- In music, timbre is the quality of a musical note or sound. Sometimes, timbre is
called tone quality or tone colour
- Timbre is what makes one sound unique from any other sound
We can identify instruments by their timbre. For example, even when a piano and a guitar play the same note, they sound different; every instrument has a different way of making sound, a different voice, and so a different timbre.
With practice, we can listen to music and separate sounds using our understanding of timbre. We can even learn how to identify all the separate sounds in a big band or ensemble with many instruments playing notes at the same pitch and loudness.
Timbre is very important when we are writing music, because we can combine sounds, contrast sounds, and create a wonderful range of tonal colours. The composer knowing how to combine the timbre of many different instruments creates the amazing sounds we hear in orchestral music.
Sometimes musical instrument may be described with such words as bright, dark, warm, harsh, etc. These are all ways of describing the timbre of the instrument.
Knowing how instruments produce sound will allow us to understand their timbre.
Look at these definitions for musical instruments:
1. Idiophones produce sound by vibrating themselves (e.g.: marimba)
2. Metallophones are metal idiophones (e.g.: vibraphones, glockenspiels)
3. Membranophones produce sound by a vibrating membrane or skin (e.g.: drums or kazoos)
4. Chordophones produce sound by vibrating strings (e.g.: the piano or violin)
5. Aerophones produce sound by vibrating columns of air (e.g.: oboe or pipe organ)
6. Electrophones produce sound by electronic means (e.g.: synthesizer)
What is Music?
When we think about any style of music, we can choose to break it down in to simple elements. When we identify music, we listen for these elements:
A melody is single notes strung together to make a tune. In instrumental music, the melody is usually the part we can hum. In songs, the melody is usually sung with words
The notes that complement the melody. Harmony can be arranged as chords (notes layered on top of each other and played behind the melody) or counter melodies (strings of notes that follow the melody)
This can be defined as the way the melody and harmony are accented across time
There is another essential element to music, and that is the Idea: when a composer writes a piece of music, they have to have an idea in order for the music to make sense. The medium could be anything; a simple nursery rhyme, or a symphony for full orchestra…arguably, the most important thing is the idea that makes the music go.
When we are listening to music, we identify through melody, harmony, and rhythm. We also identify by listening for timbre.
When we are writing music, we compose through melody, harmony, and rhythm. We also compose by choosing timbre.