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The Semantics of Timbre

Saitis, Charalampos; Weinzierl, Stefan

Because humans lack a sensory vocabulary for auditory experiences, timbral qualities of sounds are often conceptualized and communicated through readily available sensory attributes from different modalities (e.g., bright, warm, sweet) but also through the use of onomatopoeic attributes (e.g., ringing, buzzing, shrill) or nonsensory attributes relating to abstract constructs (e.g., rich, complex, harsh). The analysis of the linguistic description of timbre, or timbre semantics, can be considered as one way to study its perceptual representation empirically. In the most commonly adopted approach, timbre is considered as a set of verbally defined perceptual attributes that represent the dimensions of a semantic timbre space. Previous studies have identified three salient semantic dimensions for timbre along with related acoustic properties. Comparisons with similarity-based multidimensional models confirm the strong link between perceiving timbre and talking about it. Still, the cognitive and neural mechanisms of timbre semantics remain largely unknown and underexplored, especially when one looks beyond the case of acoustic musical instruments.
Published in: Timbre: Acoustics, Perception, and Cognition, 10.1007/978-3-030-14832-4_5, Springer