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1. Primitives

Semiotic Description of Timbre and Usage-Related Variants: An Exploratory Analysis of Orchestration Handbooks

Lucas Takeo Shimoda
p. 43-64


Cet article propose une discussion sur le rôle du timbre (la couleur du son) à l’intérieur du cadre théorique de la sémiotique française, ainsi que celui de la sémiotique de la chanson, et spécialement dans le cadre théorique développé par Tatit (1997) et plus récémmement par Carmo Jr. (2005, 2007). Il est commun de considérer le timbre comme un inventaire non-fini. Cette question demeure problématique car le point du vue sémiotique adopté dans ce travail considère la hauteur et le rythme en tant qu’éléments distinctifs d’une mélodie, tandis que d’autres paramètres se comportent comme des éléments non distinctifs (la dynamique, le tempo et le timbre). En se basant sur l’opposition « schéma vs. usage » proposée par Hjelmslev, cet article soutient que le timbre se comporte comme une variable liée à l’usage. Le matériau analysé a été extrait de descriptions verbales du timbre présentées dans des manuels d’orchestration et d’instrumentation. Ces données seront interprétées en termes d’implication et de concession dans l’approche tensive de la sémiotique (Fontanille & Zilberberg, 1998 ; Zilberberg, 2011). Notre hypothèse peut être corroborée par d’autres témoignages de phénomènes similaires observés tant dans le système grammatical des langues naturelles que dans leur pratique discursive. Il est attendu que les arguments soulevés dans cet article puissent contribuer à une discussion sur l’approche sémiotique du timbre, qui demeure considérablement inexploré.

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Entrées d’index

Mots-clés :

son, connotation, pratiques
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1. Theoretical background

1Compared to other approaches, the discursive perspective on timbre has a significant advantage. Its theoretical background provides a considerable heuristic potential largely acknowledged by the linguistic research in the fields of both grammar and discourse. Just as the linguist should outreach the mere gathering of accidental “language facts” in order to decode the systemic rules of language, so should the semiotician be capable of articulating her/his findings with correlate discursive phenomena which can be verifiable in other semiotic systems.

2In this regard, taking timbre as a connotative phenomenon can benefit of other conceptual distinctions made within Hjelmslev’s intellectual project, especially the oppositions “form vs. substance”, “schema vs. usage” and “invariant vs. variant”, which are closely related to each other. In his thesis’ chapter titled “O uso como elemento determinante para a escolha dos instrumentos que compõem um arranjo”, Coelho (2007, pp. 130-147) brings up two theoretical propositions with considerable impact upon the semiotic studies on timbre.

3The first one classifies musical instruments on a semiotic square according to its sustain. The second one concerns the key role of usage in the selection of timbre for song arrangements. It also discusses why musical genres are always performed with a certain established instrumental setting despite the virtually infinite possible combinations.

4Despite their revealing insights, these propositions leave a gap about timbre role in meaning production. In the present work, we argue that timbre is an usage element in itself regardless its manifestation in specific musical genres. Formulated in these terms, the issue unveils its convergence with Carmo Jr.’s reflections on the timbre pertinence to the connotative level of analysis (Carmo Jr. 2007, pp. 137-147) as well as with Dietrich’s statements about unusual instrumentation in arrangements (Dietrich 2008, pp. 137-142).

5Carmo Jr. proposes to organize the sound parameters into a relational net (Zilberberg, 2006b) and to distinguish categories pertaining to the schema and to the denotative level from those pertaining to the usage and to the connotative level. The first group consists of minimal suprassegmental units named by the author as “tonemes”, “chronemes” and “dynamemes”, which correspond respectively to pitch, note duration and loudness. The second group comprises tempo, dynamics and timbre, as shown below in the tables 1 and 2 extracted from Carmo Jr.’s work (2007, p. 146).

Table 1:

Table 1:

Relational net of schema categories: pitch, note duration and loudness

Table 2:

Table 2:

Relational net of usage categories: tempo, dynamics and timbre

6The first three parameters can be freely articulated with each other. At the schema level, there are no combination constraints. At this point, we can make a comparison with the vowel system of natural languages, which can be organized in a similar relational web according to its distinctive traits. In fact, what we ordinarily designate as “vowel” is the resulting combination of these traits.

  • 1 French “nous”, in the original text.

7Despite the harsh criticism of the structuralist view of grammar, this can provide useful insights of the common principles underlying language and music. As observed by the semiotician Claude Zilberberg, the pronoun “we”1 results from the combination of categories of person (first person), number (plural) and case (nominative) (Zilberberg, 2006b, p. 86). In this regard, it seems likewise reasonable to consider a musical note as a combination of pitch, duration and loudness.

8So far, our discussion remained at the schema level, whereas no structural constraints are imposed to the parameter combinations, resulting therefore in symmetrical settings. At the usage level, asymmetries are immediately noticeable, specially what concerns timbre. It is widely believed that this category cannot be analyzed in terms of binary dependencies.

9On one hand, it is impossible to deny that it takes part in the syntagmatic (“and…and”) relation which constitutes a musical note. On the other hand, it still remains hard to draw clear boundaries of this category. Carmo Jr. points out this conundrum precisely and suggests the need for a satisfactory answer:

  • 2 English translation: “Timbre seems to be a threshold of the system. It cannot be considered as a ca (...)

O timbre parece um limiar dentro do sistema. Não podemos considerá-lo como uma categoria porque esta pressupõe um efetivo mínimo de dois membros, uma oposição binária simples. Por outro lado, o timbre é o suporte sobre o qual as diferenças caracterizantes — que constituem a base da melodia — repousam e geram sentido. (Carmo Jr., 2007, p. 116)2

10For our purpose in this paper, it will suffice to assume that each musical instrument corresponds to a given timbristic register taken as default despite possible similarities between them. In this respect, this set would include the open category of timbre labeled according to the source instrument. The inclusion of this parameter into the relational web would lead to the setting shown in the table 3.

Table 3:

Table 3:

Expanded relational web of usage categories: tempo, dynamics, tessitura and timbre

11It is important to point out the sui generis character of timbre in comparison to other sound parameters. While the three first behave as a closed category, timbre seems to be an open category. At this point, a comparison with the distinction between grammatical and lexical morphemes in natural languages can be drawn, whereas finite classes tend to control open classes (cf. Zilberberg 2000, p. 19).

