Klangfarbenmelodie (German for "sound-color melody") is a musical technique that involves splitting a musical line or melody between several instruments, rather than assigning it to just one instrument (or set of instruments), thereby adding color (timbre) and texture to the melodic line. The technique is sometimes compared to "pointillism",[1] a neo-impressionist painting technique.


The term derives from Arnold Schoenberg's Harmonielehre,[2] where he discusses the creation of "timbre structures". Schoenberg and Anton Webern are particularly noted for their use of the technique, Schoenberg most notably in the third of his Five Pieces for Orchestra (Op. 16), and Webern in his Op. 10 (likely a response to Schoenberg's Op. 16), his Concerto for Nine Instruments (Op. 24), the Op. 11 pieces for cello and piano, and his orchestration of the six-part ricercar from Bach's Musical Offering:

Klangfarbenmelodie in Webern's arrangement of Bach's Ricercar

This may be compared with Bach's open score of the subject and the traditional homogeneous timbre used in arrangements:

Bach's open score of his Ricercar subject. Play

Schoenberg himself employed the technique in his 1928 orchestration of the "St. Anne" organ Prelude BWV 552 from J. S. Bach's Clavier-Übung III. Malcolm MacDonald says of this arrangement, "The gamut of colour—including harp, celesta and glockenspiel, six clarinets of various sizes, and a very agile bass tuba is brilliantly kaleidoscopic. The instrumentation has a serious purpose, however: it emphasizes structural divisions ... and, above all, brings out the individual contrapuntal lines."[3] A sequence of constantly changing timbres may be clearly heard in Schoenberg's rendering of the following passage:

Bach, St Anne prelude for organ, BWV552, bars 33-36
Bach "St Anne" Prelude for organ, BWV552, bars 33-36.

Notable examples of such voice distribution that preceded the use of the term may be found in music of the 18th and 19th centuries. John Eliot Gardiner says of the orchestral opening of J. S. Bach's Cantata Brich dem Hungrigen dein Brot, BWV 39, "Bach sets out almost tentatively in an introductory sinfonia with repeated quavers tossed from paired recorders to paired oboes to the strings and back over stiffly disjointed quavers in the continuo.":[4]

J.S.Bach, Cantata BWV39, opening bars
J. S. Bach Cantata BWV 39, opening bars.

In Beethoven's Symphony No. 3, ("Eroica"), first movement, according to George Grove, we hear "a succession of phrases of three notes, repeated by different instruments one after another":[5]

Beethoven Symphony 3, 1st movement, bars 45-49
Beethoven, Symphony No. 3, first movement, bars 45–49.

Similarly, in the fourth movement of Berlioz' Symphonie fantastique, ("March to the Scaffold"), the melody first appears as a descending scale played on 'cellos and basses:

Berlioz, descending scale theme from the March to the Scaffold bars 17-20
Descending scale theme from Berlioz' March to the Scaffold, bars 17–20.

Later, this melodic line is passed between the strings and the winds several times:

Berlioz, March to the Scaffold bars 109-12
Berlioz March to the Scaffold, bars 109–12.

There are further instances in the works of Claude Debussy:

Prélude à L'Après-midi d'un faune, bars, 35-40
Prélude à L'Après-midi d'un faune, bars 35-40

Regarding the latter, Samson writes: "To a marked degree the music of Debussy elevates timbre to an unprecedented structural status; already in Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune the color of flute and harp functions referentially."[6]

In the 1950s, the concept inspired a number of European composers including Karlheinz Stockhausen to attempt systematization of timbre along serial lines, especially in electronic music.[7]

During the late 20th century, musicians within the progressive rock genre experimented with using this compositional technique, a notable example being Gentle Giant. [citation needed]

See also


  1. ^ Rogers 2004, p. 147; Swenson 1978, p. xv; Nadel 1999, p. 245; Hoffer 2009, p. 275.
  2. ^ Schoenberg 1966, p. 503: Am Klang werden drei Eigenschaften erkannt: seine Höhe, Farbe und Stärke. [...] Die Bewertung der Klangfarbe, der zweiten Dimension des Tons, befindet sich also in einem noch viel unbebautern, ungeordetern Zustand [...]. Ist es nun möglich, aus Klangfarben, die sich der Höhen nach unterscheiden, Gebilde entstehen zu lassen, die wir Melodien nennen, Folgen, deren Zusammenhang eine gedankenänliche Wirkung hervorruft, dann muss es auch möglich sein, aus den Klangfarben der anderen Dimension, aus dem, was wir schlechtweg Klangfarben nennen, solche Folgen herzustellen, deren Beziehung untereinander mit einer Art Logik wirkt, ganz äquivalent jener Logik, die uns bei der Melodie der Klanghöhen genügt. ("In a musical sound (Klang) three characteristics are recognized: its pitch, color [timbre], and volume. [...] The evaluation of tone color (Klangfarbe), the second dimension of tone, is thus in a still much less cultivated, much less organized state [...]. Now, if it is possible to create patterns out of tone colors that are differentiated according to pitch, patterns we call 'melodies', progressions, whose coherence (Zusammenhang) evokes an effect analogous to thought processes, then it must also be possible to make such progressions out of the tone colors of the other dimension, out of that which we call simply 'tone color', progressions whose relations with one another work with a kind of logic entirely equivalent to that logic which satisfies us in the melody of pitches." English translation by Roy E. Carter in Schoenberg 1978, p. 421.)
  3. ^ MacDonald 1976, p. 197.
  4. ^ Gardiner 2014, p. 447.
  5. ^ Grove 1898, p. 60.
  6. ^ Samson 1977, p. 195.
  7. ^ Rushton 2001


Atonality and post-tonality