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What Is Timbre in Music?

This author has been an educator, conductor, and trombonist for the past 40 years. His experience qualifies him as an expert in this field.

What is Timbre in Music?

Music has five basic elements. They are:

  • Rhythm
  • Melody
  • Harmony
  • Form
  • Timbre

Most people can discuss the characteristics of a melody or rhythm. Some can even take a stab at the element of form. But, Timbre? Not so much!

In this article we will explore this element to answer the question - What is Timbre in Music? after reading this article you’ll become more familiar with this very important element and as a result become a better listener of music.

also refer to it as “tone color“ or “tone quality”. Timbre tells us about the sounds that we hear. It does not have anything to do with its pitch, volume, or length. Timbre refers to the “tone color“ or “tone quality“ of a sound.

The human ear is amazing in that it can distinguish between the sound of a trumpet and a flute, or a car horn and an alarm clock. We hear each mixture of sound waves or frequencies as separate sounds, but as the color of that sound. Our hearing along with the brain allows us to hear and understand small variations in the timbre.


Alarm Clock

The "timbre" of an alarm clock is different from a bank alarm.

The "timbre" of an alarm clock is different from a bank alarm.

Examples of Timbre or Tone Quality in Music

I remember years ago listening to certain vocalists and picking out a few of them as being my favorites.

It didn’t dawn on me until years later that one of the main reasons why I liked certain vocalists or instrumentalists, was that their tone quality or timbre was very appealing to me. I wasn’t a trained musician at the time and didn’t have any special skills. But my ears told me that they liked the sound of these artists.

To this day, I still love hearing the voice of Nat King Cole. Whenever the voice of Perry Como comes on the radio I will listen. Now that I practically dated myself, another vocalist that comes to mind is Michael Bublé. Why? The timbre of his voice is what I enjoy.

Below is a list of types of tone color or timbre in music today.

  • vocal music - music that is sung either in a group or solo.
  • a cappella - music that is sung without instrumental accompaniment.
  • instrumental music - music performed only by instrumental musicians.
  • acoustic music - non- amplified or electronically controlled.
  • amplified music - devices used to increase the volume of instruments.
  • electronic music - sounds produced by electronic devices.

Please listen to the musical example below. It demonstrates the incredbile artistry of a superb trombonist - Bill Watrous. This is a great example of the tone quality (Timbre) of the Trombone.

Bill Watrous

Michael Buble

One of the top recording artists today. In the style of Sinatra, Bennett, Martin.

One of the top recording artists today. In the style of Sinatra, Bennett, Martin.

Michael Buble - Listen to the tone quality (timbre) of this vocalist. Great voice!

Science and Sound

Any sound, whether musical or non-musical, is caused by something vibrating. Without vibration, sound does not exist. We hear a sound because air vibrates against our eardrums and that causes them to vibrate. The brain is then notified and figures out what kind it is. Is it music? Is it a bird singing? It is a car horn? In the brain is pretty quick so you’re going to get a response almost immediately. How about that?

Because sound waves are picked up by each special eardrum and then analyzed by each different brain, it’s probably best to say that no two people will hear the same sound in the same way.

Here’s a great experiment for you to try. Below, is a list of words. I’d like you to just read one at a time before moving onto the next one. The reason for this I want you to take some time after you read the first word and see if you can come up with a sound in your head that describes that word. Write down the sound. The sound could be a musical instrument or non-musical. Then continue to do this throughout the list.

What you will probably find is that you have stored in your brain an image and a soundbite recorded in your brain that describes these words.

  • Brassy
  • Piercing
  • Harsh
  • Warm
  • Mellow
  • Dark
  • Bright

Good tone quality versus bad tone quality

I’ve conducted instrumental music groups for many years and I repeatedly remind the ensembles the importance of good tone quality versus bad tone. Good tone quality on musicians doesn’t happen overnight. This is a developing skill that takes sometimes years to master.

I’m pretty sure that most people have heard a youngster starting out playing a new instrument and the sounds coming out of that instrument or ones that make a wish that Johnny or Mary that never started learning this instrument.This is an example of poor or bad tone quality. But as the young musician practices the timbre of that instrument will improves over time.

