We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more

E-book purchase
Choose a subscription

Downloaded copy on your device does not expire. Includes 4 years of Bookshelf Online.


Where applicable, tax will be added to the above price prior to payment.

E-book purchasing help


Nothing but Noise

Timbre and Musical Meaning at the Edge

Zachary Wallmark

Publication Date - 04 February 2022

ISBN: 9780190495107

232 pages
6 1/8 x 9 1/4 inches

In Stock


Nothing but Noise: Timbre and Musical Meaning at the Edge explores how timbre shapes musical affect and meaning. Integrating perspectives from musicology with the cognitive sciences, author Zachary Wallmark advances a novel model of timbre interpretation that takes into account the bodily, sensorimotor dynamics of sound production and perception. The contribution of timbre to musical experience is clearest in drastic situations where meaning is itself contested; that is, in polarizing contexts of reception where evaluation of "musical" timbre by some listeners collides headlong against a competing claim-that it is just "noise." Taking this ubiquitous moment as a starting point, the book explores affect, reception, and timbre semantics through diverse cultural-historical case studies that frustrate the acoustic and perceptual boundary between musical sound and noise.

Nothing but Noise includes chapters on the racial and gender politics in the reception of free jazz saxophone "screaming" in the late 1960s; an analysis of contested timbral ideals in the performance practices of the Japanese shakuhachi flute; and an historical examination of the overlooked role of "brutal" timbres in the moral panic over heavy metal in the eighties and nineties. The book closes with a discussion of the slippery social fault lines separating perceptions of musical sound from noise and the ethical stakes of encountering another's "aural face."


  • First book to present an interdisciplinary theory on the contribution of timbre to musical meaning
  • Synthesizes original empirical results with humanistic interpretation
  • Includes case study essays on free jazz, Japanese shakuhachi music, and heavy metal
  • Incorporates the widest possible range of methodologies, from experimental psychology to continental ethics to reception studies and cultural theory
  • Connects analysis of timbre to the paradigm of embodied cognition

About the Author(s)

Zachary Wallmark teaches musicology and music cognition at the University of Oregon. His interdisciplinary research on timbre and popular music has been supported by the NEH and the GRAMMY Museum Foundation. He is coeditor (with Robert Fink and Melinda Latour) of The Relentless Pursuit of Tone: Timbre in Popular Music (Oxford, 2018).


"Every musicologist should read this book, and it is required reading for those dealing with the cognition of music. Essential." -- CHOICE

"In this book Zachary Wallmark confronts head on an aspect of musical practice that is at once elusive and essential: the enduring mystery of timbre. In Wallmark's hands, however, this mystery does not so much endure as become an entry point for exploring the bases of musical expression. Through a splendid blend of empirical research and humanistic inquiry, set out in lucid and approachable prose, he explains how timbre matters as well as why it matters. This is a foundational study that should be read by anyone who has wondered about why music matters, and by everyone who cares about how music shapes our social interactions." -- Lawrence Zbikowski, Addie Clark Harding Professor of Music and the Humanities at the University of Chicago

"With this book, Zachary Wallmark has made an ambitious contribution to the famously elusive study of musical timbre...Wallmark succeeds admirably in avoiding the shortcomings of both the scientific desire to study sound in isolation from the messiness of human subjectivity and the humanistic reduction of musical experience to the arbitrary play of cultural difference. His book is perhaps best viewed as an attempt not so much to bridge the 'two cultures' as to harmonize their best qualities." -- Thomas Patteson, Journal of the American Musicological Society

Table of Contents

    The Meaning of Timbre

    I. Fundamental
    Chapter 1: Body and Emotion in the Sonic Act
    Chapter 2: Conceptualizing Timbre: From Material to Metaphor
    II. Spectrum
    Chapter 3: The Most Powerful Human Sound Ever Created: Theorizing the Saxophonic Scream in Free Jazz
    Chapter 4: Sound and Embodiment in the Japanese Shakuhachi
    Chapter 5: Vector of Brutality: Madness, Violence, and Contagion in Heavy Metal Reception
    III. Resonance
    Chapter 6: The Aural Face