The perception of musical timbre

Stephen McAdams and Bruno L. Giordano

in Oxford Handbook of Music Psychology

Published in print December 2008 | ISBN: 9780199298457
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Library of Psychology

The perception of musical timbre

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  • Cognitive Psychology



This article discusses musical-timbre perception. Musical timbre is a combination of continuous perceptual dimensions and discrete features to which listeners are differentially sensitive. The continuous dimensions often have quantifiable acoustic correlates. The timbre-space representation is a powerful psychological model that allows predictions to be made about timbre perception in situations beyond those used to derive the model in the first place. Timbre can play a role in larger-scale movements of tension and relaxation and thus contribute to the expression inherent in musical form. Under conditions of high blend among instruments composing a vertical sonority, timbral roughness is a major component of musical tension. However, it strongly depends on the way auditory grouping processes have parsed the incoming acoustic information into events and streams.

Keywords: timbre perception; timbre-space representation; tension; relaxation; musical expression; musical tension

Article.  5959 words. 

Subjects: Psychology ; Cognitive Psychology

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