What is timbre in music? Timbre (pronounced TAM-bur) is the unique quality of the sound that a musical instrument makes. When two different instruments play the same note, the instruments can still have very different sounds. For example, imagine playing middle C on a piano and then playing the exact same note on a trumpet. You won’t have any trouble hearing the difference between the piano and the trumpet, even though they’re playing the same note. This is what timbre is all about.
Timbre is also known as tone quality, tone color, or voice. Some of the many words used to describe the timbre of instruments include rich, bright, mellow, dark, buzzy, and warm. The timbre also includes the way the sound changes over time. For example, percussion instruments make most of their sound right at the start of a note, and then the sound quickly fades away. This is called attack and fade. Sustained instruments like a flute, horn, or violin start making a sound and keep making it, allowing them to create smoother, more fluid music.
What creates the timbre of instruments?
Sound is made up of tiny vibrations in the air that are picked up by our ears and relayed to our brain, where those vibrations are interpreted as sound. If the vibrations are happening faster, or at a higher frequency, our ear hears a higher pitch. When the vibrations are slower, at a lower frequency, the pitch sounds low.
When a musical instrument plays a note, what our ear interprets as one note is really made up of many different vibrations that are happening at different frequencies. The lowest frequency is called the fundamental, and it is often the frequency that creates the sound we hear most. The other higher frequencies are called harmonics. Part of an instrument’s timbre is the strength of the various harmonics that the instrument will create.
Harmonics are affected by the size, shape, and material of an instrument. They also depend on the way the sound is made, whether by blowing air across an opening like when playing a flute or an organ pipe, rubbing a string like a violin, hitting an object like a drum or a bell, or buzzing a reed like an oboe or clarinet. All of these things add up to create an instrument’s timbre.
How do you describe piano timbre?
Just like every human voice has its own unique sound, every acoustic piano will have a unique timbre. When you play a note on a piano, a hammer inside the piano will hit metal strings (one string if it’s a low note, or up to three strings if it’s a high note). As the strings vibrate, the fundamental tone and all the other harmonics caused by the vibration will travel through the air. Other parts of the piano will vibrate as well, enhancing certain frequencies. All of these things work together to create the piano’s timbre.
A piano that puts out mostly lower harmonics will have a dark, soft, warm timbre, while a piano that has a lot of higher harmonics will have what’s called a bright timbre. If the timbre is too bright, a piano can sound harsh and metallic. A timbre that’s too dark will sound dull and dead. While everyone has their own preference for how a piano should sound, most people like a balance between bright and dark timbre in a piano, which will create a rich and lively tone.
Would you like to see piano timbre in action? Open Chrome Music Lab’s Spectrogram on a phone, tablet, or laptop and find a piano. Tap the microphone icon on the spectrogram, then press a note on the piano and hold it. The spectrogram will show you how much sound is being created at each frequency. You’ll be able to see the frequency of the note you played on the piano and the frequencies of the harmonics too. Notice that when you first play a piano key there is a lot of sound created over a wide range of harmonics, but most of the harmonics fade away, leaving only a few still ringing. That’s the attack and fade of a piano note.
What happens on the spectrogram when you play lower notes on the piano? How about higher ones? For fun, try singing the same note you just played on the piano and watch what happens. What differences do you notice on the spectrogram between the piano and your own voice?
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What is the timbre of other instruments like?
Every instrument has its own timbre. Try listening to this movement from Piano Concerto No. 1 by Tchaikovsky. Can you tell when the music is coming from the piano and when it’s coming from the other instruments? Do you hear strings? Flutes? Horns? Drums? Listen to the way the different combinations of instruments create a wonderful variety of sounds and textures throughout the piece. The unique timbre of each instrument is what makes it possible for your ear to tell the difference between each instrument, and for the instruments to work together to make such a marvelous variety of sounds.
When you talk about the timbre of instruments, you can approach this in two ways. You can analyze the sound instruments make using a spectrogram and talk about the different frequencies created and their relative strengths. Or, you can use descriptive words to compare the sounds. For example, when comparing a flute to an oboe, the flute will have a soft, pure tone while the oboe’s tone is more harsh and buzzy. When comparing a violin to a cello, the cello will have a warm, rich, dark timbre while the violin’s will be brighter and thinner. A musician can even create different timbres on the same instrument by playing it in different ways. A violin can make a sound that’s smooth and sweet, or sharp and strident depending on how hard and fast the violinist draws the bow across the strings.
What is timbre in singing?
Every human voice has a unique, natural timbre. For example, if you call a friend on the phone, you can usually tell it’s them the moment they say, “Hello.” That’s because you recognize the timbre of their voice.
Besides having a natural timbre that belongs to their individual voice, people have the ability to alter the timbre of their voices in order to sing or speak in many different styles. You can do this by changing the position of your mouth, throat, lips, ribcage, head, and spine. In fact, everything in your body can affect the way your voice sounds because you are the instrument.
Many professional performers spend years of study and practice until they can control the timbre of their voices to an amazing degree. They can make their voice sound soft and breathy, or harsh and strident, or big and powerful, depending on the sound and the emotions they want to convey. For a great example, listen to this performance by Kristen Chenoweth singing “Popular” from the musical Wicked. Pay attention to the way she shifts from a tight, nasal timbre to a more open sound, especially when the character is being more sincere.
Experience timbre by listening to music all around you
Now that you know about timbre in music, pay attention as you listen to music, singing, and speech. Hear the way the timbre of instruments sound and learn to identify them. Experiment with the timbre of your own voice. Enjoy the richness that a variety of timbres brings to the music we hear every day.