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Timbral Techniques

Alfred Cramer (Pomona College), Chair

Diegetic Sound? Re-thinking Musical Narrative by way of Experimental Hip Hop

Calder Hannan (Columbia University)


Fans of the experimental hip hop trio clipping. (sic) laud the intricately crafted sonic narratives that play out over the course of their songs and albums—so much so that two of their albums have recently been nominated as finalists in the Dramatic Presentation category for the prestigious Hugo Science Fiction Awards, a category in which a musical album had not been nominated since 1971. I point out that their aural narratives often incorporate “diegetic” sound into the production that accompanies rapped verses—that is, the production often includes sounds that have a clear causal root in the events being described in the lyrics. I argue that listening through the traditions of film sound, radio drama, and hip hop sketches provides paths better suited to understanding clipping.’s compelling stories than traditional music-theoretical approaches to musical narrative.

With analysis of two songs, I explore the complexities made possible by clipping.’s sonic and narrative strategies and demonstrate the utility of the diegetic framework. In both “Get Up” and “Run For Your Life,” sounds that are unambiguously diegetic at the outset become increasingly untethered from narrative “reality.” I conclude by suggesting that these uncanny sound worlds offer more immersive narrative experiences, but also problematize the easy, voyeuristic way in which listeners of this music might fetishize the violent stories being told.

Emergent Timbres and Motor Mimesis in Screw Music

Jeremy Tatar (McGill University)

bio for Jeremy Tatar

Originally from Sydney, Australia, Jeremy Tatar is a PhD candidate in Music Theory at Montreal’s McGill University, where he is supervised by Jonathan Wild. His main research interests include rap and hip-hop, meter, and disability studies. In 2019, his paper on metric transformations in hip-hop sampling practice co-won the inaugural student award at the Annual Meeting of the Society for Music Theory.


Screw Music, also known as “Chopped and Screwed,” is a sub-genre of hip-hop that developed in the 1990s in Houston, Texas. Created primarily by slowing and pitching down existing recordings, Screw Music is often described as sounding sluggish, woozy, and disorienting. 

My presentation explores the unique affective qualities of Screw Music, using two concepts drawn from recent research into timbre as my foundation: the notion of an emergent timbre and the motor mimetic hypothesis. An emergent timbre typically arises from the seamless blending of several sounds, one which exhibits qualities not readily present in any element alone. To describe the characteristic timbral features that result from the paired lowering of pitch and tempo in Screw Music, I adapt this concept to encompass an emergent timbral transformation. Next, I suggest that this effect is overwhelmingly perceived by listeners somatically. The motor mimetic hypothesis argues that our comprehension of music at least partially results from our imagining of making those sounds ourselves—this appears to be especially true with Screw Music. Finally, I mobilise these observations into a brief analysis of a scene from the Barry Jenkins film Moonlight (2016), whose emotional climax is diegetically scored by a Screw Music song.

Accounts of timbre in hip-hop have typically focused on either its role in distinguishing a song’s textural layers or its indexical potential for nostalgia. My study foregrounds the relationship between this music’s sound and the listening body, and in so doing hopes to expand our understanding of timbre’s social dimensions. 

Supplementary Material(s)

Opening the Door: A Multifaceted Approach to the Analysis of Text Setting in Kate Soper’s Door (2007)

Joshua Rosner (McGill University)


The majority of Kate Soper’s (b. 1981) output as a composer-vocalist focuses intensely on the relationship between words and music. Methods of text and music analysis have primarily focused on relating musical materials to the semantic meaning of texts or have studied the ways composers musicalize sounds and use the materiality of poetry. Building on past scholarship and drawing from Soper’s program note to Door (2007), a setting of poems by Martha Collins for soprano, flute, tenor saxophone, accordion, and electric guitar, I develop a model that looks beyond semantics to investigate the roles of acoustic and aesthetic properties of words. My novel approach examines the relationship between music and words through four different but interrelated interpretive lenses: 1. Literal, 2. Figurative, 3. Acoustic, and 4. Aesthetic.

I demonstrate my methodology using the third movement of Door as a case study. I use Literal interpretation to interrogate the text setting and piece-specific associations developed by Soper. My Figurative interpretation draws on the meaning of the words and extrapolates meaning from the poem before finding sonic analogues within the music. Acoustic interpretation involves inspecting the phonemes and acoustic envelopes of words and relating them to Soper’s choice of instruments. Finally, I observe which qualities of the poem and text resonate with me and through Aesthetic interpretation I attempt to understand what makes these qualities appealing. This multifaceted approach opens the door to consideration of new dimensions of comparison between text and music.