Cognitive scientist, musicologist and former rock musician Daniel J. Levitin describes what happens when a Bell Labs researcher named John R. Pierce, who sounds a little (shall we say?) unworldly, asks Levitan to select a few songs and "explain rock music to him."
Pierce listened and kept asking who these people were, what instruments he was hearing, and how they came to sound the way they did. Mostly, he said he liked the timbres of the music. The songs themselves and the rhythms didn't interest him that much, but he found the timbres to be remarkable -- new, unfamiliar and exciting. ... Timbre was what defined rock for Pierce, and it was a revelation to both of us.Elsewhere Levitan defines timbre ("a kind of tonal color produced in part by overtones from the instrument's vibrations") as everything about the way music sounds that isn't melody, harmony, or rythmn -- in effect, as everything that isn't strictly "musical." Quite an insight. It helps explain why a particular recorded performance of a song becomes definitive in rock in a way that isn't true (or not to the same degree) of jazz or classical pieces. And it helps solidify rock's position as the favorite music of the non-musical.