2. Orchestration handbooks and the written register of musical praxis

12Assuming this hypothesis to be reasonable, we will point out evidences of constraints between timbre, tessitura, dynamics and tempo at the usage level. In order to argue for this approach, we have collected and analyzed excerpts from instrumentation and orchestration handbooks, as they register collective judgments about the musical praxis of a given socio-historical context.

13The range of musical instruments described in such works is usually limited to a restricted aesthetic domain. Thus, a real descriptive exhaustivity can barely be expected. When a wider range of instruments is covered, the description becomes less detailed and is occasionally reduced to a mere index of musical objects. Conversely, when the description provides more specific details, the set of described instruments becomes considerably reduced. This limitation to the most canonical instruments works as an ambivalent argument to legitimate the choice for this material.

14Though questionable, such a selection turns out to be favorable and even necessary for analyzing open categories such as timbre. In a few words, what lies beneath such descriptions is the documentation of which possible combinations of pitch, duration and loudness are considered as ordinary or unusual for each instrument.

15From a semiotic perspective, technical and mechanical matters determining these limitations have a secondary role and concern rather the discourse of the musical performance than the musical discourse itself (see Dietrich, 2008, pp. 19-36). To the instrumentalist and the musicologist, such details regarding the performance plays a major role. To the semiotician, it suffices to recognize the enunciative marks produced by the instruments and left in the enunciate. The same caution is also valid to the instrument, which matters rather for its corresponding timbre than for its mechanical construction itself. For the purposes of this work, we will hence regard timbre as a discursive figure (cf. Greimas & Courtés, 1979, pp. 148-149), as proposed by Dietrich (2008, pp. 137-148).

16At this point, we should anticipate the critics that orchestration handbooks tend to assume rather a prescriptive than a descriptive attitude. This analytical choice can be justified by an analogy with the descriptions of natural languages. It is widely known that linguists should not use normative grammar and writing style guides in order to describe a given language, since such works do not correspond to the actual state of the language. Instead, it is necessary to determine a data set extracted from authentic linguistic material. In this case, the description should outline the rules lying at the schema level.

17Nevertheless, such writing guides and prescriptive grammars could be used in a study about value judgments about the norms of a given speech community. When a prescriptive grammar rejects the use of a certain form in favor of another one, it registers a valuation of these forms. The same applies to dictionary entries labeled as “archaic”, “neologism”, “slang” among others. According to the threefold division of the Saussurian parole proposed by Hjelmslev (1971, pp. 78-90), the first case mentioned above lies at the norm level while the second lies at the usage level. In both cases, the object of analysis is beyond the schema level.

18It is not reasonable to ignore that written descriptions can barely comprise the whole spectrum of possible manifestations. In artistic praxis, this gap may be even larger than that one stated in the linguistic field. Nevertheless, this approach can give us helpful hints to understand how timbre can be described from a semiotic point of view.

19In the next section, we will show how Hjelmslev’s concept of selection explains remarkable constraints observed in timbre descriptions present in orchestration handbooks as well as the reasons why some parametric combinations (pitch, range, duration) seems to be more prototypical when manifested by a certain timbre but not by other ones.

3. Selection between timbre and other sound parameters

20In his Résumé of a theory of language, Louis Hjelmslev has defined “selection” as a relationship between a constant and a variable (Hjelmslev, 1975, Def. 27). In other words, we can speak of a selection when a member of a category presupposes a term of another category, but the opposite does not necessarily apply. Giving an example used by Hjelmslev himself, the Latin preposition sine requires the ablative case, whereas the ablative does not always require this preposition (Hjelmslev, 1968, pp. 43-44).

21Examples of selection between timbre, pitch range, duration and loudness can be found in orchestration handbooks when observed from a semiotic point of view. We will present here at least one example of each possible selection. Rather than giving an exhaustive description of one or another instrument, we intend to demonstrate how these treatises provide evidences for the constraints between timbre and pitch, loudness and note duration.

22The presented excerpts were extracted from the following works: Traité de l’orchestration – Vol. I (Koechlin, 1954), The Technique of Orchestration (Kennan, 1983), The Study of Orchestration (Adler, 2002), Principios de orquestracion com ejemplos sacados de sus próprias obras (Rimsky-Korsakov, 1946) and Orchestration (Piston, 1955). The analyzed sample was limited for practical reasons. Nonetheless, one shall not infer that the validity of these data is restricted to these authors. As the aesthetic domain is rather circumscribed to the occidental music, a high degree of convergence between different works on this subject can be presumed.

3.1. Timbre and pitch

23The selection between pitch and timbre is perhaps the most easily recognizable one in an instrument description. After giving the most general information, the authors usually present the instrument range. In other words, this constraint between categories states that, except for few cases like the organ and sound synthesizers, a given timbre cannot manifest the whole pitch range available.

  • 3 For practical reasons, we decided to use solely the scientific pitch notation, whereas C4 correspon (...)

24In natural conditions, a note in the high pitch, i.e. a C6, will never be played in a timbre of tuba as well as a trumpet can never reach a really low pitch, i.e. C23. Even if the selection between pitch and timbre is evident in any instrument description, we would like to show a concrete evidence of such a constraint. In the following excerpt of his Traité de l’orchestration, Charles Koechlin points out the severe range limitations of children’s voice.

  • 4 English translation: “In this respect, it should be noted that [children] voices with a large exten (...)

Il est bon de rappeler, à ce sujet, que les voix [enfantines] très étendues sont assez rares ; pourtant, j’en ai connu qui pouvaient atteindre le contre-mi [E5] et descendaient fort bas. Mais c’est l’exception, et je ne conseillerai jamais d’écrire ces notes extrêmes pour une choral enfantine ! La plupart des enfants d’ailleurs ne cultivent pas assez la voix ; les sons ne se trouvent pas bien ‘placés’, d’où nécessité de ne pas exiger des notes aiguës, qu’avec un bon entraînement ils arriveraient fort bien à sortir. (Koechlin, 1954, p. 141)4

25Another striking example is the general notion that a given timbre becomes more expressive in a specific register. Cases like this occur more evidently in wind instruments. A sample can be found in Piston’s observations on how to enhance the performance of the orchestra trumpeter.

