Yo Hablo Spectromorphology

by Eric Garner

Anyone who has ever travelled abroad can relate to the struggle that learning a new language can present. Personally, the two years that I lived in the Dominican Republic was an eye opening and learning experience due to my struggle to communicate with those around me. I will never forget an experience I had while I was there talking with a close friend about my homesickness and culture shock. I attempted to express my own personal emotional pain that I was experiencing by saying, “Tengo mucha pena.” I switch the word “pena”, which can mean emotional sadness, with the word “pene” which means penis. In essence, I had told my friend that, “I have lots of penises.”

At the time I was so embarrassed by my mix up and yet looking back on it, I am glad that it happened. It is a freeing experience to be able to put aside personal insecurities and go out of ones comfort zone to be able to learn and experience something new. By so doing, we grow as individuals and become more interesting.

That same insecurity and tension that I had felt while learning a new language is very similar to the insecurity of listening to electroacoustic music. Often times, I would be surrounded by people finding great pleasure in electroacoustic music. I often thought to myself, “I just don’t get it.” I have learned however that electroacoustic music is not like other music. It requires specific knowledge of a new musical language. This musical language, if learned, can open the doors of a wonderful, new style of music. It is often referred to as Spectromorphology.

There are many ways or modes of listening to music. Each different mode employs a different technique and values different aspects of the music. As music listeners, we have learned a language that teaches us what to listen for in traditional, tonal music. This language creates a hierarchy of what we pay more and less attention to. In tonal music, the aspects of most importance are generally, pitch, intervallic change, rhythm, dynamics, phrasing etc. Due to the nature of electroacoustic music however, many of these elements are lacking. A new language must be learned in order to fully understand and appreciate electroacoustic music.

Because many of the elements of traditional music are not found in electroacoustic works, different aspects of the music must be listened for. According to Dennis Smalley, a professor of music and inventor of the concept of spectromorphology, spectromorphology is a “descriptive tool based on aural perception… and seeks to help explain what can be apprehended in over four decades of electroacoustic repertory.” (Smalley 1997) Spectromorphology attempts to look at how sounds change over time. Through analysis of how sounds are shaped, greater meaning and pleasure can be gained through electroacoustic music. These changes can include a wide variety of aspects including, motion and growth of the sounds, spatial characteristics, spectral energy, behavior and their relationship with other sounds in the piece.

These elements of the sounds employed in electroacoustic compositions are complex and unique. They are not specifically bonded to an instrument and are generally not recognizable. Having a language that facilitates the descriptions of these sounds is very important. As you listen to electroacoustic music, consider if the sounds you are hearing are rising, decaying, moving left or right, fading away and getting quieter or getting louder. How are the sounds beginning? How are they ending? Do they evoke memories or sounds not linked the musical tradition? Do they make reference to specific physical gestures that the performer is using? What is their texture like? Are they thick and dense or thin and frenetic?

I have found pleasure and fulfillment as I have listened to electroacoustic compositions with these questions in mind. It is a different way of thinking about music and a different language that must be learned. Learning this language is not easy either and takes dedication and practice. At times, you may even feel lost or confused, much like I did as my dear friend laughed at the notion of having a lot of penises. By learning this new and strange language however, you can open a new world of musical discourse and satisfaction.

Smalley, D. (1997), Spectromorphology: Explaining sound-shapes, Organised Sound: Vol. 2, no. 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 107-126