Another example that I can share with you is this. For any musician that wishes to become a member of an orchestra may it be a major symphony orchestra or a civic orchestra, they must go through the audition process. Most all audition procedures in this type of medium are quite similar. There are usually three people adjudicating behind a curtain and the instrumentalist is on stage and can’t see the three people that I’ll be listening to the audition.

The adjudicators will instruct the person in the audition to play certain places but usually the first thing they will require is for the instrumentalist to play a rather slow or ballad type piece much like an aria. The reason for this is to give the adjudicators a good idea of the timbre or tone quality produced by this musician. And they can find out in a very quick fashion. If they are not pleased with the tone quality coming out of the instrument then they will dismiss the instrumentalist and the audition is over. It is important to note that these judges are musicians themselves and usually includes the conductor of the orchestra or band. They not necessarily interested in how fast you can play or how high or low you can play, but if the tone quality isn’t there it will be a short audition.

Rick Wakeman

When I was in college I stumbled across an album (in those days it was called vinyl or an LP) titled “Journey to the Center of the Earth”. I found it in a trash and treasures store and not knowing what I had, I bought it anyway because the cover looked intriguing. And it was only a dollar so my investment wasn’t going to break the bank. I took it home and I played it and it was my introduction to what I call “synthetic music” or man-made sounds.

The music on this album was incredible. Nothing that I never heard before. And by pure accident I was now discovering a new type of music or genre that I was going to follow and look into.

The music was all about mythical interpretations set to modern day synthesizers along with drums, guitar, bass. The virtuosity of the artist Rick Wakeman Was extremely impressive. Wakeman is a keyboard artist and his music exhibits his fine piano skills and his improvisational make up on several keyboards displayed on stage that illustrate the amazing sounds that come out of synthesized music.

I was instantly impressed with this new technology and the use of it And after investigating and researching more about this new medium for performance I did find that he was probably the king of this type but others did follow and others were around at the same time. Groups like Emerson Lake and Palmer.

Below is a recording of Rick Wakeman performing a cut from his album. I include this in this article primarily because it’s a great example of ”timbre“ or “tone quality” with man-made sounds. Listen to it, I think you will be very impressed.

Rick Wakeman - Journey to the Center of the Earth

The Timbre of a Full Symphony Orchestra.

Our ears are incredible parts of the human body, and if we put them in front of a full symphony orchestra they will be able to distinguish between the different instruments on stage. Now, that is true only if our brain knows what those instruments are. Some people may not recognize an english horn, contrabassoon or a viola, but as the brain learns the instruments our recall is much quicker.

Below is an example of a full symphony orchestra performing a very popular composition. Please listen to this exciting 4th movement from Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4. This, along with the other musical examples in this article should help answer the question - What is Timbre in Music? This is a wonderful piece to listen to.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra - Tchaikovsky Symphony No.4, 4th mvmt

Chicago Symphony Orchestra

 Chicago Symphony Orchestra - considered one of the best orchestra in the world.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra - considered one of the best orchestra in the world.

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Other articles written by this author relating to this article.

  • Why Not Listen to Classical Music?
    With all the choices in music to listen to today it is no wonder that many people don’t listen to classical music. One of the big reasons being a lack of knowledge and this article will help by.....
  • Listen to Music Through Form
    Form in music is the structure or “blueprint” of the composer. This article will show you how you can listen to music through the form and understand it better.
  • Listen to Music Through Harmony
    Harmony is the “meat and potatoes” of music. It's not always easy to hear harmony sometimes, but this article aims to help you identify different types of harmony.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Reginald Thomas

Please feel free to make a comment below.

Reginald Thomas (author) from Connecticut on July 20, 2019:

Thank you Audrey

I do have another site that you might want to visit. It is a music site called studionotesonline.com Let me know what you think.

Audrey Hunt from Idyllwild Ca. on July 20, 2019:

Excellent! You have fully explained exactly what Timbre is. In fact, this is the most informative and well-written article on Timbre I have ever read (and I've read plenty on this subject.)

I will be sharing this on my new website as well as social media.

Thank you,

Audrey