But whereas the clarino player was admittedly a high register specialist, the orchestra trumpeter of today is expected to be at his best in the medium part of the range. It would be folly of him to weaken this more valuable aspect of trumpet playing for the sake of extending his range upward. (Piston 1955, p. 257)

3.2. Timbre and note duration

26The percussion instruments are the most evident case of selection between timbre and duration. It is not reasonable to ignore that some instruments have a considerable expanded pitch range, like timpani, Glockenspiel, chimes among others. However, this capability is rather limited to most of the percussion instruments like membranophones and unpitched idiophones, which cannot match the strings and the wind instruments in this matter. Due to their short note duration, the percussion instruments require a minimum amount of speed. Likewise, such a constraint also led to the exclusion of the harpsichord from the modern orchestra. The following excerpt of Adler’s treatise gives a clear example of this process.

During the baroque era and even in some of the early Haydn symphonies, the harpsichord was always present in the orchestra to realize the continuo parts. When the orchestra expanded and the style changed this instrument was no longer needed as an integral part of the ensemble; because of its relatively small sound, it was replaced by the piano. (Adler 2002, p. 478)

27In contrast to these predictable examples, we would like to show an opposite scenario, where timbre is rather incompatible with short durations. Due to its sluggish reaction time, the pipe organ performs poorly in fast runs. It requires a minimum amount of duration, as stated by Charles Koechlin in the excerpt below.

  • 5 English translation: “Solid, full chords with a great set of notes and ff have mostly a terrific so (...)

Des accords solides, pleins, avec le grand jeu et ff, ont en général une sonorité magnifique: mais il est bon que les notes puissent durer un certains laps de temps. Pour une réalisation polyphonique à 4, 5 parties, l’orgue ne se prête pas aussi bien que l’orchestre à de multiples mouvements rapides (d’ailleurs, en général d’exécution fort difficile) et mieux vaut, dans le cas des grands ff, soit des accords qui se prolongent un peu, soit une seule partie (ou deux) parcourant le clavier en gammes ou arpèges. (Koechlin 1954, p. 131)5

28Likewise, low-pitched wind instruments (i.e. bassoon, contrabassoon) perform at best when playing in a decreased tempo and the note length is extended. In his handbook, Piston explains why such instruments cannot achieve good results in fast phrases, as we quote below

Theoretically, anything playable on the bassoon is playable on the contrabassoon, but the slow vibrations and inertia of the large instrument prevent anything approaching nimbleness or easy agility. A certain clumsy impression is inevitable. […]. The staccato is dry and heavy. Faster repeated tonguing is difficult because of the slow response of the air column. (Piston 1955, p. 203)

3.3. Timbre and loudness

29Examples of selection between loudness and timbre are less frequent since the technical development of the instruments and the playing technique evolution contributed to overcome limitations in this matter. Due to such transformations, this kind of constraints is more easily found in instruments used in ancient and baroque music. With the volume increase caused by the growth of the European orchestras as well as the technical improvement of the instruments, these instruments were gradually overcome throughout history.

30Overwhelmed by the technical flexibility of the piano, the harpsichord is a clear case of constraint between timbre and loudness. Its presence in the modern orchestra has been rather restricted due to its weak sound projection as well as its limited range of dynamic variations. The following quotation extracted from Kent Kennan’s handbook attests precisely this process.

Although the harpsichord was frequently used in combination with other instruments during the Baroque period (generally to supply the realized figured bass), its appearances in the modern orchestra have been few. One problem is the fact that its tone is so light as to be easily covered by other instruments and easily lost in a large hall. […] In writing for this instrument, one must remember that it cannot make differences in volume by means of a lighter or heavier touch. (Kennan 1983, p. 360)

  • 6 English translation: “The harp’s soft and poetic timbre is favorable to all dynamics, but it is nev (...)

31Despite the considerable technical progress made in the 20th century, such constraints never vanish completely. In our days, they are still widely present in the plucked strings (i.e. acoustic guitars, harps). A clear example of longstanding and successful combination of timbre and soft dynamics is the harp: “El timbre tierno y poético del arpa es favorable a todos los matices dinámicos, pero nunca es pujante; el orquestrador deberá pues, usarlo con precaución” (Rimsky-Korsakov 1946, p. 33).6

32Likewise, one of the most productive cases of this kind of constraints is the acoustic guitar. Interestingly, the same feature taken as a flaw in an orchestra (e.g. harpsichord) has turned the guitar into a good accompaniment to the human voice. Its efficacy is largely corroborated by several examples of the Brazilian popular song, namely the interpretation style of João Gilberto and Bossa Nova. The following excerpt registers the loudness limitation of the guitar, making it more adequate to performances in closed places and smaller ensembles.

  • 7 English translation: “The acoustic guitar matches wonderfully well with the human voice: among all, (...)

La guitare s’allie merveilleusement bien à la voix humaine : c’est, entre tous, l’instrument des sérénades… […] il serait à souhaiter que l’on écrivît des œuvres de musique de chambre où la guitare jouerait son rôle : je suis certain qu’elles pourraient être très réussies, et que par exemple un petit groupe instrumental : Flûte avec alto (ou Cor anglais et violoncelle) se fondraient parfaitement à la guitare. Quant à son utilisation dans l’orchestre elle n’est à sa place qu’en des cas exceptionnels ; en général on se contente d’évoquer plutôt la guitare, par des combinaisons de l’orchestre normal. — De toute façon, si vous l’écrivez comme faisant partie de l’orchestre, rappelez-vous qu’elle a peu de sonorité; en conséquence, veillez à ne la point couvrir. (Koechlin 1954, p. 210)7

33On the other hand, some timbres seem to manifest the opposite constraint. Besides instruments with rough dynamics control (e.g. bagpipes), this applies usually to brass instruments, whose potential of expansion to the higher levels of loudness is widely known.

