There are plenty of basic elements that make up music. We have pitch, and we have rhythm. They are easy concepts to understand. Easy to explain. But then we have timbre. That is not so easy because it is hard to explain, and any explanation is sometimes shrouded in misconception.
So, what is timbre in music?
Even the name and the way you pronounce it can cause problems. It is spelled like it is, and you might think when you pronounce it, it sounds like ‘timber.’ The way you actually say it is “TAM-ber.” But that is the least of the explanatory problems associated with it. So, let’s take a look…
A Broad Definition
It can be described as a specific tonal quality. A difference in the tone of instruments and even voices. You will sometimes hear people use the phrase’s tone quality or tonal coloring. They are the same thing. It is said that way to make it easier to understand.
However, a simple definition of timbre in music is what happens when you hear different instruments play the same note. The note is the same, but the sound is different.
Of course, you might say, they are different instruments. I would agree, but the difference you hear is the difference in the timbre between the instruments. They each have their own unique timbre.
Playing the Same Note
If you take the note of G., Play it on a piano, and you hear one thing. Play it on a violin; you hear something different, even though the note is the same. Sing it, and it is different again; play it on a Cello, again it is different.
And although the answer is obvious because they are different instruments, there is a reason why it happens. That reason is that each instrument has its own frequency spectrum and envelope. Let’s find out what that means.
The Frequency Spectrum and The Envelope
When a note is played or sung, it creates a sound wave. Each instrument and voice will create a different type of sound wave. Each wave is different because of the harmonics associated with each of those sound waves. Understanding these will give us a more detailed answer to the question, “What is timbre in music?”
The Frequency Spectrum
Each note that is played is called the fundamental frequency. You might say the principal frequency. In the example above, I used a G note. The fundamental frequency of that note is 392Hz.
But, some other sounds or frequencies can also be heard. They are very faint, but they are there and make up the texture of the note. They are called harmonics.
The harmonics associated with the frequency are always higher in their pitch. And they are multiples of the Hz frequency of the fundamental. We looked at the note of G and its frequency of 392Hz. If the fundamental note has a frequency of 392, the rising harmonics will be 784, 1176, 1568, and so on. Rising in multiples of the fundamental frequency of 392Hz.
The number of audible harmonics tells us things about the note that has been played. If you can hear plenty of harmonics above the note, then it is brighter and probably louder. If there aren’t many harmonics, it will produce a darker, subdued sound.
The envelope of the note will detail the amplitude or loudness of the note over some time. It is often referred to as the ADSR envelope. That refers to Attack, Decay, Sustain and Release.
- Attack is how quickly the note arrives at its loudest point.
- Decay is from the initial strike to the average loudness of the note.
- Sustain is the length of the note that can be maintained.
- Release is how long the note will continue to be heard when the instrument has stopped playing.
The ADSR envelope is one of the main things that affect the timbre of a note. This is because each instrument has its own envelope. Some of this envelope is related to how the instrument is built and played.
For example, an instrument played with a bow has a longer attack than a piano. This is because the bowing action is lengthy and makes for a longer attack. But the piano note is created by a hammer and an abrupt strike of the string. This means the attack is shorter.
The Science of Timbre
If you want to apply a scientific evaluation of timbre, you will find it complex. There are plenty of variables that make up the timbre of any sound. One is the way the instrument is built.
As an example, you can take two instruments that look similar, but they will have a vastly different timbre. Take the Clarinet and the Soprano saxophone. They look similar and have similar working parts, but the timbre is different.
This is because the materials they are made from are different, and the inner bore sizes are different, amongst other things. Timbre can therefore be affected by several variables.
Keeping It Simple
But to keep it simple, timbre is essentially the overall sound of a note. And it allows us to describe how, even when playing the same note, instruments sound different. Timbre can be important to us, and it is worth studying it a bit more. Some resources that may help are:
- The Relentless Pursuit of Tone: Timbre in Popular Music
- Music Theory: From Beginner to Expert
- How to Read Music for Any Instrument
Interested in Learning More About Music?
Our experts can help you with that. Take a look at our handy articles on What Is AABA Form In Music, Diatonic Scales, What Is Negative Harmony, The Scale Degree Names Explained, What Is a Major Chord, A Quick Guide To Species Counterpoint, and A Complete Guide To Major Scales for more useful musical information.
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What Is Timbre In Music – Final Thoughts
Even when instruments are playing the same note, they don’t sound the same. If a Violin and a Cello play the same note, you know which is the Violin and which is the Cello. Understanding and hearing the difference in timbre gives us that information.
Until next time, let your music play.