain, suggesting that it is exercising these symbolic processing pathways in a novel way. Full elaboration on this subject requires more space, but I thought I’d comment, because it seemed you might find interesting some of the studies published pertaining to this topic. Particularly of interest would be the works on the psychology of music by Peter Cariani, as a starting point.

    Great blog, by the way, i enjoy reading into the deep technical issues you include.

    • james60 says:

      I am guessing you are referring to Pinker, who has an incredible string of disproven ideas going. I am also guessing Mr. C has read “the studies” and feels more comfortable with Steven Mithen’s conjectures.

      • mbase says:

        Hmm, I have no idea what you are talking about. I am unfamiliar with Pinker and Mithen. Can you be more specific. First of all whose post are you responding to? Is what you are writing about related to music?

    • james60 says:

      I am assuming you are referring to Steven Pinker’s ‘music as epiphenonemon of language’ idea. Steven Mithen has written a book that posits a line of human cognitive development that places music PRIOR to language. It is a direct refutation of Pinker and yourself and more in line with Mr. Colemans idea. The book is called ‘The Singing Neanderthal’ and the publishers blurb on Amazon gives a nice synopsis. peace

  3. Jonathan says:


    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and ideas on this excellent blog.

    “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’.”

    Due to a failure of music education by parents, educational institutions, media, etc., many people can only hear sounds that are physically present. Most people cannot hear sounds that are not physically present. The consequences of this: people do not audiate a tonality so they cannot anticipate or predict the next chord in a progression. They do not audiate meter so they cannot anticipate or predict what is going on rhythmically. They are not perceiving syntax in music, and thus, cannot experience or participate in music with comprehension.

    Without tonality and meter, the elements to keep listeners’ attention that remain are the lyrics of a song (because most parents, schools, and media nurture and encourage children with spoken language), and of course, interesting sounds – “effects.”

  4. Chris says:

    It’s definitely true that timbre has become a more critical part of musical expression in the past century. This has not necessarily been at the expense of rhythm and melody. It is a development made possible by amplification and recording technologies and is part of the general emergence of the musical personality in jazz, popular and even symphonic music. Think about Louis Armstrong. His technique in singing and horn playing relies on a distinctive and innovative use of timbre, as well as enormous rhythmic, melodic and harmonic mastery. It would be impossible to adequately annotate much of what Armstrong performs in his music using traditional means. His expression is based heavily on using timbral “tricks” if you will, but in deeply expressive and not gratuitous ways. Only through recording of his performances can we appreciate and, in some measure, emulate his achievements. And the sum of his achievements is not just a body of work, but the expression of a unique and socially critical individual personality.

    • mbase says:

      Agreed, and to some extent what you say is true of ALL music, not just the continuum that Armstrong was a part of. But I don’t know if any of this is because of today’s technology.

      I’m going to go into this talk about this, but it does not bear totally on what you were saying. But I will say that Armstrong is not the only the only spontaneous composer whose music is difficult to notate, you can say this about most of the greats in this music. There is no notation at all for emotional projects, timbre and context, and also the notation for rhythm is inadequate as it only addresses the rhythms that are on what I call on ‘the grid’, meaning discreet quantized values. The rhythmic notation of music that is spontaneously created is basically a kind of averaging, notating the closest value according to whomever is doing the interpretation.

      While we gain some technologies we lose others. But human endeavors go on no matter what the technology, because the technology is us, just as the music is us. You take away humans and all the rest goes with it. So we have developed it all. I might not refer to what Louis Armstrong was doing as ‘tricks’ anymore than I would refer to some of the effects that Bela Bartok composed or effects we heard from Muddy Waters as ‘tricks’, but I think I get what you mean. The only difference is that Bartok comes from a tradition where one of the norms is to write down instructions for performers to execute, and with Armstrong and Waters they compose and execute simultaneously (although reportedly Bartok was also a very good spontaneous composer).

      I would not necessarily say (and I’m not sure that you are saying this either) that there is any advantage or disadvantage in any particular time, because humans are very good at working with whatever they have at hand. Armstrong was great, but so were many who came after him who had the tool of sound recordings, and many before him who had access to other tools. In the end its what is inside of us that is revealed, the instruments (whatever they are, saxophone, piano, computer, etc) just aid us to bring out what is inside. Now these tools can be used for other purposes, and misused, because they are tools – and it is the humans who are making the decisions and creating.

      I see music as a language, meaning it facilitates the exchange of ideas. I know that others have a very different view of what music is for, from entertainment to background sounds for motion pictures or stage plays, and many other purposes. We have the Internet today, I also see it as a great tool for communication and the unfettered exchange of ideas. Others see it primarily as a means to pursue commerce.

      So its not really about the tools, we pick different tools for different jobs. Its about us, what is it we are trying to do. When I look back at what has been accomplished in all eras, it is simply stunning what humans have been able to accomplish with different tools, many things that we cannot accomplish today with our so-called more advanced technology.

  5. Luke Andrews says:

    Hey Steve! Great Talks!

    Again with a great subject that hasn’t been explored in detail is the relationship between the physics of tones, timbre, interval, chordal structure and EMOTION.

    Why does a major triad elicit a (usually) positive or happy influence,
    and a minor triad a “negative” or sad melancholy sound?

    What about the combinations?
    Minor/major 7th = Mysterious?
    Altered 7th = Tension ,,
    Diminished = ? etc…

    Is it in the intervals:

    Major third = ahhhhhhh pretty!

    Tritone = THE DEVIL! lol j/k

    How are the chordal structures used in today’s music affecting our collective psyche and the consciousness of the planet?

    Perhaps relationships to structures in the natural world are the linking factor – We like pentatonic scales because our skull is five-sided, we have five limbs, five fingers, etc…

    Is there something in the actual physics of tone structure, or is it dependent upon the listeners unique experience?

    Indeed, not everyone hears or feels “happy” in a major triad! Everyone hears something different so to speak! What kind of information is being transmitted through tonal or non-tonal structure, not forgetting the musician’s personal intent!

    Some music (such as free jazz) may be heard by some to sound as “white noise” while others hear it as true expressions of the Heart, Sounds of Spirit. Perspective obviously has a real bearing here.

    The book “Interference” by Richard Merrick delves into some of these topics, using a polar reflective, symmetrical basis for understanding all of the cosmos in a kind of Unified Field Theory of Music.

    Any thoughts?


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