Another interesting subject discussed in “This Is Your Brain on Music” is that of timbre, or tone, or whatever you want to call what makes a saxophone sound different from a piano. It comes down to the fact that — as most people know — sounds are vibrations. When you pluck an A string on a guitar, while its most prominent vibration is that of 440 Hz, there are other, less noticeable vibrations occurring as well — what music blowhards refer to as the overtone series. The volume of these overtones in relation to each other and the master note is what defines the timbre of an instrument.
At some point in the 60s or so, academics started fooling around with synthesized sounds, experimenting with new balances between the overtone series and the primary note. This gave birth to the modern keyboard synthesizer which is capable of an endless variety of new sounds — just keep tweaking the volumes of those overtones.
This all leads me to reassess the career of Robert Plant. In the mid-80s, in the middle of his post-Led Zeppelin solo career, he switched away from the hard rock style he had become famous for, and moved towards synth heavy pop rock. And a lot of people in the hard rock world called him a homo, or dick sucker, or ball licker, or cock sniffer for his sudden preference for “soft” keyboard sounds. And I suppose that summarized my view of his transition as well. But, as I think about the science behind the synthesizer, I come to appreciate Plant’s experimentation. As mentioned in an earlier blog, part of what intrigues us about music is variety — the sound of something new. Plant recognized that the sound of a synthesizer —- with its ability to endlessly alter the overtone series — was capable of innumerable subtle changes to timbre. And, after years of listening to Jimmy Page’s Les Paul through a Marshall, Plant wanted something different.
Who’s the dick sucker now?