The full dynamic power of the brass is a dominating force capable of obliterating the sound of the rest of the orchestra, and it is often allowed to do so by conductors lacking either authority or discrimination. The limit of loudness and tone-weight of strings and woodwinds is a physical fact. Forcing them to compete with the brass simply results in disagreeable sounds, with the brass still far in the lead. (Piston 1955, p. 203)

34Until this point, we have identified how timbre selects pitch, duration and loudness separately. Such constraints result in an asymmetrical set of semiotic units, which manifest concretely as sounds and characterizes the prototypical physiognomy of each timbre. Speaking in terms of semiotic modes of existence (cf. Greimas & Courtés, 1979, p. 138), every combination is possible in the virtualized mode. However, some combinations are rarely attested in the actualized and realized modes. In other words, these configurations occur rather rarely with certain timbres, even if they are predicted.

35The practical consequences of this issue can be exemplified by a simple hypothetical case. We can consider three different sound events: an E6, a note in ff and an eighth note. Regardless of further variables such as aesthetic preferences or composition rules, a given listener will evaluate these events as ordinary if manifested respectively in the timbre of a soprano, a trumpet and a snare drum. However, if we swap these timbres respectively for a child voice, a harpsichord and an organ, these sound events will be evaluated rather as unusual or extraordinary. Before we discuss in more depth what it means in semiotic terms, we would like to showcase more complex examples of selection, i.e. those involving more than two categories.

3.4. Timbre, pitch and duration

36Constraints between pitch and duration are considerably frequent, especially when the sound production depends on human breathing capacity (i.e. wind instruments, singing). Discussing how the potential of human voice can be explored at best, Charles Koechlin points an interesting fact out about its difficulty in performing long notes in the high register.

  • 8 English translation: “This leads us to the following conclusion, which we have verified through exp (...)

Cela nous mène à la conclusion suivante, que nous avons souvent vérifiée par expérience : d’une façon générale, la voix humaine se fatigue bien plus à rester plusieurs mesures sur des notes hautes mais point extrêmes, qu’à donner accidentellement, avec éclat et dans la force, une ou deux notes extrêmes. (Koechlin, 1954, p. 142)8

37In this excerpt, a semiotician can recognize a tensive mechanism underlying the lyrical singing, since the high register is more prone to the impact. Hence, the energy required (tonicity in Zilberberg’s terminology) is too high so that it cannot last long in this register. The same effect applies also to the pizzicati in the bowed strings, whereas a severe speed limitation is identified in the low registers.

  • 9 English translation: “The fingers of the right hand, which are responsible to perform the pizzicato(...)

Los dedos de la mano derecha, encargados de dar el pizzicato, no tienen la presteza del arco; los pasajes pizzicato no pueden, pues, ser tan rápidos como los que se ejecutan con el arco. Además, la velocidad posible del pizzicato depende del espesor de las cuerdas; en los contrabajos, no podrá hacerse el pizzicato sino en las notas donde la sucesión sea mucho más lenta que lo que debiera ser en los violines. (Rimsky-Korsakov, 1946, p. 31)9

3.5. Timbre, pitch and loudness

38The selection between timbre, pitch and loudness splits the instrument’s range in specific zones with different possible variation in dynamics. One of the most canonical examples is the so-called chalumeau register of the clarinet. To some extent, this is a specification of the same phenomenon observed above in the harpsichord and the acoustic guitar. For these, the constraint of loudness applies to the whole pitch range, whereas it applies only to a specific segment of the range in other instruments.

39For instance, we can mention the uneven distribution of dynamics in the woodwinds. Even though they have a considerable dynamic versatility, it is not distributed equally in the whole pitch range. The western concert flute is a clear example of this asymmetry and how it gives a peculiar character to its timbre. The following excerpt taken from Charles Koechlin illustrates well this aspect:

  • 10 English translation: “Anyway, it is quite illusive to expect a true ff in the first twelve notes of (...)

De toute façon, il est assez illusoire de compter sur un vrai ff pour la première douzième de l’instrument ; mais on peut écrire cette nuance ff : l’exécutant l’interprètera de son mieux en donnant tout le son possible. — Il existe une assez grande latitude du pp au ff de la flûte; on notera seulement que si, d’une part, le grave n’est jamais réellement ff, l’aigu à partir de [Re6] n’est jamais réellement pp. (Koechlin, 1954, p. 8)10

  • 11 English translation: “Generally speaking for the whole instrument set, the timbre becomes more sple (...)

40A similar effect occurs in the timbre of the brass instruments. In these instruments, notes tend to become increasingly louder as they reach the higher registers. In his treatise, Rimsky-Korsakov highlights emphatically this aspect of the brass: “Hablando en general, para todo el grupo, el timbre resulta más esplendoroso y la sonoridad más fuerte cuando se va hacia el agudo, mientras que yendo hacia el grave, el timbre se ensombrece y la sonoridad decrece algo”.11 (Rimsky-Korsakov, 1946, p. 25)

41On the other hand, the bassoon has an exact opposite behavior. While fortissimo notes in the low register are rather rare and not expected in the western concert flute, they seem to be the general rule in a bassoon’s timbre: “The lowest fifth of sixth of the range is sonorous and vibrant, with a little roughness. It is rich in audible overtones. It is not easy to attack softly, and it is incapable of anything like the pianissimo of the bass clarinet” (Piston, 1955, p. 93).

3.6. Timbre, loudness and duration

  • 12 English translation: “An important advice regarding the ff: the performers must spend there too muc (...)

42At last, we should consider that loudness and duration are rarely combined in the same proportion. This statement applies especially to low-pitched wind instruments, for instance tuba and trombone. In these timbres, loud notes tend to fade away more quickly. An increase in their duration leads inevitably to a reduction of their loudness, as noticed by Koechlin’s description of the trombone quoted below: “Conseil important à formuler, touchant les ff : les instrumentistes y dépensent beaucoup de souffle ; en conséquence il n’est pas possible de prolonger longtemps un son ff”.12 (Koechlin, 1954, p. 88)

43In some cases, the execution is considered even as impossible and only a musician with outstanding technical skills could manage to achieve it. In the example pictured below, the rests for breathing are an inevitable hurdle for the tubist, which cannot hold loud notes in a too lengthy phrase.

