Music Theory
Acoustic Composition
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How do timbral expectations change from one culture to the next?

Whether you realize it or not, you have a set of timbral expectations every time you listen to music. Remember that timbre is the main way in which we can differentiate between instruments and sounds. Timbral expectations are the reason why a saxophone would sound out of place in a Mozart symphony, why a guitar with heavy distortion usually wouldn’t sound good in a folk song, and why a classically trained opera singer sounds wouldn’t typically sing on an R&B song.

When looking broadly at the music of various cultures around the world it becomes obvious that the timbral expectations of western music are not universal. Oftentimes similar questions will arise from listeners upon their first listen to music from non-European traditions:

  • “Why are they singing like that?”
  • “Why do those instruments sound so bad/out of tune?”
  • “Are they singing or shouting?”

It’s worth noting that these questions, however valid they may be, are usually coming from a place of ignorance of the culture and its music.

Where do we go from here?

It’s not feasible for us to cover every difference in every culture’s timbral expectations, but what we can do is lay a groundwork for how to approach a new style of music when hearing it for the first time. This step by step guide is meant to help acclimate you to the new sounds so that you can listen intently without being focused solely on the timbral differences.

  1. Identify the elements, if any, that don’t match with your timbral expectations. How are they different that what you expected?
  2. Focus on these new timbres and sounds, let them become familiar. This may be an easy process, or it may take a few times listening through the entire song. You’ll know you’ve been acclimated to these new sounds when you no longer have a reaction to them.
  3. Listen for how these timbres work together to create the timbral signature for this style. For instance, the timbral signature of hard rock and heavy metal is distorted guitars, hard hitting drums, and aggressive vocals that may be sung or screamed. You may need to listen to multiple songs from this style to form a full picture of the timbral signature.