Week 3: Timbre (F18)

Last modified on August 4, 2023

This week we’ll talk about my research specialty: timbre. (I won’t have you read my research, since I feel that might be awkward to respond to, but I did upload my dissertation to our course readings folder if you are interested.) We will focus on Kate Heidemann’s excellent article on vocal timbre, and you will analyze a song a la Heidemann. This unit ends in a course meeting on Sept 12.

Due Friday, Sept 7

Introduction to timbre analysis

Read  sections 1–3 as your introduction to her approach to timbre analysis. (The sections are identified with paragraph numbers, so read paragraphs 1.x, 2.x, and 3.x, and stop at the heading Aretha Franklin’s Vocal Timbre in “Respect” and “Natural Woman”.)

I have chosen to focus on  because, unlike other approaches, her methodology requires no special equipment. Although this article focuses on popular song, it could be applied broadly to any type of repertoire.

I highly recommend actually trying to mimic these techniques out loud yourself. Heidemann’s approach is all about mimesis, so this will help you understand where she is coming from.

Concept check

Complete the Concept Check quiz on Blackboard to see if you are understanding Heidemann’s terminology.

Reading and response

Read Heidemann’s analysis of Aretha Franklin’s vocal timbre, from sections 4 onward (in other words, the parts you have not yet read).

Write a response essay (NB: NOT a summary!) to Heidemann’s article, at least 700 words long.
A response essay is your personal take on the readings, and thus you shouldn’t be trying to write the “right answer,” but rather your opinion and reaction to what you’ve read.

  • Thinking about timbre analysis generally (not specific to Heidemann), what do you see as the significant barriers to timbre analysis? In other words, music theory usually does not directly engage with timbre—why not?
  • Heidemann frequently references a persona in her analysis, which is brought out through vocal timbre. These concepts (vocal timbre and persona) pair together naturally, since we communicate with our voices. How might you use vocal timbre, persona, and narrative theory (discussed last week) together in analysis?
  • This article focuses on vocal timbre. How might it relate to instrumental timbre—if it does?
  • This article focuses on popular music. How might it relate to other types of music?


  • Go to Blackboard and navigate to your group blog.
  • Click the “create blog entry” button, and paste your text directly into the text box, rather than uploading an attachment.

Due Monday, Sept 10

Respond to peers

Respond to the members of your peer group by clicking the “comment” button under their blog post and typing your response directly into the text box, rather than uploading an attachment.

Analysis assignment

You will apply Heidemann’s approach to Nina Simone’s song, “Four Women.”  Simone creates four different personae through her vocal timbre, so there is a lot to think about here.

You can find the lyrics (with crowd-sourced annotations, which you can take with a grain of salt) on Genius.com here.


1. Listening

Listen to a recording of “Four Women” several times, paying attention of course to Simone’s vocal production. Pick one of the four women to focus on.

[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tXLUdLEpWT0[/embedyt]

Mimic the timbres of Simone’s voice with your own voice. Referencing Heidemann’s Table 1, do your best to put experience of producing that vocal timbre into words. Think also about your answers to Heidemann’s “Four-Part Embodied Comprehension of Vocal Timbre”:

  1. How do the vocal folds seem to be vibrating?
  2. What is the apparent position of the vocal tract?
  3. Where do sympathetic vibrations occur in the body?
  4. What is the apparent degree of breath support and muscular anchoring?
2. Analysis

Write a short analytical essay that does the following:

  1. Describe the persona you have chosen to focus on as she is depicted in the lyrics.
  2. Describe Simone’s vocal timbre (after Heidemann).
  3. Explain the link between the vocal timbre and the lyrics.


You will be evaluated on:

  • understanding of vocal production
  • accurate use of timbral classifications according to Heidemann
  • interpretation of the interaction between timbre and persona


  • Submit your assignment on Blackboard.
  • Upload your assignment as a .pdf attachment. Please do not use other file types.

Wednesday, Sept 12: In-class meeting

See you at 7:20!


If articles are not available online, you should be able to find them in the Readings folder.