Back To CourseIntroduction to Humanities: Help and Review
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Alisha is a college music educator specializing in historic and world music studies.
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.
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 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.
Tone color is a major consideration for composers. Although you should avoid describing them as such, certain sounds or combinations of sounds have come to be associated with specific emotions, objects, or ideas by virtue of learned association. For example, the twinkling sound of a music box may conjure up images of childhood and youth, while the combined tone colors of a fife and snare drum may make one imagine a military scene or marching band, even if the tune itself is not specifically associated with battle.
Tone color can also have a great impact on the emotional effect of a piece. Think about the tone colors used for the iconic theme that represents the great white shark featured in the film Jaws. This piece, composed by John Williams, begins with the scratchy and full sound of a low upright bass and the rough, reedy rasps of the contrabassoon, punctuated by the cavernous booms of large kettle drums. Williams' choice of deep and cavernous tone colors emphasizes a sound quality that perfectly conveys the idea of a vast, murky ocean. Now, imagine that same theme played using a harp, a flute, and a xylophone. Even if the melody was exactly the same, the overall effect would be quite different! The tune may still convey a sense of apprehension, but instead of the deathly fear conjured by the relentless approach of a monstrous shark, the effect may sound more like a mouse tiptoeing past a sleeping cat.
For this reason, composers pay close attention to tone color, artistically combining sounds to create a unified effect in much the same way that a painter blends varied hues to create a unique shade of visual color. Sometimes, this search for the perfect tone color combination inspires composers to ask musicians to create new or unusual tone colors by playing their instruments in alternative ways or by temporarily adding something to the instrument. The violin is usually bowed, but its strings can also be plucked (a technique called pizzicato), strummed, or even struck using the wooden side of the bow (col legno) to produce different sound effects.
A mute is a device that is placed in or on an instrument for the purpose of dampening the sound or altering the tone color. Brass instruments in particular can use a wide array of mutes, each of which can drastically change the sound of the instrument.
Tone color, also known as timbre, is the quality that defines the unique characteristics and nuances of an instrument's sound. It describes what makes a trumpet sound distinct from a violin and what makes one human voice sound different from another, even when they produce a sound that has the same frequency, amplitude, and duration. The raw materials of an instrument have a great impact on its tone color, as do the way the instrument is played and the relative richness of the instrument created by the resonance of overtones. When describing tone color, using adjectives that imply emotions should be avoided, as all instruments have the potential to play music that conveys a varied spectrum of moods. Instead, words that can be used to describe colors and/or that refer to the construction of the instrument are preferable.
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Back To CourseIntroduction to Humanities: Help and Review
42 chapters | 550 lessons
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