Timbre vs. Texture

This is a post I’ve been meaning to write for some time, and having just returned from a recording gig in Montana, it seems like a perfect time to address one of the usual topics in my workshops: Timbre vs Texture.

First, some working definitions: Timbre is what makes an instrument’s tone distinct. We can hear two instruments play the exact same pitch in the exact same temperament, and still distinguish between the two. Texture is a bit less precise, yet it’s language we often use when describing music: full, silky, glassy, brittle, floating, etc.

In the specific context of playing keys, an understanding of the difference between the two is crucial. Generally speaking, keyboard players – especially those in a church setting – have far more timbres at their disposal than they need, yet they take advantage of far too few. The advent of workstation keyboards in the 90′s brought thousands of sounds packaged in the form of complex monstrosities with inscrutable menu systems. And when presented with these intimidating instruments, the normal classically trained pianist defaulted to the sound that was invariably A001: Grand Piano. Perhaps they became adventurous and found A004: Piano + Strings.

Inevitably, each song in the repertory became tied to a specific patch, regardless of the lineup of the band or the arrangement of the song. A piano song was always a piano song, and the Come to Jesus slow jam required strings, or the Holy Spirit wouldn’t show up.

With modern worship being what it is, there’s another side to this issue. Most modern records do their best U2 impression, complete with guitars run through the entire Strymon inventory and more synth than even Brian Eno would care to listen to. The sounds are multi-layered and complex, often with guitar and keys working together in a sort of 100 bpm space rock gestalt.

It’s just not something that the normal volunteer church musician is equipped to duplicate.

So, when presented with thousands of sounds, a guitar player who has more pedals than paychecks, and a worship leader with delusions of Bono-hood, what’s the keyboard player to do? Play it like they’ve always played it for the last 15 years while mentally flipping the bird? Try desperately to duplicate a sound? Turn up A013: Slow Pad and throw a brick on the sustain pedal?

Well, no.

With a little bit of thought and some willingness to experiment, there’s an opportunity to have some real creative input into the overall sound. Here are some questions to ask yourself:

What’s the vibe?

That is, what are the bass and drums doing, what’s the style of the groove? A song that is “always piano” might turn into something different based on the groove alone.

What other instruments are playing?

Who else am I sharing sonic space with? Standard 5 piece rock band? Acoustic guitar and upright bass? Something else?

Without using names of instruments, what describes the sound I’m “hearing” for the keys?

Does it sustain, is it percussive, is it thin, is it full, is it high or low, etc. What describes the sonic hole I’m trying to fill?

Using that description, what timbres might fit?

Here’s where you have to start being adventurous. Sure, that Slow Pad you always play might work, but what about whole notes on a Rhodes? Or perhaps a warm Hammond with reverb? Start branching out. Knowing your instrument is important here, as you don’t want to waste rehearsal time beeping and booping through several hundred sounds. Take time outside of rehearsal to gain a knowledge of what’s available, and use the texture language to describe it.

What’s not quite right?

Is the timbre close, but not quite there? Use the texture language to describe what’s not right. Maybe the part itself needs a melodic or rhythmic change. Again, think about the texture of the sound, and describe the changes in those terms.

Now, certainly some of your “catalog” songs will probably tend to be similar each time you play them, especially if your lineup is relatively similar from week to week. But remember, playing with a band is always active and reactive: even as you’re informing your part based on the other players, your part will in turn inform changes in theirs.

…at least, it will in a healthy band situation, but that’s a topic for another day.

About Jon

Jon Meek is a musician from Chattanooga, TN. With over a decade of experience recording, performing, teaching, and writing music, he's played everything from experimental rock Halloween shows to a multi-thousand member church conference.

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  1. Colleen Locke
    April 14, 2014 at 1:03 pm #

    Amen, Johnathon. So you were listening all those years ago in lessons! Your music teacher … Mrs. Locke.

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