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Book Chapter

The Naturalization of Timbre: Two Case Studies


Hui,  Alexandra E.
Max Planck Research Group Epistemes of Modern Acoustics, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Max Planck Society;

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Hui, A. E. (2018). The Naturalization of Timbre: Two Case Studies. In E. Dolan, & A. Rehding (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Timbre (pp. 1-20). Oxford: Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780190637224.013.13.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/21.11116/0000-0003-560A-2
This chapter explores the use of timbre in scientific studies of animal vocalizations in the decades around the end of the twentieth century. In the first case, I examine the efforts of naturalists and ornithologists to represent timbre in their notation of bird song in the field. The second case study discusses current work in cognitive science to better understand the origins of human language and music through the study of songbirds. I argue that by assuming—implicitly, then explicitly—timbral perception in non-human species, the naturalists and scientists in both episodes are attempting to make timbre natural. These efforts to naturalize and universalize the perceptual importance of timbre as biologically meaningful says more about our ongoing inability to define timbre in some form other than by what it is not. Here too, timbre is not what birds hear, or at least not what they necessarily care about.