Philosophy, Psychology and Neuroscience

What is timbre realism?

Timbre is that quality of a sound that distinguishes it other than its pitch, loudness, or duration. Historically, it has often been thought of as the auditory analog of colour, that property of surfaces that distinguishes them other than location, orientation, and extent. The analogy between colour and timbre has been (implicitly) exploited in the philosophy of sound to motivate a form of timbre realism apparently analogous to colour physicalism—the view that colours reduce to surface spectral reflectance types. Timbre “physicalism” reduces timbre to the mechanical process types of distal sound-producing events. In this talk, I first offer some background from the psychophysics of timbre to further clarify the analogy between colour and timbre. However, some considerations from the physics of vibrating bodies will lead to the conclusion that timbre “physicalism” is ultimately disanalogous to colour physicalism. Rather, I argue, the reduction of timbres to distal mechanical process types is better understood as a form of ecological realism in the tradition of J. J. Gibson. I conclude with some morals for both the philosophy and the psychology of sound perception.