Spectro-morphology and Structuring Processes

  • Denis Smalley


The development of Western music in the twentieth century is dominated by an historic bifurcation in musical language: tonality with its metrically organized harmonic and melodic relationships has continued to be the vernacular language, absorbed unconsciously from birth, while the other fork, in its most recent guise, is represented by spectro-morphology2. Spectromorphology is an approach to sound materials and musical structures which concentrates on the spectrum of available pitches and their shaping in time. In embracing the total framework of pitch and time it implies that the vernacular language is confined to a small area of the musical universe. Developments such as atonality, total serialism, the expansion of percussion instruments, and the advent of electroacoustic media, all contribute to the recognition of the inherent musicality in all sounds. But it is sound recording, electronic technology, and most recently the computer, which have opened up a musical exploration not previously possible. Spectro-morphology is a way of perceiving and conceiving these new values resulting from a chain of influences which has accelerated since the turn of the century. As such it is an heir to Western musical tradition which at the same time changes musical criteria and demands new perceptions.


Harmonic Spectrum Centric Motion Spectral Space Musical Work Musical Structure 
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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1986

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  • Denis Smalley

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