Appraising Timbre: Embodiment and Affect at the Threshold of Music and Noise

Timbre is crucial to the generation of musical affect and meaning. But despite its well-acknowledged importance, musicology remains largely “tone deaf”–timbre is in the peculiar position of being both vital to ordinary experience and invisible to analysis. In approaching timbre through the lens of embodied cognition, this dissertation aims to loosen the analytical impasse by advancing a flexible and dynamic model for understanding the material and affective dimensions of sound. I explore how timbral reactions and appraisals work in connection with the embodied mind to shape musical experience, particularly in the context of American popular music and jazz. Methodologically situated between the “two cultures” of the humanities and sciences–and drawing on results from original empirical studies using behavioral psychology, cognitive linguistic, and neuroimaging methods–I claim that timbre perception is a motor mimetic process; we covertly mirror the bodily actions implied in the production of timbre when we listen. The larger implication of this finding is that cognition of timbre is a fundamentally social act. The dissertation is concerned, then, with the perceptual, social, and symbolic dynamics of timbre as experienced, and to best exemplify this linkage, I focus on contexts in which “musical” timbres bleed into “noise,” both acoustically and epistemologically. As case studies, the dissertation considers musical contexts with visceral, polarized reception histories: the screaming saxophone in mid-1960s free jazz (as exemplified by “late” John Coltrane), and the highly distorted electric guitar and vocal timbres of contemporary extreme heavy metal.