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Tone Color in Music: Definition & Explanation

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  • 0:00 What Is Tone Color?
  • 0:30 What Causes Tone Color?
  • 3:20 Describing Tone Color
  • 4:15 Aesthetics of Tone…
  • 6:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alisha Nypaver

Alisha is a college music educator specializing in historic and world music studies.

Tone color is an element of sound that allows the listener to identify the distinct qualities of that sound that are not related to pitch, volume, or duration. This lesson explores how tone color is created and altered, as well as the ways in which it should be described.

What Is Tone Color?

Tone color, also known as timbre, is the quality of a sound that is not characterized as frequency (pitch), duration (rhythm), or amplitude (volume). Generally speaking, tone color is what allows a listener to identify a sound as being produced by a specific instrument and to differentiate between instruments of the same type. For instance, a trumpet sounds quite different from a violin, even if they play a tone at the same frequency, amplitude, and for the same duration. However, one violin may also sound audibly different from another violin.

What Causes Tone Color?

As the unique sound of an instrument, tone color is impacted by several factors. The most basic factor is the raw material with which the instrument is crafted. An instrument made of wood, like a guitar, will have a different sound quality than an instrument made out of metal, such as a trombone. Within this broader spectrum, variations in the specific raw materials will also impact tone color; for instance, substituting one kind of wood for another in a guitar or making a flute out of silver versus stainless steel. Many instruments are made up of several kinds of materials, any of which can be altered. As an example, most violin bows are strung with horsehair, but some use synthetic nylon strings. When played on the same instrument, each bow will produce slightly varied sound effects.

Professional musicians develop preferences as to how they want their instruments to sound, and may have them modified in pursuit of specific tone colors. Sometimes, these preferences vary based on the performance space. Gold-plated violin strings have a brilliant and penetrating sound that works well for solo performances and in open-air spaces, while many steel strings have a more mellow quality appropriate for indoor ensemble playing where it is important to blend tone colors with those of other instruments.

The performer also has a significant amount of control over changing tone color by using different performance techniques. A piano can sound smooth and shimmering or piercing and aggressive depending on the amount of force the pianist decides to employ when striking the keys.

Instruments have an individual sound quality that can allow a trained musician to easily distinguish one from the other, even if the instruments are the same kind (i.e., both violins) and made from the same raw materials. One reason for this has to do with the resonance of vibrations created by the instrument. When a musical pitch is played, the audible sound most often corresponds to the lowest frequency produced by that vibration. This is called the fundamental pitch. The sound waves created by the vibration oscillates along the full length of its spectrum but also on the fractal points, including the halfway point, in thirds, quarters, fifths, etc.

Each of these fractal vibrations produces an additional, higher frequency, which is called an overtone. Most of the time, these overtones are not individually perceived by the naked ear. Nevertheless, every time a pitch is produced, its overtone frequencies also resonate to a greater or lesser degree, depending upon the nuances of the instrument's construction. The added resonances created by overtone vibrations can significantly impact the overall sound quality, making the tone color of one instrument sound fuller or richer than another.

Describing Tone Color

Describing the quality of a sound can be challenging. We may be able to easily distinguish between the sound of a tuba and that of a flute, but what adjectives can adequately capture the essence of each instrument's sound? In general, a good rule of thumb is to start by using the same adjectives that can describe colors. For example, a violin might be described as sounding 'bright' or 'brilliant,' while a cello may sound 'mellow,' 'warm,' or 'muted.'

Other adjectives may relate to the raw materials of the instrument. An oboe sounds 'reedy,' while trumpets have a 'brassy' quality. Words that should be avoided include any emotions, such as 'sad,' 'angry,' 'cheerful,' and the like. Any instrument can play a cheerful melody or a sad lament, but it is usually the tune itself that produces that emotional effect, not the raw sound of the instrument.

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