Musical Timbre of Instruments and Singers: Definition

Jan 10, 2020 | Sound

How can you tell if you are listening to a violin or a flute? How do composers use timbre to express their ideas and keep the listener interested? Find out in this lesson on timbre!

What Is Timbre?

No, we’re not talking about trees here – we’re talking about timbre! Timbre is the character of a sound or voice. Timbre is also referred to as tone color or tone quality. Timbre is the way you can tell the difference between your grandma and your girlfriend on the phone or between the voices of cartoon characters when your cat is walking in front of the TV. Why is this? How can an instrument or voice change timbre? How do composers use timbre to express their ideas?

Physically, when an instrument or voice sounds, it creates vibration. This vibration has a particular frequency, which means the amount of repeated sound waves produced in one second. The frequencies produced by an instrument or voice create its timbre. Because each instrument or voice vibrates slightly differently, each produces different frequencies. This is how our ears can tell one from another. One can determine the shape and oscillation of the sound waves with pretty graphs and extraordinarily complex mathematical calculations of time, pressure, and space, but we’ll leave that for the physics department.

Harmonic Series

Most instruments and voices actually produce a series of frequencies, which together are called overtones or, more specifically, the harmonic series. Each instrument or voice has its own set of overtones, and the combination of these sound waves give the instrument or voice its characteristic sound. Whether it’s a professional violinist drawing the bow across the strings, a beginner band student crashing cymbals together, or even a fork hitting the floor in a busy restaurant, the specific harmonic frequencies hit our ears, and we are able to identify the sound almost instantly. But how can we describe the character of what we’re hearing?

Describing Tone Color

Tone color can be described in many ways. When we hear a violin, the timbre is different from that of a trumpet. We might say that the trumpet sounds ‘brassy or bright,’ where the violin could be described as ‘light and delicate.’ We can even make distinctions between instruments of the same family. A flute might sound ‘clear, round, and light,’ while the oboe would sound ‘nasal, pointed, or piercing.’ A trombone might sound ’round, bright, and metallic,’ while the French horn sounds ‘dark, thick, and warm.’ It is important to note that pitch, rhythm, and volume are separate from timbre. These aspects are important to music, but they are measured differently.

Instrumental Character

Even when playing the same pitch and volume, we can tell the instruments apart based on the character of their sound. When listening carefully, you can even tell two of the same instrument apart just based on the slight differences heard in their particular harmonic makeup of timbre. Listen to these two clips of guitar. Hopefully, you noticed that although the pitches, rhythms, and volume were the same, the two clips sounded different.

How Composers Use Timbre

So we’ve got a good idea of what timbre is, but why is it important? How do composers use timbre to express their ideas and keep the listener interested? We can think of tone color being used as an artist would use colors of paint. Sometimes, the artist wants to create a nice piece with one focus, like a pencil drawing or a single colored print. This might be like having one instrument or a small group of instruments playing to get the composer’s point across.

Some composers even use the natural tone color of an instrument to represent events or parts of nature. Birds are a perpetual favorite, from Handel in the Baroque period to Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. Vivaldi’s ‘Goldfinch Concerto,’ heard here, features the flute playing, as you might have guessed, like a goldfinch’s calls. The flute is played lightly, playfully, and delicately.

Other times, the composer will use more colors to express themselves. The piece Pictures At An Exhibition shows composer Modest Mussorgsky’s genius combinations of timbres to evoke clear images of the various paintings he’d seen. Listen to the difference in the way the string, brass, and percussion sections of the orchestra play in the first movement, called ‘Gnomus’, versus the way they play in the seventh movement, called ‘The Market at Limoges.’ How could you describe the tone colors heard in each excerpt?

Changing Timbre

Lastly, many composers have the musicians employ different playing techniques to alter the timbre of their instruments. When the vibration is manipulated, it changes the characteristic sound of the instrument. On a string instrument, this is often done by plucking the string with the fingers instead of using a bow, as heard in Grieg’s ‘In the Hall Of the Mountain King.’ Trombones and other brass instruments are sometimes asked to alter their tone color by using a mute or even a toilet plunger, which is how the adults in Charlie Brown cartoons are played.

Lesson Summary

Overall, we can see that although timbre is a simple topic, it can have a great effect on how music is composed, played, and interpreted. Timbre, tone color, and tone quality are synonyms for the character of a sound or voice. The timbre of an instrument is made up of its unique vibrations, or frequencies. Most instruments produce multiple frequencies at a time, which collectively are called harmonics. Our ears use these sets of frequencies to determine between instruments and to determine the character of a given instrument. Composers use these characteristics and sometimes use altered playing techniques to express their ideas.

Lesson Outcome

After viewing and hearing this lesson, students should be able to:

  • Define timbre, frequency, and harmonic series, and understand the relationships between them
  • Describe the tone colors and characters of different instruments
  • Understand how composers use timbre, or tone color, to express their ideas
  • Explain how different playing techniques can be utilized to alter the timbre of an instrument
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