We Don't Have To Worry

The word “timbre” has been rattling around my brain for the past week or so. Z’that ever happen to you? Songs getting stuck up there is more common, but single words get lodged from time to time, bubbling to the surface at seemingly random and uncomfortably frequent moments. I can source the start of this particular affliction to the fact that I’m making my way through This Is Your Brain on Music, by psychologist Daniel J. Levitin. The book starts by defining some familiar terms — “sound,” “melody” and “scale,” to name a few — and my reactions have ranged from “Yeah, that’s pretty much what I thought that meant” to “Whoa. I’ve been using that word inappropriately for years.” Timbre fell somewhere in between.

I had a vague understanding of what it meant, one that’s suffered because it seems to be one of the harder musical concepts to explain, but Levitin’s definition is as clear as it gets: “Timbre (rhymes with amber) distinguishes one instrument from another when both are playing the same written note.” Our brains decode the distinctive frequencies that different instruments produce, so we can tell a guitar from a piano, a saxophone from a flute, etc. Some like to call it sound’s “tonal color.” It’s one reason rock music and classical sound vastly dissimilar, especially when the two are juxtaposed. It’s also the reason Goldrush’s We Don’t Have To Worry EP is one of the most intriguing recordings I’ve heard in a while.

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