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Allusion and Timbre

A Theory of implicit reference, emotion and familiarity bias in contemporary music

Considering the ever-expanding set of audio production tools afforded by modern technology, it is reasonable to believe we currently have access to the most expansive timbral palette ever available. With digital music distribution removing the inherent access barriers of a media release, and plug-in audio processors being both more powerful and more accessible than ever, it is also reasonable to expect that our expansive tonal palette would be actively expressed and exemplified in contemporary music recordings. Bearing that in mind, with the recognition that experimental recordings and art music have historically been the venue in which new sound technology is explored, a quick scan of the streaming online radio dial still reveals the predictable and familiar sound that typically defines commercial music, when we should be experiencing a surge in variety and diversity. Following the discussion of aspects of timbral variation and similarity, it will be possible to answer the following questions: In what ways can it be beneficial for an artist or composer to reference or adopt the sonic profile or timbre of another piece of music? Is it always beneficial? How could timbre influence an artist’s relationship with their audience? Finally, how can this information be useful for the contemporary composer? While I draw examples from popular music to simplify the concepts discussed, they are equally relevant and applicable to contemporary electroacoustic and experimental music.

In their 2014 study, “The Same Old Song: The power of familiarity in music choice,” Morgan K. Ward, Joseph K. Goodman and Julie R. Irwin investigated the influence of familiarity and novelty on listener music choice. They demonstrated that while consumers outwardly express a strong desire for new or novel listening experiences, familiarity is one of the strongest indicators of music preference, especially when a listener is presented with new material. By extrapolating this information to our topic in question, we can begin to formulate ideas about why it could be beneficial for someone making an investment in a recording to add properties that predispose listeners to prefer it over another piece of music through extra-musical (i.e. not pitch, melody, rhythm or harmony) elements alone. More simply, if something sounds familiar, it will be inherently preferred over something that is not familiar.

The study confirms the existence of strong preference for familiar recorded music. By combining its results with that of research done in timbral preference, recognition and familiarity, specifically in regard to Western audiences (Teo, Hargreaves and Lee 2008), we can infer that the preference for the familiar will also apply to the actual sound or timbre of a recording, potentially more so than the musical materials it contains (Poulin-Charronnat et al. 2008). This preference may be because familiar sounds are processed more quickly and with less effort than unfamiliar sounds due to a neuron-enhancing material called myelin. This fatty material, which wraps itself around our neurons much like the shielding on a copper wire, increases the speed of neural operations and reduces outside electrical interference (Gopnik, Meltzoff and Kuhl 2001). Because of the human body’s inherent evolutionary preference for efficiency, there will be a biologically inherent preferential bias towards a familiar sound or timbre, as it takes less energy to process with a myelin-enhanced neural circuit (Huron 2006; Gopnik, Meltzoff and Kuhl 2001). It has also been shown that specific timbres and sound envelope characteristics are linked to the evocation of particular emotions (Chau, Wu and Horner 2015) — a trait which further emphasizes the importance of the actual sound of a recording. Considering these factors, the value of leveraging timbral characteristics that increase the likelihood of a new listener preferring a new piece of music becomes apparent.

Because of the human body’s inherent evolutionary preference for efficiency, there will be a biologically inherent preferential bias towards a familiar sound or timbre.

The level of effectiveness and perception of a timbral allusion is inherently contingent on the experience and knowledge of the listener, and may result in positive, negative or neutral connotations. While it is beyond the scope of the present discussion to discuss where the specific boundaries lie, I propose that the reception of a timbral reference is dependent on the past credibility of the artist and their output, as well as the perceived intention, the execution and the obscurity of the reference. Effective references can be simplified somewhat by applying the criteria proposed by Stephanie Ross (1981, 63): 1) that x intended to refer to y; and 2) that x incorporated an indirect reference to y. It would follow that a successful reference is one that is both intentional and indirect, as it demonstrates a connection to a topic or other work, adding an additional layer of meaning and interest to a piece. An unintentional or overly direct reference may be distracting and harmful, or, worse, fall into the category of plagiarism.

