Week 9 (Oct 17): Timbre (F22)

Last modified on August 4, 2023

The final unit deals with pop music. You will need to familiarize yourself with pop form terminology if you are not already comfortable with terms like verse, chorus, prechorus, bridge, or refrain.

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 you can access my article outlining my methodology here 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.


Form in pop music

Read about form in pop/rock music to think about why/how we classify things as verses, choruses, etc. If this is your first time with these ideas, you may first want to read this overview.

Complete the Concept Check quiz on Blackboard to see if you are understanding pop forms properly.

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.

Due Thursday: A little more 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).

In the Reading Responses channel on Teams, post a message with some type of response about the readings/videos. You may either make a new post or reply to someone else’s post (both count for this participation grade). You can approach this in a bunch of different ways! You might ask clarifying questions about the reading, summarize an important bit of it, share a related personal anecdote…anything counts, as long as it relates to the reading in some way.

  • 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 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?

Due Sunday*: Student Choice Assignment

* Student Choice Assignments are not required for everyone. You only need to complete this week’s analysis if this is one of your three chosen assignments. Student Choice Assignments are explained further on the syllabus.

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.

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 (500 words max!) 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 only your short essay.
  • Submit your assignment on Blackboard.
  • Upload your assignment as a .pdf attachment. Please do not use other file types.



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

Heidemann, Kate. 2016. “A System for Describing Vocal Timbre in Popular Song.” Music Theory Online 22 (1). https://doi.org/10.30535/mto.22.1.2.