Pierre Schaeffer
Date of publication: 

A precursor to Denis Smalley's Spectromorphology, Pierre Schaeffer's Typo-morphology offers a slightly different approach to the analysis and understanding of sound-based music. Originally introduced in Schaeffer's book Traité des Object Musicaux, published in 1966, it was presented as part of a variety of concepts ranging from listening modes and the sound object.

What is Typo-Morphology?

Typo-Morphology is an analytical approach specifically for acousmatic music. As its name suggests it is separated into defining the type of sound and its morphology. It requires that the analyst understands other Schaefferian terms such as reduced listening and sound objects, both of which play an extremely important role in Typo-Morphology.

Arguably, it was not adopted within the English speaking world as a translation of Traité des Object Musicaux still does not exist. Fortunately a translation of Michel Chion's book Guide des Objets Sonores, a book explaining Schaeffer's theories in a slightly more manageable way, has been done by both John Dack and Christine North and can be found on the EARS website.

The Typo-Morphology framework

Chion discusses three stages in applying the typo-morphology of sound objects within the Guide Des Objets Sonores: identification (segmenting sound objects within a piece), classification (using the typology terms) and description (describing the sounds morphology in detail) (Chion 1994: 124).


Simply put, Schaeffer makes a distinction between two types of sounds: balanced sounds and unbalanced sound. Furthermore, he adds the idea of sustainment and iteration to expand the typology beyond simple impulses.

Balanced Sounds

Balanced sounds are identified because they have a "good compromise between the too structured and the too simple" and are comprehensible in short term memory (Schaeffer 1966: 435). Schaeffer makes it clear that there is a balance between both facture and mass in order to a sound to be considered balanced.

[Sounds should not be] either too elementary or too structured. If they are too elementary, they will tend to be subsumed by structures more worthy of memorisation(...) If they are too structured, they will be capable of breaking down into more elementary object. (Schaeffer 1966: 435)

Schaeffer uses the letters N, X and Y to define the types of balanced sounds. N defines a tonic, or locatable pitch sound, X is used to refer to a complex sound and finally Y is used to describe a varying sound. To define whether they are a continuous, impulse or iterative sound Schaeffer uses apostrophes. A single apostrophe denotes an impulse, two apostrophes indicates an iterative sound and a letter without an apostrophe signals a continuous sound.

Unbalanced Sounds

Schaeffer once again separates unbalanced sounds into excentric sounds and redundant sounds. There are two types of excentric sounds, which are defined by their overtly complex mass, are: the large note (W) and the cell(K). Redundant sounds are described as balanced sounds that have had their duration extended "up to the point where every dynamic form disappears" (Schaeffer 1966: 448).

Typology graph

For reference here is the Typology table that has been translated from Guide Des Objets Sonores by John Dack and Christine North (2009):



Schaeffer outlines seven morphological criteria, some of which cross over within the typological framework: mass, harmonic timbre, grain, allure, dynamic, melodic profile and mass profile. All these terms are brought together within the Summary diagram of the Theory of Musical Objects.

Schaeffer also makes a distinction between whether a sound consists of composed (simultaneous) or composite (successive) elements. He then outlines a notational method to denote this. Any sound object can be defined by using the typology table and then further explained (by defining is composed and composite elements) by using brackets after the type letter. Commas are used to note composite elements and fullstops for composed elements.

How can it be used?

It is not entirely clear how it can be applied to an analysis. However, Lasse Thoresen has created a notation system for Typo-Morphology, which is documented over three successive articles within Organised Sound.


CHION, M (1994) Guide des Objects Sonores Paris, Buchet Chastel

SCHAEFFER, P (1966) Traté des Objets Musicaux Paris, Éditions du Seuil.