An example can be found in Muse’s 2009 recording, “United States of Eurasia [+Collateral Damage].” A listener familiar with Western pop music may draw many connections between this song and early period recordings by Queen. The most immediate similarities lie in the song’s core instrumental compliment of piano, bass, drums and electric guitar, its progressively building arrangement and its operatic performance characteristics. The portion of the song that concerns our discussion regarding timbral reference is the entry to the chorus, occurring first at 1:15, with the line “Why split these states, when there can be only one!”

While layered, harmonized and multitracked melodic instruments initially appeared in mid-20th century recordings such as Les Paul and Mary Ford’s “How High the Moon” and “Sitting on Top of the World,” and, more prominently, in the mid-1960s on albums from artists including The Beatles and The Beach Boys, the manner in which the technique is presented by Queen results in a unique timbral signature. Examples of the technique can be found throughout their early career on many songs including “Father to Son,” “The Millionaire Waltz,” “Death on Two Legs,” “Somebody to Love,” “Ogre Battle,” “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Flick of the Wrist.” The signature sound is influenced in part through performance practices and recording equipment, but also through a specific vocal recording method, where each of three singers records each vocal line, three times each. Additionally, the signature sound prominently features a heavily compressed guitar sound captured with a distant microphone in various forms of layered harmony (Longfellow 2006).

Twice during Muse’s “United States” (at 1:15 and again at 2:40), a timbral profile is presented which is strikingly similar to that of the Queen timbre, without directly copying or alluding to a specific song. The vocal timbre in these sections of “United States” is comparable with that of the bridge section of “Death on Two Legs” (1:45), and the guitar line is reminiscent of the passage at 3:18 of “The Millionaire Waltz.” While the timbre of these sections of “United States” could have been presented in any number of different ways, it appears that a specific choice was made to reference Queen. This effect is further enhanced when combined with other factors, particularly the arrangement and tonal qualities of the piano, which are reminiscent of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” This opens the door to some of the questions raised earlier: What is the benefit to the artist for this type of timbral reference? What impact does it have on the audience?

Muse’s allusion to Queen, overall, while fairly explicit, satisfies both points of Ross’ theory. I suggest that this reference was an intentionally employed device to elicit an impression of grandiose through the timbral allusion to another well-known band notoriously associated with grandiose. The audience has existing emotional and contextual associations to the familiar timbre, and, upon its activation, the same, or very similar, circuit of myelin-strengthen neurons fires to process it. Because this results in the listener eliciting essentially the same neural response they would have if they were listening to the referenced timbre — Queen in this case — a secondary association is made between a gesture of grandiose (assumed for the sake of the example) and the Muse recording. The listener is positively affected by a familiarity bias purely by virtue of less energy being expended while processing a known timbre, and the chance of a favourable opinion is increased. Finally, the cognitive link created by connecting the new (Muse) and familiar (Queen) material embeds additional information into the new recording. In this particular case, the existence of intentional allusions and inclusion of outside materials is made evident when looking at the more explicit references made to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four in the title and lyrics of “United States,” as well as in the writing credits, which include not only Muse’s frontman and songwriter Matt Belamy but also Frédéric Chopin.

Another, perhaps less intentional, type of timbral allusion can occur through the influence of a recording space. The acoustic characteristics of a room are determined by factors including shape, material density and size, and have a very drastic effect on the sounds created and recorded in the room. This sonic signature is, in and of itself, a distinct and recognizable timbre that can have its own referential properties and associations.

While the timbral imprint from an acoustic space is not necessarily an explicit reference to one artist by another, each recording space has its own unique set of tonal characteristics and virtually every recording made within a given space will be found to have that studio’s tonal “stamp” unavoidably embedded within it. This timbral imprint occurs independently of, and in addition to, that of recording equipment and medium, with the whole becoming much more than the sum of the parts. Conversely, the same affect could be caused by the use of any common element, like a specific microphone, instrument or effects processor.

