What is Timbre in Music? - Definition & Examples

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  • 0:04 Timbre
  • 0:46 Harmonic Content
  • 1:19 Attack and Decay
  • 1:44 Vibrato
  • 2:35 Timbre Terms
  • 3:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The music we hear is more than just a matter of pitch and rhythm. In this lesson, we'll explore the concept of timbre and see how it impacts the sounds that we hear.

Timbre

What color is your favorite kind of music? That may sound like an odd question to ask, but it's actually a real topic of discussion. In the world of music, we often identify instruments and compositions by the types of sounds that they make. We can talk about volume/loudness, length, and duration, or pitch (the note). However, these topics aren't the same as simply asking: what's it sound like? That question is addressed by examining the timbre, sometimes called the color, of the music.

Timbre is what let's us differentiate between a trombone and a saxophone, or a flute and a human voice, which all have different sound qualities. They have different timbres, and this is what makes music a little more colorful.

Harmonic Content

So, if timbre is the unique sound produced by an instrument, then how is it created? Timbre is the product of three different factors. The first is harmonic content. When an instrument produces a sound, that sound is actually a combination of pitches, or harmonics, melded together and synthesized into a single, audible pitch. The number of harmonics, and their intensity, can greatly impact the timbre of music. This is especially true when the harmonics create an overtone, a tone that is higher than the note being produced but that can be heard resonating through it.

Attack and Decay

The second element of timbre is the attack and decay of the tone that affects the sound of an instrument. Imagine plucking a guitar string. It produces a loud sound, and then slowly fades away. Compare that to the way that sound both appears and recedes when you play a trumpet, or a flute, or a drum. The intensity of the attack and the nature of the sound decay both impact what that noise sounds like, helping to make it unique.

Vibrato

Finally, timbre is also generated by vibrato, which is a controlled pulsating of a tone. Some instruments display very little natural vibrato, while others have lots of vibrato. With some instruments, it's possible to control the vibrato, while other instruments may present more of a challenge.

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