Dissecting Vocal Timbre: A Proposal for Categorizing and Notating Sounds for Choirs

The use of timbral variations and extended techniques for the voice are becoming increasingly popular to incorporate in choral compositions, but there is no consistent categorization of these sounds or how to notate them. This lack of consistency requires each composer to create a unique set of arbitrary symbols that capture their timbral instructions, and each conductor to learn those symbols for every piece they perform.

This session proposes a set of categories for choral timbre and a notation based on the spectrograph shapes of these vocal techniques, thus creating an intuitive, scientifically derived, and analytically replicable set of timbres for choral compositions. Specifically, we will look at familiar and discernable types of ensemble singing such as Broadway belting, the Balkan choral tradition, and Tuvan Throat-Singing, and then we will analyze the spectral shape for each and apply them to specific shape notes. The session will include live recordings and score examples from existing pieces in the choral repertoire that incorporate these timbres and proposed notation within a single composition.

Rather than having vocal timbre be dictated by genre or style, this proposal offers an opportunity for composers, conductors, and performers a consistent and approachable method for incorporating an expressive variety of sounds into the choral experience and a notation system that is easy to use, intuitive, and based on reproducible timbres.