Assembling the components discussed thus far creates the framework for a hypothetical example. As the significance of the timbre of a particular recording space is established through the release of material recorded in the space, the ability to utilize the specific sonic signature is compounded as the audience’s recognition of the timbral signature is developed. The more times a listener processes a sound (or performs any action for that matter), the more the neural circuit used to process it is strengthened and made more efficient as myelin wraps itself around the individual neurons (Gopnik, Meltzoff and Kuhl 2001). We know that specific timbres can evoke particular emotions (Chau, Wu and Horner 2015), and it follows that the timbral imprint created by the acoustic properties of a specific room should be capable of evoking specific emotions, as they create their own unique timbres. When a timbre that elicits a positive emotional response, like happiness, is combined with the timbre’s positive associations to another source, the effect would be compounded. Finally, considering that familiar materials can be processed more efficiently and are therefore inherently preferred, it becomes clear how important the use of specific timbral characteristic can be.

One of the most recognizable room signatures in Western music is likely that of Abbey Road Studio Two, where countless popular and successful recordings were produced over the course of several decades, including much of The Beatles’ catalogue, Oasis’ Be Here Now and Adele’s Skyfall, as well as numerous film scores and other recordings.

With the assumption that a listener enjoys the music of The Beatles, a hypothetical equation could look like:

Recording in Studio Two (happiness)

+ positive, subconscious timbral allusions to The Beatles

= The Sound of Success (positivity and familiarity)

The specifics of this equation could be substituted for any other desired combination of timbre + reference, with its effectiveness being tied to the experience of the listener and skill of the artist, keeping in mind that negative association or emotions can also be tied to a particular timbral profile in a similar manner. Using the same equation (Studio Two and The Beatles) a listener who is familiar with but does not enjoy The Beatles would benefit from a familiarity bias, but suffer from negative timbral associations. In other words, it would make active the part of the brain that is normally activated when it processes something the listener doesn’t like. The skilled composer would assess various aspects of a timbre including possible links caused by evaluative condition, or experience-based stimulus pairing, before committing to or investing heavily in any particular one. Ultimately, the success of a recorded piece of music will depend on the quality of its musical content and will be influenced by factors such as marketing and audience exposure, but the potential benefits for the music creator who studies these phenomena are both fascinating and substantial.

Examining music from several artists can assist the listener in identifying the timbral properties from a common component. Although it could be any other common trait, such as an instrument, studio effects processor or microphone, in the case of our example with Abbey Road Studio Two, it is the room in which the album was recorded that serves as the common link. For example, Roy Harper’s “Me and My Woman” from the 1971 masterpiece Stormcock, The Beatles’ “Golden Slumbers” from their 1969 album Abbey Road and Pink Floyd’s “Atom Heart Mother Suite” from their 1970 album Atom Heart Mother were all produced in Abbey Road’s Studio Two by different engineers, likely using most of the same recording equipment. While the musical material, performance style, instrumentation and songwriting is quite different for each of these tracks, the unifying factor of the three songs becomes a unique and specific overall tone, which could be described with one of the many abstract or comparative terms we use to describe sound: detailed, smooth, warm, happy, comforting, desolate, inviting, etc. The actual way in which the timbre is described is not of particular significance, but the associations, familiarity bias and inherent emotional properties, however, are paramount.

With virtually unrestricted access to the same expansive sound palette, the capacity to create unique sound materials has been greatly reduced. As such, attentiveness to perspective and individual listener experience has become increasingly important when pursuing new areas of creative exploration. I suggest that by focusing efforts inwardly and towards the self, as opposed to outwardly through explicit music materials, we can use the technology we have at our disposal to its potential instead of our detriment. Through the active incorporation of extra-musical information and emotion residing in timbre, we can consistently develop new pathways of expression based on human experiences, which are always changing, and therefore providing experiences that are also always changing and therefore constantly provide fresh referential material to work with.

How this is applied is limited only by the ingenuity of the artist, but some promising applications involve creating conflicting combinations of elicited emotions, building a secondary narrative layer on top of the one established in the primary musical materials, or a simple juxtaposition of emotion and a particular allusion that encourages a new perspective. The result would be a deeply human experience enabled by technology, research and creative structuring, in addition to the characteristics unique to the artist. This may become increasingly important in the future, as artists look for ways to respond to the pressures of mass accessibility and marketing, while avoiding homogenization and depersonalization of their art.