The most important thing to consider when writing for the tuba is that it requires the expenditure of a great deal of breath in performance. […]. When the performer is faced with a situation such as the one that occurs in the finale of Tchaikovksy’s Symphony N. 6, a fortissimo pedal E that extends over nine ¾ measures at Moderato assai, he must break the sustained tone at several points in order to breathe. (Kennan, 1983, p. 156)

44This inverse relationship between loudness and duration also occurs when the sound volume of the double-basses is boosted up by increasing the number of players. Discussing about the role of the double bass in the orchestra, Piston points out that a loudness increase in this timbre inevitably results in a speed decrease. Likewise, a reduction in loudness permits a longer note duration. “It will help to remember that the aggregate sonority of the whole bass section tolerates a slower moving bow than does the tone of a single solo bass, and that longer tones are possible in soft nuances than in loud ones”. (Piston, 1955, p. 94)

45Though the examples above illustrate inverse relationships between loudness and duration, a direct relationship is also predicted. One typical example of convergence between these parameters is the pipe organ. Its ability to sustain notes in fortissimo can barely be overwhelmed by unplugged instruments, as observed by Samuel Adler: “The organ’s great attractions as an orchestral instrument are its ability to sustain pitches at a constant volume indefinitely […]” (Adler, 2002, p. 481).

46The sounds of the celesta seem to show the same correlation, though toward the opposite direction. In general, the celesta’s timbre minimizes both note duration and loudness, which leads to its peculiar sonority: “The gentle tones of the celesta have a bell-like ring but do not last long, nor can they be played staccato. Easily covered by other sounds in the orchestra, they are used primarily for decorative coloristic touches in soft nuances” (Piston, 1955, p. 348).

4. Schema and usage

47Though the cases discussed until now seem to be incidental, orchestration and instrumentation handbooks provide several other similar examples of selection between timbre and pitch, loudness and duration. Such constraints between these parameters limit the set of resulting combinations. In other words, certain rhythmic, melodic and dynamic patterns are more likely to be manifested in a given timbre, while others tend rather to be avoided. It supports at least partially the hypothesis that timbre pertains to the usage level, as proposed by Carmo Jr. and discussed above in this paper (cf. Section 3). This conclusion can be better understood by a simple test with the categories presented in the table 1.

  • 13 Specifically in this example, this category is indifferent.

48According to it, a musical note considered as a semiotic unit results from the combination of pitch, duration, loudness and timbre, as we have been discussing until now. Virtually, all combinations of these categories are possible. Considering the usage categories as presented in the table 3, some combinations are rather privileged, as shown by the treatises’ excerpts, while others are unusual and even restricted. Albeit predicted, a combination like [high pitch and long duration and piano and flute] is rather unexpected. Based on the excerpts presented above, the same applies to combinations like [low pitch and long duration and forte and tuba], [high/low pitch13 and short duration and piano and pipe organ] among others.

49These constraints result in asymmetrical sets, which are commonly referred to as the “language” of an instrument. Widely spread among musicians and in the common sense, this analogy is not a mere metaphor, but highlights a striking similarity to the so-called natural languages: forms predicted by the rules of schema are rarely manifested in the usage. This mechanism applies also to grammar rules as well as to discourse-related aspects. In order to explain this idea in more depth, we will draw comparisons with different levels of natural language, namely phonetics, phonology, morphology and lexis.

50First, we would like to present asymmetries in the domain of phonetics and phonology. Based on the canonical IPA vowel chart as presented by the Handbook of the International Phonetic Association (1999), the features roundness, height and backness distinguish approximately thirty-six different vowels. However, due to a principle of economy, a given natural language never makes use of all vowels to build up its sound inventory.

51For instance, Brazilian Portuguese has seven distinctive vowels, assuming that nasal vowels are not considered as phonemes (cf. Silva 2003, pp. 171-172). It is important to underline that the features roundness and backness are redundant in this language. In other words, it means that all front vowels are necessarily unrounded. Likewise, all back vowels are necessarily rounded.

52Hence, a vowel combining the features [+ front] and [+ rounded] (i.e. [Y]) is not predicted in the phonological system of Brazilian Portuguese. The set of possible occurrences is once more restricted by phonological rules specifying which morphophonological, prosodic and phonotactic contexts are favorable for the occurrence of certain sounds.

53For instance, in Brazilian Portuguese close and close-mid-vowels are neutralized in unstressed word-final syllables. Although the vowels /e/ and /i/ are contrastive in the vowel system of Brazilian Portuguese, this contrast is neutralized in the mentioned phonological context, what reduces the number of possible sounds within this context from seven to three (Battisti 1996, pp. 173-174).

  • 14 About the terms “realizable” and “realized”, see Fontanille & Zilberberg (1998, p. 130).

54Another clear example of constraint is the distribution of consonants within the syllable. Still discussing data of Brazilian Portuguese, the consonants /s/ and /r/ never occur together in the same syllable segment. The consonantal cluster /s/+/r/ occurs only in exceptional cases (e.g. /iS.Ra.’eL/ “Israel”) while the cluster /r/+/s/ is more frequent, especially when the phoneme /r/ occurs in the coda and /s/ is the onset of the next syllable (e.g. /’naL/ “armory”, /’uR.sO/ “bear”) (cf. Silva 2003, pp. 157-161). With a few examples taken from the expression plan of natural languages, one can verify that the number of realized items is always smaller than the number of realizable ones.14 When we take the content plan into consideration, the set of realized forms becomes even more restricted.

55Let us suppose that the vowels /a/, /e/ and /o/ and the consonants /k/, /m/ and /l/ occur in a given word. For this sample test, we will exclude the combinations, which violating the rules for a well-formed syllable in Brazilian Portuguese and we will place arbitrarily the lexical accent on the second syllable. In this scenario, a total of thirty-six different forms can be obtained. Despite the high number of results, a native speaker would acknowledge just a few of them as meaningful words, as shown in the table 4:

Table 4:

Table 4:

Phonologic possible sequences in Brazilian Portuguese

56Although all the constructions listed above are well-formed according to phonologic rules (i.e. phonotactics, syllabic structure), just a limited number of them is incorporated in the word stock of Brazilian Portuguese, which leads to an asymmetric distribution. Such asymmetries can be easily recognizable in morphology, semantics and lexicon. In linguistics, this phenomenon is widely known as “hole in the pattern” or “gap” and occurs when a given linguistic form does not exist although it is predicted by the systematic rules of a particular language (Crystal, 1991, p. 149).

