Dr. Richard Puzzo Tone quality is an obscure term that is sometimes difficult to comprehend, yet it is something that musicians are encouraged to contort and master to give feeling to pieces of music. It is an aspect of music that is challenging to “see” and even define. In his articles, “Quality of Tone: Timbre” and “Quality of Tone: Sonance”, Carl E. Seashore tackles this problem.
He uses instruments to map out tones and provide a scientific and tangible explanation of tone quality in its separate parts. In this research paper, I will explore the life of Carl E. Seashore, summarize both articles, and discuss Seashore’s purpose for writing these articles. The two articles on the psychology of music, “Quality of Tone: Timbre” and “Quality of Tone: Sonance” were both written by Carl E. Seashore. According to Kendall (2012), Seashore was a leader of psychology who spent most of his time at the University of Iowa. Born in Morlunda, Sweden in 1866, Seashore made his journey to Iowa in 1869 at the age of three (Kendall, 2012). Kendall (2012) adds that Carl Seashore graduated from Gustavus Adolphus College with a BA and continued his education, receiving a Ph.D in Psychology from Yale University.
According to Kendall (2012), Seashore returned to Iowa as an assistant professor and began teaching and researching at the University of Iowa before becoming a professor in 1905 and later the Dean of the Graduate School. Kendall (2012) goes on to add that beyond his successful career, Seashore invented the Seashore Rhythm Test, Meier-Seashore Art Judgment Test, Pitch Range Audiometer, Tonoscope, Chronoscope, Time-sense Apparatus, and Stimulus Key, as well as published 237 books and articles. According to Kendall (2012), Carl Seashore died at the age of 83 in 1949. The first of the two articles, “Quality of Tone: Timbre”, breaks down timbre, the first of the two fundamentals of tone quality. The purpose of this first article was to use timbre to gain a correct conception of tone quality.
Seashore (1936), describes timbre as reliant on harmonic structure or the number, intensity, and absolute pitch of the harmonics in a tone. Carl Seashore (1936) used a device called an oscillograph to record an oscillogram which he then ran through a harmonic analyzer to create diagrams of the sound that broke the pitch down into partials or the fundamental and its overtones. The harmonic analyzer created these partial diagrams by determining the partials present out of a possible forty and then calculate what percent of energy that partial provides within the whole tone (Seashore 1936). The second article, “Quality of Tone: Sonance”, explains sonance and its relationship with timbre in reference to tone quality. The purpose of Seashore’s second article was to understand how all the elements of tone quality fluctuate over the period of the tone’s duration.
According to Seashore (1936), sonance is defined as, “…that aspect of tone quality which results from fluctuations in pitch, intensity, and timbre within a tone” (p. 20). Unlike his article on timbre, Carl Seashore does not specify the instruments he used to record and diagram sonance, instead referring to them as “laboratory instruments”. However, Seashore (1936) does refer to a diagram that dissects the tone of a baritone note, showing the average relative intensity of each partial and how it varies. The dissection breaks down the serial numbers of the sound waves, intensity in inverse ratio, pitch levels of the fundamental, and the partials (Seashore 1936).
Throughout the two articles, Carl Seashore says things that are imperative to music education and musicians. In his article on timbre, Seashore (1936) says, “The number and location of these formants distinguish one vowel from another. Such distinctions are, of course, important for the selection of vowels on which tones are to be sung” (p. 26). This observation is important for choirs to note when singing phrases in unison. Since each vowel has its own distinct set of formants (overtone intensity patterns), it is important for everyone to sing the same vowel in the same manner so that everyone matches in timbre and tone quality.
When referring to vibrato and sonance, Seashore (1936) explains, “If the changes are strong and irregular, we get the quality of roughness. If they are smooth and moderate, we may get the qualities of flexibility, tenderness and richness of tone” (p. 22). This is important in music because it explains how to evoke a feeling from a listener through vibrato. Seashore notes that to create a ‘pleasing’ sound with richness, the performer must create a sonance where the changes in the tone are smooth. Also, in the article on sonance, Seashore (1936) continues saying, “The changes in timbre probably bear only a minor role in sonance, because the changes in pitch and intensity, singly or together, are simpler and therefore more conspicuous perceptually” (p. 21). This statement clarifies that a change in timbre will not affect the sonance because the pitch change is easier to comprehend.
To accurately portray a piece of music, a performer will need to understand the separation of timbre and sonance as well as their effect on how the feeling of the music is perceived and adjust accordingly. Carl E. Seashore was an author who wrote with purpose. He wrote in an analytical fashion, researching his subject in depth and drawing on those results to write his articles. Seashore writes both articles with emphasis on how he collected the research and how to understand it before he dives into the application of the research in music education and performance. His writing is directed towards students, teachers, and performers who want to understand the physics behind the sound of music. Seashore wrote these articles to take the obscurity of the term ‘tone quality’ and define it into tangible terms that could be measured, deciphered, and understood. This motive is obvious in the beginning of his article on timbre and the ending of the sonance article.
Seashore (1936) begins saying, “From an understanding of these two, we should gain a correct conception of tone quality” (p. 24). He ends the two articles with, “…I recommend that musicians scrap their whole repertoire of synonyms for tone quality-such as “tone color”-because these words do not connote any demonstrable difference in content” (Seashore, 1936, p. 22). These two quotes show that Seashore’s purpose was to help musicians and teachers to understand that the term, ‘tone-quality’, did not need to be a vague concept when it could be clearly defined.
Seashore (1936) concludes his articles saying that ‘tone-quality’ should be used in the technical sense of sonance. After learning about Carl E. Seashore, reading both of his articles on quality of tone, and dissecting his purpose for writing them, I have a better understanding of tone-quality and the factors that affect it. The article that discussed timbre was relatively easy to read and understand as it explained the research process and featured multiple graphs.
Conversely, the article on sonance was far more difficult to comprehend and had less information on the process of gathering data. I would like to read an article that describes the instruments and the process used to create the harmonic structure diagram seen in Figure 1 of the second article. Another aspect these articles addressed that I would enjoy delving into, is the separation of timbral changes and overall changes in sonance. It would be interesting to see an experiment or study that determines which change affects the emotion of a musical piece. Although I am left with questions, it is clear that Carl E. Seashore effectively removed the confusion behind tone quality through his articles on timbre and sonance.