What is Timbre in Music?

Jan 10, 2020 | Sound

The music we hear is more than just a matter of pitch and rhythm. In this lesson, we’ll explore the concept of timbre and see how it impacts the sounds that we hear.

Timbre

What color is your favorite kind of music? That may sound like an odd question to ask, but it’s actually a real topic of discussion. In the world of music, we often identify instruments and compositions by the types of sounds that they make. We can talk about volume/loudness, length, and duration, or pitch (the note). However, these topics aren’t the same as simply asking: what’s it sound like? That question is addressed by examining the timbre, sometimes called the color, of the music.

Timbre is what let’s us differentiate between a trombone and a saxophone, or a flute and a human voice, which all have different sound qualities. They have different timbres, and this is what makes music a little more colorful.

Harmonic Content

So, if timbre is the unique sound produced by an instrument, then how is it created? Timbre is the product of three different factors. The first is harmonic content. When an instrument produces a sound, that sound is actually a combination of pitches, or harmonics, melded together and synthesized into a single, audible pitch. The number of harmonics, and their intensity, can greatly impact the timbre of music. This is especially true when the harmonics create an overtone, a tone that is higher than the note being produced but that can be heard resonating through it.

Attack and Decay

The second element of timbre is the attack and decay of the tone that affects the sound of an instrument. Imagine plucking a guitar string. It produces a loud sound, and then slowly fades away. Compare that to the way that sound both appears and recedes when you play a trumpet, or a flute, or a drum. The intensity of the attack and the nature of the sound decay both impact what that noise sounds like, helping to make it unique.

Vibrato

Finally, timbre is also generated by vibrato, which is a controlled pulsating of a tone. Some instruments display very little natural vibrato, while others have lots of vibrato. With some instruments, it’s possible to control the vibrato, while other instruments may present more of a challenge.

Skilled musicians can adjust the harmonic content, attack and decay, or vibrato in order to control and alter the timbre of their music. Now, you’ll never be able to make a tuba sound like a flute, but there is a wide range of control that you can have over each instrument. This is also why two musicians playing the same instrument can produce greatly different sounds. If you need proof, listen to Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, and Dizzy Gillespie playing a trumpet solo. While they’re working with the same instrument, each one produces a very different quality (and color) of sound.

Timbre Terms

So, how do we talk about timbre? There are many terms that musicians use to describe the sounds that their instruments make, including:

  • Bright
  • Dark
  • Heavy
  • Light
  • Warm
  • Cool
  • Piercing
  • Rounded
  • Clear
  • Airy
  • Brassy
  • Reedy

In relation to this list of words, think about what each timbre would sound like. For example, when we talk about bright tones, we may picture a shrill brass instrument in a high register and a crass attack. Close your eyes, and picture bright yellows in association with that term. By comparison, a rounded sound feels full and rich, with deep layers. We might picture rich browns, reds, and greens when we close our eyes. The next time you’re listening to music, keep these terms in mind. Ask yourself, how do the tones feel? What colors do they make you envision? Every timbre is unique, combining the natural sound quality of the instrument with the skills of the instrumentalist.

Lesson Summary

In music, timbre is used to define the color or sound quality of a tone. Every instrument produces its own unique timbre, but musicians can alter this through skill and practice. Scientifically, there are three main factors that define timbre, beginning with the harmonic content, or the intensity and quality of the harmonics within the tone. The second factor is attack and decay, which describes the way the sound is produced and naturally recedes. Finally, vibrato is the natural and controlled pulsation of a tone. Together, these three components impact the unique sound that makes a tone identifiable and help to color our music.

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