57In morphology, there are several examples of such gaps. To illustrate this, we would like to highlight the case of defective verbs. For instance, forms like “I rain” or “they snow” never occur in English. Likewise, the French verb “falloir” is conjugated just in the third person singular. Another clear example is the so-called unpaired negatives, i.e. negative words whose positive counterparts are rarely or never attested in language usage. The pair “uncertain” – “certain” is absolutely regular in opposition to the pair “unspeakable” – * “speakable”, since the positive form “speakable” hardly occurs, at least with the opposite meaning of “unspeakable” (as something hideous or impossible to be described in words).

58In semantics, we can mention gaps in the gender distinction in the semantic field of family members. For instance, the sequence father – mother – parents shows an even distribution (masculine – feminine – neutral). In contrast, the sequence uncle – aunt – ? lacks a neutral term corresponding to “parents”. An opposite configuration occurs in the sequence ? – ? – cousin, where the masculine and feminine terms are neutralized and only the neutral term is present. A similar case is observed in verb semantics. The semantic opposition mieten – vermieten in German becomes neutralized in languages like Brazilian Portuguese (“alugar”) and French (“louer”).

  • 15 An english translation of this article was published with the title “On Anger: A Lexical Semantic S (...)

59Gaps in the domain of lexicon are by far the most easily recognizable for the semiotician, since the French Semiotics has traditionally employed and incorporated lexical analyses in its analytical toolbox. In his notorious study about the anger De la colère : étude de sémantique lexicale published in Du sens II (Greimas, 1983),15 A.J. Greimas observes that lexemes are frequently a condensed form of complex narrative and discursive structures (Ibid., p. 225).

60In Greimas’ account, certain narrative, thematic and figurative configurations are condensed in and manifested by already existing lexical units. In contrast, other configurations do not correspond clearly to any lexeme available in a given language. This filtering mechanism affects also the discursive passions, conceived as a product of the social crystallization of specific modal values.

  • 16 English translation: “Natural language is in this respect a demonstration of what the history of a (...)

61In Sémiotique des passions (Greimas & Fontanille, 1991), this principle of organization is named “connotative taxonomy” (Ibid, pp. 86-99). In this book, A.J. Greimas and J. Fontanille declare: “[…] la langue naturelle est à cet égard comme le témoin de ce que l’histoire d’une culture a retenu comme passions parmi toutes les combinaisons modales possibles” (Ibid, p. 111).16

62J. Fontanille and Cl. Zilberberg corroborate this account. Discussing the enunciative praxis, they observe that the semantic field of self-esteem is irregularly lexicalized in French, since the sememes and the distinctive features are not evenly matched (Fontanille & Zilberberg, 1998, p. 141). A noteworthy aspect of such accidental gaps, be it in phonology, morphology, semantics or lexis, lies in its close relationship with the usage level. Forms predicted at the schema level are not manifested at the usage level, though they are expected to occur.

63This filter is closely related to the enunciative praxis, which regulates the emergence and disappearance of linguistic and semiotic forms in daily use. A clear example is provided by neology. Despite its creativity effect, a neologism comprises a phonic chain and a semantic structure, both already available in the schema level of the language. Contrary to appearances, such forms labeled usually as “creative” are indeed predicted by the language schema, but remains by any reason unexplored by the enunciative praxis. This notion is not properly new since Saussure’s Cours de linguistique générale:

  • 17 English translation: “It is wrong to suppose that the productive process is at work only when the n (...)

C’est donc une erreur de croire que le processus générateur ne se produit qu’au moment où surgit la création ; les éléments en sont déjà donnés. Un mot que j’improvise, comme ‘in-décorable’, existe déjà en puissance dans la langue ; on retrouve tous ses éléments dans les syntagmes tels que décor-er, décor-ation : pardonn-able, mani-able : in-connu, in-sensé, etc. et sa réalisation dans la parole est un fait insignifiant en comparaison de la possibilité de le former. (Saussure, 1962, p. 227)17

5. Implication and concession

64The examples presented until this point show how timbre imposes constraints on the output set of all possible combinations of pitch, duration and loudness. In natural languages, a similar process is also observed in phonology, morphology, semantics and lexis. According to the semiotic basic principle that the same structural rules should apply to both verbal and non-verbal systems, we claim in this article that the constraints observed in timbre as well as in the grammar field have the same nature.

65However, an important difference between these systems must be noted. In natural languages, the so-called ungrammatical constructions represent a significant part of the constrained forms, since they will never be uttered by a native speaker. On the contrary, it is barely defensible to speak of a corresponding instance of ungrammatical forms at the discourse level, especially what concerns the issue of timbre discussed here. Unlike grammaticality rules, it is virtually impossible to disprove any occurrence of discursive forms.

66When the authors of orchestration handbooks and treatises note the limitations of a given instrument, they are doing nothing else than pointing out what is considered as predictable or rather uncommon to its timbre. When we recognize a specific timbre, we can anticipate which melodic-rhythmic patterns are more likely to occur, opposed to those which are rather improbable. What seems particularly intriguing is that timbre shift alone can turn a trivial sound event into an extraordinary one.

67We would like to illustrate this with a simple comparison. A given phrase can sound as complex and unusual in the timbre of an acoustic guitar due to its melodic progression. However, the same phrase would sound trivial in a timbre of a piano due to its broader flexibility, as is known. The opposite situation is also possible. A melody considered as ordinary in the timbre of a piano may become extraordinary if performed in a timbre with less flexible pitch range and dynamics (for instance, recorders and ocarinas).

68In order to explain this effect in semiotic terms, we would like to recall the reflections of the semiotician Cl. Zilberberg (2006a) about the opposition between the regimes of implication and concession. According to this author, the implication regimen is related to the reiteration of predicted events, which confirm the expectations of a subject (parvenir). A classical case of implication regimen is the causal logic underlying Propp’s studies on narrative. The regimen of concession is related to the sudden intervention of unexpected events contradicting the predictions of the causal logic (survenir). A clear example of concession is found in the epiphanic experiences as studied by A.J. Greimas in De l’imperfection (Greimas 1987).

