What is Timbre?

•One of the basic elements of music is called timbre.  When referring to the timbre of the sound, we can also refer to its color.
•Timbre describes all of the aspects of a musical sound that do not have anything to do with the sound’s pitch, loudness, or length.
•In other words, if a flute plays a note, and then an oboe plays the same note, for the same length of time, at the same loudness, you can still easily distinguish between the two sounds because a flute sounds different from an oboe.
•This difference is in the timbre of the sounds

How are these Differences made?

•Timbre is caused by the fact that each note from a musical instrument is a complex wave containing more than one frequency.
•For instruments that produce notes with a clear and specific pitch, the frequencies involved are part of a harmonic series.
•For other instruments (such as drums), the sound wave may have an even greater variety of frequencies.
•We hear each mixture of frequencies not as separate sounds, but as the color of the sound. Small differences in the balance of the frequencies – how many you can hear, their relationship to the fundamental pitch, and how loud they are compared to each other – create the many different musical colors.
•The human ear and brain are capable of hearing and appreciating very small variations in timbre.
•A listener can hear not only the difference between an oboe and a flute but also the difference between two different oboes.
•The general sound that one would expect of a type of instrument is usually called its timbre or color.
•Variations in timbre between specific instruments may be called differences in timbre or color or maybe called differences in tone or in tone quality. These variations can be heard in:
•Two different instruments (models), for example, or two different players, or the same player using  different types of sound in different pieces

Tone Quality

Tone quality may refer specifically to “quality”, as when a young musician is encouraged to have a “fuller” or “more focused” tone quality. It can also refer neutrally to differences in sound, as when an orchestral trombonist is asked to play with a “brassy” tone quality in one passage and a “mellow” tone quality in another.

Describing Timbre

Here are a few words commonly used to describe either timbre or tone quality.
Reedy     Brassy         Clear         Bright
Focused or unfocussed     Breathy     Dark
Rounded     Piercing     Strident     Harsh
Warm     Mellow         Resonant     Heavy
Light         Flat
Having much, little, or no vibrato (a controlled wavering in the sound); or narrow or wide, or slow or fast, vibrato

author avatar
William Anderson (Schoolworkhelper Editorial Team)
William completed his Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts in 2013. He current serves as a lecturer, tutor and freelance writer. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, walking his dog and parasailing. Article last reviewed: 2022 | St. Rosemary Institution © 2010-2024 | Creative Commons 4.0


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