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In music, timbre ( ), also known as tone color or tone quality (from
psychoacoustics Psychoacoustics is the branch of psychophysics Psychophysics quantitatively investigates the relationship between physical stimulus (physiology), stimuli and the sensation (psychology), sensations and perceptions they produce. Psychophysics has b ...
), is the perceived sound quality of a
musical note In music, a note is a symbol denoting a musical sound. In English usage, a note is also the sound itself. Notes can represent the Pitch (music), pitch and Duration (music), duration of a sound in musical notation. A note can also represent a pitch ...
, sound or
tone Tone may refer to: Color-related * Tone, mix of tint and shade, in painting and color theory * Tone, the lightness Lightness is a visual perception of the luminance (L) of an object. It is often judged relative to a similarly lit object. ...
. Timbre distinguishes different types of sound production, such as choir voices and musical instruments. It also enables listeners to distinguish different instruments in the same category (e.g., an
oboe The oboe ( ) is a type of double reed A double reed is a type of reed Reed or Reeds may refer to: Science, technology, biology, and medicine * Reed bird (disambiguation) * Reed pen, writing implement in use since ancient times * Reed ( ...

oboe
and a
clarinet The clarinet is a family of woodwind instrument Woodwind instruments are a family of musical instruments A musical instrument is a device created or adapted to make musical sounds. In principle, any object that produces sound can be cons ...

clarinet
, both woodwind instruments). In simple terms, timbre is what makes a particular musical instrument or human voice have a different sound from another, even when they play or sing the same note. For instance, it is the difference in sound between a guitar and a piano playing the same note at the same volume. Both instruments can sound equally tuned in relation to each other as they play the same note, and while playing at the same amplitude level each instrument will still sound distinctively with its own unique tone color. Experienced musicians are able to distinguish between different instruments of the same type based on their varied timbres, even if those instruments are playing notes at the same fundamental
pitch Pitch may refer to: Acoustic frequency * Pitch (music), the perceived frequency of sound including "definite pitch" and "indefinite pitch" ** Absolute pitch or "perfect pitch" ** Pitch class, a set of all pitches that are a whole number of octaves ...
and loudness. The physical characteristics of sound that determine the perception of timbre include frequency
spectrum A spectrum (plural ''spectra'' or ''spectrums'') is a condition that is not limited to a specific set of values but can vary, without gaps, across a Continuum (theory), continuum. The word was first used scientifically in optics to describe the ...

spectrum
and
envelope An envelope is a common packaging Packaging is the art and technology of enclosing or protecting products for distribution, storage, sale, and use. Packaging also refers to the process of designing, evaluating, and producing packages. Packa ...
. Singers and instrumental musicians can change the timbre of the music they are singing/playing by using different singing or playing techniques. For example, a violinist can use different bowing styles or play on different parts of the string to obtain different timbres (e.g., playing
sul tasto This is a list of musical terms that are likely to be encountered in printed scores, Music criticism, music reviews, and program notes. Most of the terms are Italian (see also Italian musical terms used in English), in accordance with the Italian ...
produces a light, airy timbre, whereas playing
sul ponticello This is a list of musical terms that are likely to be encountered in printed scores, music reviews, and program notes. Most of the terms are Italian (see also Italian musical terms used in English Many musical terms are in Italian, because th ...
produces a harsh, even and aggressive tone). On electric guitar and electric piano, performers can change the timbre using
effects unit An effects unit or effects pedal is an electronic device that alters the sound of a musical instrument A musical instrument is a device created or adapted to make Music, musical sounds. In principle, any object that produces sound can be cons ...
s and
graphic equalizer Equalization is the process of adjusting the balance between frequency Frequency is the number of occurrences of a repeating event per unit of time. It is also referred to as temporal frequency, which emphasizes the contrast to spatial f ...

graphic equalizer
s.


Synonyms

''Tone quality'' and ''tone color'' are synonyms for ''timbre'', as well as the "''texture'' attributed to a single instrument". However, the word
texture Texture may refer to: Science and technology * Surface texture, the texture means smoothness, roughness, or bumpiness of the surface of an object * Texture (roads), road surface characteristics with waves shorter than road roughness * Texture (co ...
can also refer to the type of music, such as multiple, interweaving melody lines versus a singable melody accompanied by subordinate chords.
Hermann von Helmholtz Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholtz (31 August 1821 – 8 September 1894) was a German physicist A physicist is a scientist A scientist is a person who conducts Scientific method, scientific research to advance knowledge in an Branch ...

Hermann von Helmholtz
used the German ''Klangfarbe'' (''tone color''), and
John Tyndall John Tyndall FRS (; 2 August 1820 – 4 December 1893) was a prominent 19th-century Irish physicist. His initial scientific fame arose in the 1850s from his study of diamagnetism Diamagnetic materials are repelled by a magnetic field A ...

John Tyndall
proposed an English translation, ''clangtint'', but both terms were disapproved of by Alexander Ellis, who also discredits ''register'' and ''color'' for their pre-existing English meanings. The sound of a musical instrument may be described with words such as ''bright'', ''dark'', ''warm'', ''harsh'', and other terms. There are also
colors of noise In audio engineering An audio engineer (also known as a sound engineer or recording engineer) helps to produce a recording A record, recording or records may refer to: An item or collection of data Computing * Record (computer science), ...
, such as
pink Pink is the color of a namesake flower that is a pale tint of red. It was first used as a color name in the late 17th century. According to surveys in Europe and the United States, pink is the color most often associated with charm, politeness, ...
and
white White is the lightest color and is achromatic (having no hue). It is the color of snow, chalk, and milk, and is the opposite of black. White objects fully diffuse reflection, reflect and scattering, scatter all the visible spectrum, visible wa ...

white
. In visual representations of sound, timbre corresponds to the shape of the image, while loudness corresponds to brightness; pitch corresponds to the y-shift of the spectrogram.


