What is Timbre?

Timbre, also called tone color or tone quality, is an important term in music. But sometimes it’s hard to understand the meaning of timbre.

Every instrument has a different timbre. It can’t be written down on sheet music, and it’s unique to each instrument, so it’s difficult to quantify.

What is timbre in music? Let’s take a look at the timbre meaning and examples.

Timbre in Music Definition

The definition of timbre (pronounced “tam-ber”) is the specific quality of tone that a specific voice or instrument has.

For example, if you listen to an orchestra playing music, how do you tell the difference between a violin and a cello? Or the difference between a trombone and a tuba in a marching band?

In order to distinguish between different instruments, your brain listens for the timbres of each instrument. 

For example, here is middle C on the music staff:

middle C note on the music staff (image by Wikimedia Commons)

When a piano plays middle C, it sounds different than when a cello or violin plays middle C.

That’s because of the timbre.

What’s the Difference Between Timbre and Tone?

A lot of people, when they learn what timbre is, think that tone and timbre mean the same thing. Or at least that the terms are interchangeable.

But in reality, timbre and tone are two distinctly different words. 

Timbre is what one instrument sounds like compared to another instrument. For example, you can tell the difference between a harp and an electric guitar. 

Tone is what the different notes on that instrument sound like. When you play the electric guitar, the notes sound different because some of them are high (treble) and some of them are low (bass). 

If someone is tone-deaf, they can tell the difference between a guitar and a piano, but they might have trouble telling the difference between a C note and a D note.

So to recap, tone and timbre are different things and they don’t mean the same thing. Timbre is a way to measure how types of instruments sound different.

Why do all of these instruments sound so different, even when they’re playing the same note?

This is because of the frequency spectrum and ADSR packet of the instrument.

Frequency Spectrum

When you play a note on an instrument, the instrument creates and releases a sound wave.

Depending on the harmonics of the instrument, the note will have a certain timbre (tone quality). 

Every instrument has a slightly different frequency spectrum, which causes them to sound different.

The frequency spectrum is a measurement of how loud the harmonics are. It’s made up of the instrument’s harmonics and ADSR packet.

So what are harmonics? Here is the harmonics meaning and definition.

Harmonics

With each note you play on an instrument, there is a fundamental frequency. This is the music note.

For example, a middle C is approximately 260 Hertz. 

There are a lot of other frequencies played by the instrument at the same time as the main note. These are called harmonics. 

Harmonics are always higher pitched than the fundamental tone, and they are multiples of the fundamental. 

With our example of middle C, which is 260 Hz, then the harmonics would be 540 Hz, 800 Hz, 1060 Hz, and so on.

A note with lots of harmonics above it has a brighter, noisier tone, while a note with less harmonics sounds darker and more subdued. 

You can use a spectogram to measure the harmonics and amplitude of a musical note.

spectogram (image by Wikimedia Commons)

ADSR Packet

The ADSR Packet is a way to measure how loud the note sounds over time. 

ADSR means Attack, Decay, Sustain, and Release.

Another term for the ADSR packet is the envelope.

The envelope (or ADSR packet) measures these four things:

  • Attack: how quickly does the music note reach its peak volume? (Like measuring the acceleration of a car.)
  • Decay: after the peak volume, the note grows quieter until it reaches a volume level that it can sustain until it stops playing. How deep is the drop from the loudest point to the sustained volume of the note?
  • Sustain: what is the volume and length of the sustained note?
  • Release: after the instrument stops playing, how long does it take for the note to fade into silence?

The ADSR packet affects the timbre, because you can’t change the ADSR without changing the music. 

For example, a piano has a very short attack. It reaches peak volume as soon as you play a note.

However, it has a pretty short release. Once you stop playing, the notes fall silent quickly.

We can change this by playing with the pedals and extending the sustain and release of the piano. But now, the music sounds different, because we temporarily changed the piano’s timbre.

Every instrument has a different ADSR packet that affects how the music sounds. And if you change the ADSR packet, the musical timbre will change as well.

Ways to Describe Timbre in Instruments

There are certain words that we use to describe different timbres for different instruments.

  • Nasal: a loud fundamental pitch with very few overtones.
  • Rich: a sound with lots of overtones.
  • Breathy: a sound where a lot of airflow is audible, especially airflow without a pitch. (For example, pan flutes have a breathy timbre.)
  • Distorted: compressed sound waves, causing high and low frequencies to be cut off, and the middle frequencies are amplified.
  • Noisy: too many harmonics around the fundamental pitch, causing the fundamental pitch to disappear and the instrument to sound harsh.

Of course, it’s hard to use words to describe the sounds of different instruments without being able to hear them. However, as a musician, it’s useful to learn some of these terms and what they mean.

Timbre: A Summary

Thanks for reading! We hope this helped you learn about the timbre definition and how timbre in music works. 

The word timbre might sound daunting, because you can’t put it on sheet music like you can with tempo or rhythm. 

But in the end, timbre is a word we use to describe what different instruments sound like and what makes them unique. Timbre is how we can tell the difference between a violin and a flute, even when they’re playing the same note.

Do you have any questions about music theory? Let us know in the comments!

Jessica Roberts
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