Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Mark Spicer

Committee Members

Jonathan Pieslak

L. Poundie Burstein

Zachary Wallmark

Subject Categories

Musicology | Music Theory


Yamaha DX7, synthesizers, timbre, instrumentation, 1980s, spectrograms


Two distinct approaches to timbre analysis exist, each with complementary strengths and limitations. First, music theorists from the 1980s adopt a positivist mindset and look for ways to quantify timbral phenomena, often using spectrograms, while avoiding any cultural dimensions in their work. Second, writings of the past five years focus on the cultural aspects of timbre but make no use of spectrograms. This dissertation builds upon these two approaches by synthesizing them: discussion is grounded in spectrogram analysis, but situated within a broad cultural context, through interactions with listener experience and ethnographic study of music periodicals and other published interviews. The theory is applicable to any genre of music, but 1980s popular music is used as a case study, with a particular focus on the Yamaha DX7 synthesizer, used in much of this music.

Chapter 1 outlines a methodology for timbre analysis and establishes a system of oppositional vocabulary for the analysis of the spectrogram. After providing a history of synthesizers in popular music to contextualize study of the Yamaha DX7 in Chapter 2, in Chapter 3, several hit singles using Yamaha DX7 preset sounds are analyzed in terms of texture and instrumentation, establishing three distinct categories of textural function: core, melody, and novelty sounds. Through the analysis of texture, instrumentation, and timbre, timbral norms are established for each of the three textural functions. Chapter 4 demonstrates how musical meaning can be created through the dialectic transgression of the norms articulated in Chapter 3. Chapter 5 focuses on the interactions between acoustic and cultural aspects of timbre through the close analysis of one particular DX7 preset, E. PIANO 1, which was often compared to the Fender Rhodes electric piano. A larger argument about the “’80s sound” is made by interweaving arguments from Chapters 3, 4, and 5. The 1980s can be retrospectively seen as a genre, created through a homogenization of timbre facilitated by the Yamaha DX7 presets. This description of the ’80s sound is valuable in its own right, but these studies also aim to show the value of studying timbre in music analysis more broadly.

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