69From this standpoint, we propose that the descriptions presented by orchestration treatises should be read in terms of implication and concession regimen, rather than a description of “ungrammatical constructions” in music. In other words, such kind of works present what should be considered as ordinary or extraordinary for each particular timbre.

70This interpretation in terms of tensive semiotics brings more satisfying answers, as it takes into account not only the canonical repertoire, but also what can still be achieved as aesthetic movements and performance techniques evolve. In order to illustrate the approach of the tensive semiotics on this, we would like to recall the aforementioned Koechlin’s excerpt about the human voice (see Section 3.4.). As noticed by this author, the human voice cannot sustain long notes in the higher register without being burdened.

71In the regimen of implication, this feature could be described by the following formula: “Human voice cannot last many bars in the higher register because it tires quickly”. However, the opposite relation cannot be a priori excluded. The empirical experience of artistic performances shows how musicians are able to innovate and surpass the given aesthetic limits. Therefore, we could describe the regimen of concession in this example with the following formula: “Human voice can last many bars in the higher register although it tires quickly”.

  • 18 About the definition of “veridiction”, see Greimas & Courtés (1979, pp. 417-418).
  • 19 English translation: “And it is precisely the fiduciary dimension which is capable of showing the s (...)

72The most significant advance brought by this account lies in the close relationship between the implication and concession regimen and the veridiction.18 According to Claude Zilberberg’s proposal in his Éléments de grammaire tensive (Zilberberg, 2006a), the entry “concession” presented in the glossary at the end of his work explains that the regimen of concession is related to the unbelievable. Likewise, the regimen of implication is related to what is expected and believable: “Et c’est justement peut-être la dimension fiduciaire qui est à même d’exhiber le fonctionnement sémiotique de la concession. La dimension fiduciaire a pour verbe-pivot ‘croire’ et pour alternance élémentaire le couple : croire vs. ne pas croire” (Zilberberg, 2006a, p. 204).19

73According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, the term “unbelievable” refers to something that is “too improbable for belief; of such a superlative degree as to be hard to believe”. In this respect, virtuosity could be considered as the best example of regimen of concession. The astonishing effect caused by the performance of the virtuoso lies precisely in its superlative character as well as its unpredictability, both aiming to surpass the established aesthetic limits.

74The boundaries between the implication and concession are outlined by the discursive praxis. J. Fontanille and Cl. Zilberberg observe that both the acceptance of innovative and the rejection of obsolete semiotic forms require a collective and intersubjective sanction (Fontanille & Zilberberg, 1998, p. 134).

75This aspect may be easily observed not only in the development of the instrument construction but also in the performance developments called “extended technique”. What was considered as extraordinary a few centuries ago is nowadays evaluated as ordinary. Likewise, what is evaluated as extraordinary in our days will probably be overcome in the future.

76To illustrate this, we can consider the aforementioned case of harpsichord (see Section 3.2.). Combinations of dynamics and duration considered as extraordinary at the time of the development of this instrument are nowadays rather habitual. The same applies to the development of electric instruments and synthesizers. In few words, what these devices do is overcome limitations of traditional instruments by rendering a wider range of combinations between pitch, duration, loudness and timbre possible.

77From a semiotic point of view, we can affirm that both technical development as well as neology are closely related to the domain of usage. The innovation effect caused by the linguistic and musical (or discursive, to be more precise) creativity is apparently unlimited because the subset of language usage is necessarily embedded within the wider set of language schema.

78What concerns timbre specifically, we can conclude that partial descriptions in semiotic terms are possible, considering that the constraints analyzed so far impose limitations to the timbre inventory and build up prototypical sound physiognomies, usually labeled by musicians as the “instrument language” (i.e. the language of guitar, flute, mandolin etc.).

6. Conclusion

79This study brings concrete evidences against the belief that timbre can be simply switched without affecting other musical parameters. This finding has been rendered possible due to the discretization of hierarchized level of analysis, as traditionally proposed and employed by the French Semiotics as well as by the European structuralist linguistics, namely L. Hjelmslev. In this paper, the distinction between schema and usage plays a major role and gives to the semiotic approach a considerable advantage over other methods, which cannot distinguish different levels of pertinence in the meaning generation.

80Considering the constraints extracted from orchestration and instrumentation treatises and presented herein, we can assert that usage-related limits are imposed to timbre. In this respect, the major role of enunciative praxis works as a key feature shared both by the musical system (i.e. timbre constraints) and the linguistic system (i.e. accidental gaps), as discussed before. Due to its discursive and usage-related character, no combination between timbre, loudness, pitch and duration can be excluded a priori; instead, it is more reasonable to treat them in terms of expected/unexpected and its semiotic correspondent implication vs. concession, according to Claude Zilberberg’s propositions (see Section 5). As the semiotic analytical tools remain essentially the same, our approach of timbre can take advantage of its theoretical background. Likewise, it can also reveal interesting mechanisms that should be also valid to other codes, such as verbal language, painting, photography and so on.

81The major limitation of this work is the use of binary oppositions to the categories of loudness (forte vs. piano), pitch (high vs. low) and duration (short vs. long). Though sufficient when treating timbre as a discontinuous feature, this articulation should be enhanced and evolved to a continuous scale with gradual values. Furthermore, the current study has only examined written descriptions provided by handbooks and orchestration treatises. Whilst this approach can provide useful insights on how meaning effects are generated by timbre, it is strongly recommended that further research takes concrete manifestations into account. Future studies describing particular orchestration and arrangements styles could correct and/or enhance the results obtained so far.

82The conclusions of this study support at least partially the idea of timbre as a particular physiognomy, as proposed by Carmo Jr. (2007, pp. 145-147). This standpoint seems to explain the considerable resistance to transfigurations of the canonical timbres established along the history of occidental music. These findings could also point to a systematic description of musical styles (e.g. samba, jazz, folk, blues, chamber music, etc.), specific instrument sets (e.g. strings, brass, woodwinds, etc.) and composing styles (e.g. Richard Wagner, Claude Debussy, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Paul Dukas, Maurice Ravel etc.).

83Due to its exploratory nature, such a semiotic approach of timbre still needs substantial improvement in its theoretical basis as well as analysis-oriented efforts to corroborate and/or falsify the outlined propositions. Nevertheless, semiotics can thus play its key role as pilot science (as once pursued) beside psychoacoustics, musicology and aesthetics towards a better understanding of timbre.

