Timbre can be defined as describing the tone-colour or tone quality of a sound. It is how we identify the difference between the quality of tone of one instrument/voice from another. For example, if a flute and an oboe are playing the same note, the pitch may be the same, but the timbre of each of the sounds is very different. As a result, the listener can easily hear that the note is being played by 2 different instruments.
The differences in timbre between instruments can be quite obvious or very subtle.
For example, it is quite easy to recognise the difference in sound colour between an acoustic guitar and a distorted electric guitar.
However, such differences can also be very subtle and difficult to perceive. The difference between the tone colour of a violin and a viola can be difficult to hear for a non-string player.
Similarly, differences in vocal timbre, such as those between a soprano and a mezzo soprano can be tricky to spot.
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Words to Describe Timbre
Unlike other elements of music, it has always been difficult for musicians to find specific language to adequately define timbre in music. However, here is a list of common descriptors that people tend to use and you will find useful:
- Harsh or soft,
- Reedy or brassy,
- Bright or dull
Here are some common examples of the differences in timbre between instruments and how they can be described.
Woodwind and Brass Timbres
The tone quality in woodwind and brass instruments depends on the material of the instrument, its shape and how the player causes the air to vibrate.
For example, blowing across a hole (such as when playing a flute) produces a very different tone to “buzzing” the lips into a metal mouthpiece inserted into the instrument (e.g. the trumpet, trombone, etc..). A further different colour of tone is produced when using a reed.
Have a listen to these differences between the sounds of a flute, a trumpet and an oboe:
The timbre of the flute is quite soft as opposed to the harsh, reedy sound of the oboe. The trumpet timbre is characteristically bright.
Within the woodwind family there are a number of reed-based instruments.
However, there are still some obvious differences between reed instruments such as the oboe, clarinet and bassoon.
For example, the oboe is typically more harsh sounding than the clarinet.
Within the strings family. the differences between violin, viola, cello, double bass timbres can be quite subtle. However, experienced strings players can clearly hear the differences between the instruments, whilst many can even tell the difference between individual violins depending on how they have been constructed.
The timbre of a string instrument can also vary depending on which string you play on, whilst different bowing techniques can also change the tonal quality of the sound.
There is a wide range of musical timbres associated with percussion instruments.
For example, you only have to listen to a drummer playing on a drum kit to hear a huge range of tones from the harsh crash of the cymbals to the duller thump of the kick drum and the bright sound of the hi hat, all of which can further be altered by different playing techniques, “tuning” and the choice of sticks or brushes.
Tuned percussion instruments can also vary greatly in their tonal quality.
The wooden keys of a xylophone are typically softer and duller in sound than the bright harshness of the metal glockenspiel.
Even the timbre of a piano is different according to whether it is an upright or grand piano.
In addition, the tone of a note changes on the piano as the volume changes because the hammer strike produces a harsher sound when struck more firmly.
Vocal timbre arguably gives us the widest range of tonal quality to try to describe as each human being’s voice is totally unique.
For example, we are able to hear differences in gender and even age from just the sound of a person’s voice.
It is possible to recognise famous and distinctive vocalists by simply hearing them sing one note.
In contemporary popular music vocalists with a “harsh” timbre have been particularly successful because the sound of their voice “cuts” through a mix of lots of instruments and so can be heard clearly.
There are clearly lots of elements that make up a great vocalist, but the tonal colour of they voice should not be underestimated.
There are considerable differences in guitar timbres.
There are the obvious differences between the sound of an acoustic guitar and that of an electric guitar.
However, there are also considerable differences within this.
Electric guitars have offered seemingly endless timbral possibilities.
The tone wheel gives guitarists the option of changing the brightness of the tone. In addition, pickups on an electric guitar have different timbres, whilst types of guitar have different tonal characteristics – e.g. Fender Stratocaster has distinctive sound as opposed to the Telecaster.
Effects pedals such as distortion can be combined and altered to manipulate the tonal characteristics of the sound.
Have a listen to the difference in tone when we add some distortion this electric guitar riff:
Changing the Tone Through Technology
As technology has developed in recent years it has been possible to analyse the timbre of instruments and voices by examining their characteristic frequencies and the attack, sustain and decay envelopes.
Techniques and equipment such as EQ and spectral analysis have enabled producers to visualise the frequencies of the timbres and manipulate the tone quality of different instruments and voices when mixing tracks. For example, the vocal timbre of a singer can be changed dramatically to “fit” into a mix.
This technology has been invaluable in the development of synthesis which is a main component of contemporary music.
Have a look/listen to the difference between a sine wave and saw wave:
You can see and hear clearly the differences in timbre between the 2 waves.
The characteristic soft tone of the sine wave is a smooth curve that clearly contrasts with the jagged overtones and harsh sound of the saw wave.
Timbre can be tricky to articulate, but is a crucial element of music to consider when you are composing music.
It is vital to think about how the different instruments “blend” together in your band, ensemble or orchestra.
I hope that the common words and phrases listed above help you clarify your thinking about timbre and tone quality.