Layers of Meaning:
Teaching Instrumentation and Texture

Megan Lavengood

University of Iowa School of Music Colloquium
May 3, 2024


  • Music theory as an area of research has become much more broad and inclusive.
  • But it’s difficult to reflect this in the classroom without resources.

Common critiques of theory and aural skills

  1. Theory classes should discuss more than just classical music.
  2. Theory classes spend too much time on form and (especially) pitch.
  3. Theory classes alienate our students, and function as weeder classes that are gatekeeping certain people from studying music in an academic setting, to the detriment of our departments and our field.

Loren Kajikawa
“The Possessive Investment in Classical Music:
Confronting Legacies of White Supremacy in U.S. Schools and Departments of Music"


  • Practical concerns about enrollment dips and budget
  • Ethical concerns about imperialism and exclusion

Robin Attas
“The Many Paths of Decolonization:
Exploring Colonizing and Decolonizing Analyses of
A Tribe Called Red’s ‘How I Feel’”

Dylan Robinson
Hungry Listening:
Resonant Theory for Indigenous Sound Studies


What can we do?

  • Appropriately circumscribe our work and recognize our positionality
  • Learn how to look at music in new and more holistic ways
screenshot 1
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Talk outline

  1. Define timbre’s multifaceted nature
  2. Suggest how different facets of timbre analysis would fit into different parts of an undergraduate music major curriculum
  3. Offer practical resources for incorporating timbre study into your own curricula, based on my own experience and expertise

Five “Conceptions” of timbre

Stephen McAdams, “‘What Is Timbre?’ vs. ‘What Can We Do with Timbre?’: Picking the Right Questions” (2018)

  1. Timbre as sound-source identification
  2. Acoustics of timbre
  3. Perceived timbre
  4. Timbre semantics
  5. Polyphonic timbre

Perceived timbre

  • Music perception and cognition
  • Cultural musicology


  • Physical, "objective" facts about sound signals
  • The impact of materials, spaces, etc. on timbre

Sound-source identification

  • Great for fundamentals and aural skills; important basis for later work too
  • Activity: identifying instruments by ear, with increasing precision and nuance


  • Great for written theory classes
  • Theory already spends a lot of time establishing vocabulary; this is a natural fit

Polyphonic Timbre

McAdams, Goodchild, and Soden, “A Taxonomy of Orchestral Grouping Effects Derived from Principles of Auditory Perception” (2022)

  • Analysis of texture: more than just “monophonic, polyphonic, homophonic”
  • Auditory stream analysis (ASA)

Textbooks and readings

Traditional textbooks don’t help much:

  • One (or one-half) chapter on texture/timbre
    • Benward/Saker
      (“Texture and textural reduction”)
    • Laitz
      (“Triads, Seventh Chords, and Texture”)
    • Roig-Francoli
      (“The Rudiments of Harmony II: Labeling Chords. Musical Texture.”)
  • No chapters on texture/timbre
    • Clendinning/Marvin
    • Aldwell/Schachter
    • Burstein/Straus
    • Kostka/Payne/Almèn

But Open Educational Resources (OER) do!

Textbooks and readings

Tim Chenette, Foundations of Aural Skills

Textbooks and readings

ACTOR Network, Timbre and Orchestration Resource

Textbooks and readings

Mark Gotham, Open Music Theory v. 2, Orchestration

Textbooks and readings

Megan Lavengood, chapter on texture in pop music

(Chapters on auditory scene analysis and timbre vocabulary coming soon)

Activities and Assessments

  • Music theory loves visuals: annotated scores, form charts, musical geometries, dot grids/coffee-bean grids
  • How to visually represent and assess timbre analyses?

Polyphonic Timbre: Functional Layers

  • Layer graphs show entrance and exit of different layers of a musical work
  • E.g.: Butler (2006, background), Dolan (2013), Lavengood (2021)
  • Probably created with Excel or programming toolkits for data science

Polyphonic Timbre: Functional Layers

Polyphonic Timbre: Auditory Scene Analysis

grouping processes diagram

sequential grouping

Polyphonic Timbre: Auditory Scene Analysis

Assignment: Auditory scene analysis. Ask students to analyze a few passages from an orchestral work, annotate the score, and apply terminology from McAdams et al. 2022. For example:

  • Annotate the score to show all streams, color-coding to show which instruments integrate into a single stream.
  • For a given integrated stream, indicate what type of blend is occuring: timbral augmentation, timbral emergence, or timbral heterogeneity.
  • Find an example of auditory streams being integrated in a surface texture.
  • Find one example for three out of the five possible timbral contrasts.

Timbre Semantics

  • Assignment: Use aural analysis to apply terminology to provided sound samples. Possible sound samples: single orchestral instruments, synthesized sounds, unpitched percussion, famous vocalists, distorted guitar…
  • Class discussion or free response question on how identity/background may have influenced analysis.

What if it was normal for the theory curriculum to look this way?


↓ bibliography again ↓