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1 French “nous”, in the original text.

2 English translation: “Timbre seems to be a threshold of the system. It cannot be considered as a category because it presupposes at least two members, a simple binary opposition. On the other hand, timbre is the material base on which the characterizing differences — which constitutes the identity of the melody — lie and generate meaning”.

3 For practical reasons, we decided to use solely the scientific pitch notation, whereas C4 corresponds to the central C written in the first ledger line below a staff with treble clef. When staff notation was eventually used in the quoted excerpts, the notes were replaced for the corresponding scientific notation written in square brackets.

4 English translation: “In this respect, it should be noted that [children] voices with a large extension are rather rare; nevertheless, I have known some which could reach the E5 as well as the low register. However, it is an exception and I would never advise to write such extreme notes for a children choir! Most children nowadays do not cultivate the voice, the notes are not well ‘placed’, therefore the need to demand no high notes, which they would manage to produce well only with a good training”.

5 English translation: “Solid, full chords with a great set of notes and ff have mostly a terrific sonority: but it is advisable that the notes can be sustained for a certain time lapse. For a polyphonic composition with 4 or 5 voices, the organ does not perform as good as the orchestra in multiple fast runs (by the way, mostly hard to be performed) and, in the case of great fortissimos, it is more worthy either sustaining chords, or a single part (or two) running the keyboard in scales or arpeggios”.

6 English translation: “The harp’s soft and poetic timbre is favorable to all dynamics, but it is never powerful; the orchestrator should use it carefully.”

7 English translation: “The acoustic guitar matches wonderfully well with the human voice: among all, it is the instrument of the serenades … […] It would be desirable to write chamber music pieces where the guitar plays its own role: I am sure that they could be quite successful in a small ensemble: flute with alto (or English horn and cello instead) would blend perfectly with the guitar. What concerns its use within an orchestra, it has no place except for exceptional cases; in general, it suffices to evoke the guitar through a combination of the usual orchestra. — Nonetheless, if you write for it [guitar] as a part of the orchestra, keep in mind its little sonority; consequently, beware to not cover it”.

8 English translation: “This leads us to the following conclusion, which we have verified through experience: in general, the human voice tires much more when remaining many bars in the high register but not extreme than reaching eventually, with impact and strength, one or two extreme notes”.

9 English translation: “The fingers of the right hand, which are responsible to perform the pizzicato, do not have the speed of the bow; hence, the runs in pizzicato cannot be as fast as those performed with the bow. Moreover, the possible speed of the pizzicato depends on the thickness of the strings; in the double basses, the pizzicato can just be performed if the notes succession is quite slower than it should be in the violins”.

10 English translation: “Anyway, it is quite illusive to expect a true ff in the first twelve notes of the instrument; One can however write this nuance ff: the performer will interpret it given his/her best to produce its best sound possible. — There is a quite great range from pp to ff in the flute; nevertheless, one will notice that, on one hand, the low register is never really ff, on the other hand, the high register from D6 on is never really pp”.

11 English translation: “Generally speaking for the whole instrument set, the timbre becomes more splendorous and the sonority becomes stronger when it goes up towards the high register, whilst when going down towards the low register, the timbre becomes darker and the sonority decreases somehow”.

12 English translation: “An important advice regarding the ff: the performers must spend there too much blowing air; therefore, it is not possible to sustain a ff sound”.

13 Specifically in this example, this category is indifferent.

14 About the terms “realizable” and “realized”, see Fontanille & Zilberberg (1998, p. 130).

15 An english translation of this article was published with the title “On Anger: A Lexical Semantic Study” (Greimas, 1987, pp. 148-164).

16 English translation: “Natural language is in this respect a demonstration of what the history of a given culture has retained by way of passions among all the modal combinations possible” (Greimas & Fontanille 1993, p. 101).

17 English translation: “It is wrong to suppose that the productive process is at work only when the new formation actually occurs. The elements were already there. A newly formed word like in-décor-able already has a potential existence in language; all its elements are found in syntagms like dé-corer ‘decorate’, dé-coration ‘decoration’, pardonn-able ‘pardonable’, mani-able ‘manageable’: in-connu ‘unknown’, in-sensé ‘insane’, etc. and the final step of realizing it in speaking is a small matter in comparison with the build-up of forces that makes it possible” (Saussure 1959, p. 166).

18 About the definition of “veridiction”, see Greimas & Courtés (1979, pp. 417-418).

19 English translation: “And it is precisely the fiduciary dimension which is capable of showing the semiotic mechanism of the concession. The fiduciary dimension has as key-verb ‘to believe’ and, as an elementary alternance, the opposition: to-believe vs. not-to-believe”.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Table 1:
Légende Relational net of schema categories: pitch, note duration and loudness
Fichier image/png, 24k
Titre Table 2:
Légende Relational net of usage categories: tempo, dynamics and timbre
Fichier image/png, 25k
Titre Table 3:
Légende Expanded relational web of usage categories: tempo, dynamics, tessitura and timbre
Fichier image/png, 43k
Titre Table 4:
Légende Phonologic possible sequences in Brazilian Portuguese
Fichier image/jpeg, 31k
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Lucas Takeo Shimoda, « Semiotic Description of Timbre and Usage-Related Variants: An Exploratory Analysis of Orchestration Handbooks »Signata, 6 | 2015, 43-64.

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Lucas Takeo Shimoda, « Semiotic Description of Timbre and Usage-Related Variants: An Exploratory Analysis of Orchestration Handbooks »Signata [En ligne], 6 | 2015, mis en ligne le 31 décembre 2016, consulté le 30 novembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Lucas Takeo Shimoda

Lucas Takeo Shimoda has a bachelor degree in German Studies and Brazilian Studies at the São Paulo University with a two-semester academic exchange at the Eberhard-Karls Universität Tübingen and a master degree in Semiotics and General Linguistics at the São Paulo University. Besides his active participation at the organization of congresses at GES-USP (Group of Semiotic Research of the São Paulo University), he is also executive committee member of the brazilian academic journal Estudos Semióticos since 2012. His research focuses on the meaning effects produced by timbre within music as well as popular song from the point of view of the French Semiotics.

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