What Is Timbre: A Full Explanation

You may be doing some research about important music fundamentals and have come across the term – Timbre (pronounced Tam ‘ bre). But what is timbre? Well, timbre is a term used to describe the different sound quality or tone color of a particular instrument or sound source. For example, if you hear your mother talking in another room you’re able to tell that it’s her because of her voice’s timbre. Even if your mom and sister both say the same words at the same pitch and volume, you should be able to tell who is who.

This is the exact same for instruments or sounds in general. You’re able to distinguish a C note played on a guitar from a C note played on a trumpet thanks to Timbre. A quote taken from the Acoustical Society of America and posted on Wikipedia defines timbre as:

“That attribute of auditory sensation which enables a listener to judge that two nonidentical sounds, similarly presented and having the same loudness and pitch, are dissimilar”

The quote goes on further to say:

“Timbre depends primarily upon the frequency spectrum, although it also depends upon the sound pressure and the temporal characteristics of the sound.”

In this post, I’ll highlight a few key concepts about timbre that’ll help you answer the question of “What Is Timbre” by understanding how it works and how it is different from other important music fundamentals.

Timbre Characteristics

There are various terms you can use to describe a particular sound’s timbre. The list of attributes below is certainly not a completely inclusive list as there are many ways you can describe a sound. However, it should give you a good idea of words that can be used to describe timbre.

  • Dull
  • Bright
  • Breathy
  • Cold
  • Warm
  • Rich
  • Delicate
  • Brassy
  • Thick
  • Thin
  • Nasal
  • Light
  • Heavy
  • Distorted
  • Clean
  • Piercing

To quickly illustrate how you would describe a particular sound, let’s compare a flute and a trumpet. I’ve included a sound file of each instrument in the table below playing the exact same note in the exact same octave. Try to listen to the characteristics of each instrument and see if you come to more or less the same timbre descriptions as I have.

Flute Trumpet
Light
Clean
Thin
Bright
Piercing
Brassy

As you can hear there is quite a bit of difference between both of these instruments. We can hear it and then describe it with terms like the ones above.

The Theory Behind Timbre

Sounds are created by the vibration of frequencies. Most sounds contain more than one frequency thus the additional frequencies are referred to as overtones or harmonics. These combinations or vibrations are what helps us determine what the actual sound source of a particular sound is.

The lowest frequency of a waveform is known as the fundamental frequency and is referred to as the pitch of a note in music. This frequency is the loudest. All of the other waveforms correspond to the harmonics or overtones of the sound. As you can see by the image below, the waveform in yellow is known as the fundamental frequency while the waveforms in white are the harmonics/overtones.

timbre frequencies

Source: YouTube

As mentioned in this YouTube video, is it estimated that a sound must contain the fundamental plus as many as 7 additional harmonics in order for it to be identifiable and possess dense timbre. Therefore, if a sound possesses less than 7 harmonics, it may be harder for the human ear to identify what the sound source actually is.

Timbre Waveform Examples

To help visualize the difference in timbre for different instruments, check out the waveforms below. The image shows the difference in waveforms between a tuning fork, flute, voice, and violin. Although each of these sound sources uses the same fundamental frequency (i.e. pitch), they produce different waveforms and thus different timbres.

 

All sounds will produce a different waveform depending upon their makeup of overtones or harmonics. The characteristics of a sound, however, are not solely reliant on timbre. There are also other aspects at play that define how a sound will sound. For this, you should know the relationship between timbre, tone, and texture, which we’ll discuss in the next section.

Timbre vs Tone vs Texture

You’ve likely heard the term “tone” used before to describe a particular sound. You may have also heard the term “texture”. Although these two terms are sometimes used interchangeably with timbre, they don’t mean the same thing

  • Tone refers to a certain frequency or combination of frequencies that you hear in any given sound. However, with tone, you do not describe the sound using the same terms as timbre. Rather, take the following example: If you hear a voice that is very heavy on the low end then you would say that it has a bassy tone. Alternatively, if another voice is heavy on the high end then you would say that it has a treble tone.
  • Texture most commonly refers to the amount and richness of instruments being played in a given musical piece. For instance, a monophonic texture has only a single melodic line with no accompaniment while a polyphonic texture contains multiple melodic voices.

Therefore, as you can see, tone and texture aren’t so similar to timbre. Although they do all help describe how a particular musical piece sounds, they all have independent meanings. Timbre helps us identify what the particular sound source is while tone refers to the combination of frequencies and texture identifies the number of melodic lines that are present.

What Is Timbre – In Summary

Hopefully, this guide has helped you answer the question of “What Is Timbre?”. It’s an important concept to understand in music and knowing how it differentiates from tone and texture will give you a clearer picture of all the aspects that are at play when describing a particular sound. If you have any questions about timbre or need any additional clarification let me know in the comments section below.

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