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The Concept of Textural Value. Adopting Terminology from the Theory of Light

Theodoros Lotis

Theodoros Lotis, Music Department, Ionian University


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Could parts of the theory of light, as we know it since Newton’s era provide us with adequate terminology for the analysis and appreciation of electroacoustic music? This paper examines the use of terminology that springs from parts of the theory of light, applied to thenelectroacoustic music, highlighting the intimate connections between the visual and the auditory, and suggesting that music is not solely an auditory experience. Furthermore, the extra-musical nature of various sonic parameters cannot be addressed solely with reference to musical language, but should include possible relationships and analogies with other forms of art and, in general, with aspects of life. Hence, the concept of Textural Value is introduced as a unifying feature that relates sonic parameters and attributes with light, contributing to a meaningful understanding of music. The terms of Frequency and Amplitude, Hue, Saturation, and the Brightness of a sound are presented as co-ordinates that unify aspects of sound and light. This notion of unity manifests itself at two levels:

a) micro-structural
This level is concerned with metaphorical applications of light (transparency-opacity) within local structural groups or topographies. The co-ordinates of textural value are manipulated in such a way to suggest representations of light and shadows that establish local environments.

b) macro-structural
That level deals with temporal progress and morphological considerations at a higher level of application. Temporal transitions are significant structural tools, which emphasise the transformations between spectral transparency and opacity.

Textural Value contains the totality of meaningless and meaningful information that allows the listener to develop an interactive relation with the sonic material. Objective parameters, such as amplitude and frequency (meaningless), and subjective attributes, such as hue, saturation and brightness (meaningful) are co-ordinates that define the perceived textural value.

According to Williamson and Cummins "...hue is the attribute that we denote by such adjectives as red, yellow and green. It is an obvious feature of monochromatic light that varies with wavelength and therefore is used to denote various regions of the spectrum". In sonic terms, hue can be described as the wavelength classification of a sound within the low, medium or high regions of the spectrum. It may refer to monochromatic frequencies but does not contain information regarding their spectromorphological behaviour. Hue may also specify the prominent frequency of a complex sound thus indicating the primary spectral region (low, medium or high). In the first case, the hue of a sound can be compared to monochromatic light. It indicates a sine wave, the individual and atomic existence within the spectrum that cannot be further subdivided (monochromatic hue). In the second case of a more complex sound, polychromatic hue gives an indication of the spectral region within which the sound appears.

Saturation refers to the lack of whiteness in a colour, or more precisely, how much a colour differs from white. This means that white light contains no saturation at all and, to the contrary, the state of a monochromatic light is associated with saturation. Monochromatic is regarded as the most saturated form of a particular colour. In the sonic world we are used to referring to saturation in an opposite way: the overloading of the spectrum. Also, during the electronic production of sound, the strength of a signal can create saturation. In my approach, saturation should be regarded as an integral characteristic of the sound rather than a technical by-product. Hence, for my purposes, I will draw analogies from the visual world and will be referring to saturation as the state where a sound cannot be further divided into pure constituents: the state of atomic existence. In other words, saturation is how much a sound differs from white noise. For example, a monochromatic frequency (sine wave) is totally saturated. On the contrary, white noise is completely unsaturated. The degree of saturation, or how much saturation a sound has, indicates the ability or inability to be further subdivided into simplest sonic entities. Consequently, saturation is connected to hue. A monochromatic hue is characterised by maximum saturation whilst a polychromatic hue is less saturated. At the other end of this continuum, white noise is completely unsaturated because it lacks a dominant hue and accordingly should be called achromatic.

Brightness is the most difficult attribute to define. It describes the perceived intensity of light. Brightness will be associated with spectral transparency and/or opacity. Using this association, one can accept that whenever a sound is perceived without any obstructions, distractions or masking effects it is characterised by transparency. A transparent spectrum is thus a spectrum that contains a small number of frequencies, which are not close together. On the contrary, a dense spectrum within which masking effects and other distractions, such as differences in amplitude occur is characterised by opacity. Consequently, if we need to identify a pair of boundaries for the continuum transparency-opacity I suggest we accept that a monochromatic and saturated hue, which is perceived with no obstructions or other sounds near to it, is characterised by transparency while achromatic and unsaturated white noise is associated with opacity. Therefore, brightness, or the lack of it, refers to how transparent or opaque a spectrum is perceived to be. Luminosity and obscurity can also be used as alternative terms for the description of brightness.

Hue, saturation and brightness are comparative attributes that result from opposite associations and describe the Textural Value of a sound. An opposite association for example, is that the less saturated a sound is, the more polychromatic its hue becomes.

The concept of Textural Value is introduced in order to provide a context within which the totality of meaningless sensory data and meaningful understandings occur, and to offer the adequate terminology to describe it. It also provokes associations that can prove useful when they are used in a comparative way, comparing the attributes of colours with those of sounds. Textural Value provides a workable, though partly subjective, system for describing sounds that can be used by composers as a strategic map for shaping spectromorphologies, and as an analytical tool for categorising sounds.