What Is Timbre In Music? A Complete Guide

Timbre is a basic element of music, but it can be quite confusing and unclear as a term. Unlike pitch or rhythm, timbre is unique to each instrument, and can be hard to quantify, which is why it can’t be written down on a piece of sheet music. 

Let’s take an indepth look at exactly what is timbre in music? 

Definition of Timbre

We can define timbre (pronounced “tam-ber”) as the specific tone or quality that a certain instrument or voice has.

It is also known as tone color or tone quality, so if you see these terms being used instead just know they all mean the same thing.

It is essentially what allows people to hear the difference between two separate instruments or voices, even when they are playing or singing the same note. 

For example, let’s take the note A4. On sheet music, it looks like this:

However, when different instruments play that note, we can tell that they all sound slightly different.

When a piano plays an A4, it sounds different to a violin playing it, which also sounds different from the specific A4 frequency that it has.

Here are all three of those sounds, take note of the unique sound of each instrument.

Regular sine wave of 440 Hz frequency, A4:

Regular sine wave of 440 Hz frequency

Piano playing it:

Piano playing A4 – 440 Hz frequency

Violin playing it:

Violin playing A4 – 440 Hz frequency

So, why do different instruments produce different sounds when they play the exact same note?

It has to do with the frequency spectrum and envelope of each instrument.

Frequency Spectrum and Envelope

When a note is sung or played, a sound wave is created from the instrument.

All different instruments and voices have different sound waves that come out.

The frequency spectrum is what makes each wave different, due to the harmonics that accompany each wave.

Harmonics

With each sound wave produced by an instrument, there is a fundamental frequency – this is the note that you’re playing.

In the A4 example above, the fundamental frequency is 440 Hertz (Hz).

To learn more about Hertz and pitch in music, check out our article here

However, there are other frequencies that can be heard very faintly besides the fundamental, and these are called harmonics.

These frequencies are always higher in pitch and are multiples of the fundamental.

If the fundamental is 440 Hz, then the harmonics would be 880, 1320, 1760 Hz, etc. 

The frequency spectrum of a note played by a specific instrument shows how loud or soft the harmonics are.

A note with a lot of harmonics above it (ones that can be noticed) has a “brighter” quality and produces a more noisy note, and a note without many harmonics is more subdued and “darker”. 

This video plays a low A note from different instruments, and notice how on the right side of the graph different lines show up at different times.

These are the harmonics, and try to listen to what a note sounds like with more harmonics or fewer.

How harmonics work

Envelope

The envelope of a note details the loudness (or amplitude) of the note over time.

It is sometimes called the ADSR envelope, and ADSR stands for “Attack, Decay, Sustain, Release”.

The attack of a note is how quickly the note gets to peak loudness, starting from when the instrument first plays it.

Then there is a decay from the initial attack down to the main loudness of the note, which is where it can sustain the note until the instrument stops playing.

Finally the release is how long the note keeps ringing out after the instrument stops playing.

The ADSR envelope can affect the timbre of a note, because each instrument has its own envelope.

For example, a piano note is played by a hammer hitting a string, so the attack is quite short, whereas a stringed instrument has a longer attack to it.

If we change one aspect of the envelope, it would be hard to pick out which specific instrument played the note, and the timbre of the instrument is harder to hear.

Here is a video that more fully explains the ADSR envelope: 

ADSR envelope explained

Timbre Summed Up

We hope this article was helpful to learn about timbre in music.

It is a difficult concept to grasp, because it is harder to visualize than rhythm or pitch.

You can use a spectrogram – a graph that shows the harmonics of a note and their amplitude.

Essentially, it’s a word to describe the overall sound of a note, and it’s how we describe why one instrument sounds different to another, even when playing the same note.

Please leave a comment or question below if you have any! 

Samuel Chase

Samuel Chase

Samuel Chase has been playing music since he was 5 years old, and teaching music since he was 13. He has a PhD in Music from the University of Surrey, and he has composed music that has been played in three different countries. He is currently working as a film composer and writing a book on film music.

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