Challenges in the analysis of tone color of unaccompanied vocal music

Yannick Wey, Lawrence Shuster


The past decade has observed renewed interest in regional yodel styles throughout the German-speaking communities of the Alps as evident by an increased presence of both professional and amateur performance groups, the number of new recordings, as well as the formation of numerous yodel clubs supported by a variety of cultural institutions (Martin 2012, Ammann et al. 2019). Further evidence is reflected by the proliferation of research exploring alpine yodeling from several scholarly and scientific perspectives. While much is known regarding the cultural and historical background of alpine yodeling, the music itself has yet to be subject to the same degree of in-depth analytical scrutiny.

Whereas recent analytical studies have examined the organization of the tonal (Wey 2020) and melodic (Fink-Mennel 2007) features characteristic of Alpine yodel, important considerations regarding timbre, ultimately responsible for establishing the unique, idiosyncratic tone colors associated with Alpine yodel traditions have remained largely unexplored. The motivation of this study is to expand and complement existing analytical studies by developing an assortment of analytical tools and strategies useful for modeling these important details, thus providing greater understanding of the variety of sonic designs and experiences available within Alpine yodel traditions.

Consideration of timbre begins with disclosing the succession of spectral segments embedded within the melody that comprise the basic building blocks of a timbral surface. Each spectral segment consists of a fundamental pitch, its associated harmonics and formant frequencies, as well as its corresponding vowel type. Within each segment, these details are then measured and evaluated in regard to perceptual salience and aural acuity. By employing a filtering process which effectively screens-out those harmonics which play a role in our perceptual discriminations from those that don’t, we can then extract these harmonics and characterize their internal organization as spectral sets. Once done, we can then explore the rich variety of correspondences and relationships between them. Of these it will be demonstrated that it is the corresponding vowel type and consideration of the formant frequencies which define it, that are the most important variables in the formation of tone color for unaccompanied vocal music.

Yannick Wey:

Yannick Wey is a Senior Research Associate at the Competence Center for Music Education Research at Lucerne School of Music, Switzerland. He received a BA and a MA in trumpet performance from Zurich University of the Arts and a PhD in musicology from the University of Innsbruck. In his PhD thesis, he analyzed the musical transcription of alpine yodel and related wordless song, and the interactions between their oral and written traditions. Current projects inhabit the spaces between ethnography, music analysis, and performance. He plays the traditional wind instruments of the Alpine region, alphorn and büchel. His research appeared in Analytical Approaches to World Music, Music&Science, The Galpin Society Journal, and the Swiss Yearbook for Musicology.

Lawrence Beaumont Shuster

PhD Music Theory
Director, The International Foundation for the Theory and Analysis of World Musics
Editor, Analytical Approaches to World Music
Series Co-Editor, New Directions in World Music Analysis (Routledge)
Co-Organizer, AAWM 2022 / Sheffield
Lecturer in Music Theory, Cornell University

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