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Tonal colour

Our eyes are used to seeing colour. The sky in the morning is different from the sky at midday. A person’s face may be pale, bright or sombre. We can also say we perceive colours with our ears. Sometimes the key to a piece of music is whether it sounds bright, soft or dark.

Stories have different narrators. When we read a conversation between a grandfather and a child, we hear the voices of an old man and a small child in our minds. In music, tonal colour means what the music sounds like, and it too can say something about who is telling the story: is the melody played by a bright flute, a piercing trumpet or a hum of strings? What the narrator sounds like tells us who is speaking and what their state of mind is. Sometimes composers use the orchestra as a huge palette of colours. What instruments would you use to illustrate sparkling colours?


Tonal colour in the Renaissance era
In the Renaissance era, the majority of music was sung, but instruments might be used to support singers or to play all of the music if no singers were available. Today, performances of Renaissance vocal music are typically a cappella, i.e. without instrumental accompaniment, and a light vocal tone with little vibrato is preferred.

Tonal colour in the Baroque era
In the Baroque era, instrumental music gained equality with vocal music. The musical thinking of this era was based on affects, meaning specific emotional states expressed in music. Various nuances or concrete musical figures were used to express particular feelings such as joy or sorrow, or even abstract notions such as becoming lost. Improvisation was an essential part of music-making in this era. No one ever played the same piece of music in the same way twice; musicians added their own ornaments to whatever they were playing, according to their skill and taste. The lineup of the orchestra became increasingly standardised, and as a result tonal colour became an important element in music.

Tonal colour in the Classical era
The symphony orchestra as we know it today came to be established in the Classical era. The major change at this time was that wind instruments came to be regarded as an equal and important part of the ensemble. Recorders were replaced with transverse flutes, and clarinets were added to the woodwind section.

Tonal colour in the Romatic era
Orchestras became increasingly massive, up to the huge ensemble required for Mahler’s famous Eighth Symphony (nicknamed the Symphony of a Thousand). The point of larger size was to find more variation in expression and dynamics. Also, new instruments were developed for variety of tonal colour. The most common today of these new instruments are the saxophone and the Wagner tuba. The new, purpose-built opera house built by Wagner at Bayreuth revolutionised opera performances by having a darkened auditorium and an orchestra hidden from the sight of the audience.

Tonal colour in Impressionism
Tonal colour is at the very core of Impressionism. Composers sought varied colours in their music through instrumentation and harmony: bright, dark, light, shadow. The mood is the most important element.

Tonal colour in expressionism
Tonal colour became one of the most important dimensions of music. New means of expression were sought by using instruments at the extremities of their ranges or by inventing new playing techniques. Arnold Schönberg developed a half-speaking, half-singing mode of vocal expression known as Sprechgesang.

Tonal colour in the modern era
Some composers have brought tonal colour to the fore as the most important element in their music. Such composers may write music that is a rough surface or a shiny field but with no melody. Compositions may also be based on noise.


Elements of music
Musical eras