There are many areas where I see potential for future research in timbral familiarity and allusion. These include mapping effective balance of familiar and novel timbral materials, examining where timbral influence is most effective and empirically measuring the cumulative effect of multiple familiar timbres or references. A study of the emotional ramifications of the timbre of a room, possibly performed in a similar method to the experiment produced by Chau, Wu and Horner (2015), could also be particularly beneficial.


Adele. “Skyfall.” On Skyfall. London: Universal Music Publishing UK, 2012.

Bellamy, Matthew and Frédéric Chopin. “United States of Eurasia [+Collateral Damage].” On The Resistance. Performed by Muse. Burbank: Warner Bros. Records, 2009.

Chau, Chuck-Jee, Bin Wu and Andrew Horner. “The Emotional Characteristics and Timbre of Nonsustaining Instrument Sounds.” Journal of the Audio Engineering Society 63/4 (April 2015), pp. 228–244.

Gilmour, David, Roger Waters and Richard Wright. “Breathe (In the Air).” On Dark Side of the Moon. Pink Floyd. London: Harvest Records, 1973.

Gopnik, Alison, Andrew N. Meltzoff and Patricia K. Kuhl. The Scientist in the Crib: What early learning tells us about the mind. New York NY: Harper Perennial, 2001.

Hamilton, Nancy and Morgan Lewis. “How High the Moon.” How High the Moon. Performed by Les Paul and Mary Ford, 1951.

Harper, Roy. “Me and My Woman.” On Stormcock. London: Harvest Records, 1971.

Henderson, Ray, Sam Lewis and Joe Young. “I’m Sitting on Top of the World.” I’m Sitting on Top of the World. Performed by Les Paul and Mary Ford, 1953.

Huron, David. Sweet Anticipation: Music and the psychology of expectation. Cambridge MA: The MIT Press, 2006.

Longfellow, Matthew (Dir.). Queen: The Making of “A Night at the Opera”. With Queen. Eagle Rock Entertainment 2006.

May, Brian. “Father to Son.” On Queen II. Queen. London: EMI Records, 1974.

McCartney, Paul. “Golden Slumbers.” On Abbey Road. The Beatles. London: Apple Records, 1969.

Mercury, Freddie. “Flick of the Wrist.” On Killer Queen. Queen. London: EMI Records, 1974.

_____. “Ogre Battle.” On Queen II. Queen. London: EMI Records, 1974.

_____. “Bohemian Rhapsody.” On A Night at the Opera. Queen. London: EMI Records, 1975.

_____. “Death on Two Legs.” On A Night at the Opera. Queen. London: EMI Records, 1975.

_____. “The Millionaire Waltz.” On A Day at the Races. Queen. London: EMI Records, 1976.

_____. “Somebody to Love.” On A Day at the Races. Queen. London: EMI Records, 1976.

Oasis. Be Here Now. London: Creation Records, 1997.

Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-Four. St Ives: Penguin Books, 2003.

Pink Floyd. Atom Heart Mother. London: Harvest Records, 1970.

Poulin-Charronnat, Bénédicte, Emmanuel Bigand, Philippe Lalitte, François Madurell, Sandrine Vieillard and Stephen McAdams. “Effects of a Change in Instrumentation on the Recognition of Musical Materials.” Music Perception 22/2 (Winter 2004), pp. 239–263.

Ross, Stephanie. “Art and Allusion.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 40/1 (Autumn 1981), pp. 59–70.

Teo, Timothy, David Hargreaves and June Lee. “Musical Preference, Identification, and Familiarity: A Multicultural Comparison of Secondary Students from Singapore and the United Kingdom.” Journal of Research in Music Education 56/1 (April 2008), pp. 18–32.

Ward, Morgan K., Joseph K. Goodman and Julie R. Irwin. “The Same Old Song: The power of familiarity in music choice.” Marketing Letters 25/1 (March 2014), pp. 1–11.

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