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Musical Timbre of Instruments and Singers: Definition

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  • 0:06 What is Timbre?
  • 1:26 Harmonic Series
  • 2:04 Describing Tone Color
  • 3:12 Instrumental Character
  • 3:48 How Composers Use Timbre
  • 5:30 Changing Timbre
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Liz Diamond-Manlusoc

Liz has taught music for K-12 and beyond. She holds a master's degree in Education Media and Design Technology.

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.

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