ASA definition

The Acoustical Society of America (ASA) Acoustical Terminology definition 12.09 of timbre describes it as "that attribute of auditory sensation which enables a listener to judge that two nonidentical sounds, similarly presented and having the same loudness and
pitch Pitch may refer to: Acoustic frequency * Pitch (music), the perceived frequency of sound including "definite pitch" and "indefinite pitch" ** Absolute pitch or "perfect pitch" ** Pitch class, a set of all pitches that are a whole number of octaves ...
, are dissimilar", adding, "Timbre depends primarily upon the frequency spectrum, although it also depends upon the sound pressure and the temporal characteristics of the sound".


Attributes

Many commentators have attempted to decompose timbre into component attributes. For example, J. F. Schouten (1968, 42) describes the "elusive attributes of timbre" as "determined by at least five major acoustic parameters", which
Robert Erickson Robert Erickson (March 7, 1917 in Marquette, Michigan Marquette ( ''mar-KEHT'') is a city in Marquette County in the U.S. state of Michigan. The population was 21,355 at the 2010 census, which makes it the largest city in the Upper Peninsula ...
finds, "scaled to the concerns of much contemporary music": # Range between
tonal Tonal may refer to: * Tonal (mythology), a concept in the belief systems and traditions of Mesoamerican cultures, involving a spiritual link between a person and an animal * Tonal language, a type of language in which pitch is used to make phonemic ...
and noiselike character #
Spectral envelope A spectral envelope is the envelope curve of the amplitude spectrum. It describes one point in time (one window, to be precise). In remote sensing image of Death Valley colored using polarimetry. Remote sensing is the acquisition of inform ...
#
Time envelope
Time envelope
in terms of rise, duration, and decay (ADSR, which stands for "attack, decay, sustain, release") # Changes both of
spectral envelope A spectral envelope is the envelope curve of the amplitude spectrum. It describes one point in time (one window, to be precise). In remote sensing image of Death Valley colored using polarimetry. Remote sensing is the acquisition of inform ...
(formant-glide) and
fundamental frequency The fundamental frequency, often referred to simply as the fundamental, is defined as the lowest frequency Frequency is the number of occurrences of a repeating event per unit of time A unit of time is any particular time Time is th ...
( micro-intonation) #
Prefix A prefix is an affix In linguistics Linguistics is the scientific study of language A language is a structured system of communication used by humans, including speech (spoken language), gestures (Signed language, sign language) ...
, or
onsetOnset may refer to: * Onset (audio), the beginning of a musical note or sound * Onset, Massachusetts, village in the United States **Onset Island (Massachusetts), a small island located at the western end of the Cape Cod Canal *Interonset interval, ...
of a sound, quite dissimilar to the ensuing lasting vibration An example of a tonal sound is a musical sound that has a definite pitch, such as pressing a key on a piano; a sound with a noiselike character would be
white noise In signal processing Signal processing is an electrical engineering Electrical engineering is an engineering discipline concerned with the study, design, and application of equipment, devices, and systems which use electricity, elect ...

white noise
, the sound similar to that produced when a radio is not tuned to a station. Erickson gives a table of subjective experiences and related physical phenomena based on Schouten's five attributes: See also Psychoacoustic evidence below.


Harmonics

The richness of a sound or note a musical instrument produces is sometimes described in terms of a sum of a number of distinct
frequencies Frequency is the number of occurrences of a repeating event per unit of time A unit of time is any particular time Time is the indefinite continued sequence, progress of existence and event (philosophy), events that occur in an apparent ...

frequencies
. The lowest frequency is called the ''
fundamental frequency The fundamental frequency, often referred to simply as the fundamental, is defined as the lowest frequency Frequency is the number of occurrences of a repeating event per unit of time A unit of time is any particular time Time is th ...
'', and the pitch it produces is used to name the note, but the fundamental frequency is not always the dominant frequency. The dominant frequency is the frequency that is most heard, and it is always a multiple of the fundamental frequency. For example, the dominant frequency for the
transverse flute A transverse flute or side-blown flute is a flute The flute is a family of musical instruments in the woodwind group. Unlike woodwind instruments with Reed (instrument), reeds, a flute is an aerophone or reedless wind instrument that produces i ...
is double the fundamental frequency. Other significant frequencies are called
overtone An overtone is any frequency Frequency is the number of occurrences of a repeating event per unit of time A unit of time is any particular time Time is the indefinite continued sequence, progress of existence and event (philosoph ...

overtone
s of the fundamental frequency, which may include
harmonic A harmonic is any member of the harmonic series Harmonic series may refer to either of two related concepts: *Harmonic series (mathematics) *Harmonic series (music) {{Disambig .... The term is employed in various disciplines, including music ...
s and partials. Harmonics are whole number multiples of the fundamental frequency, such as ×2, ×3, ×4, etc. Partials are other overtones. There are also sometimes
subharmonic In music Music is the art of arranging sounds in time through the elements of melody, harmony, rhythm, and timbre. It is one of the universal cultural aspects of all human societies. General definitions of music include common elements ...
s at whole number ''divisions'' of the fundamental frequency. Most instruments produce harmonic sounds, but many instruments produce partials and
inharmonic In music, inharmonicity is the degree to which the frequency, frequencies of overtones (also known as Harmonic series (music)#Partial, partials or partial tones) depart from Integer, whole multiples of the fundamental frequency (harmonic series ...
tones, such as cymbals and other indefinite-pitched instruments. When the tuning note in an
orchestra An orchestra (; ) is a large instrumental ensemble typical of classical music Classical music generally refers to the formal musical tradition of the Western world The Western world, also known as the West, refers to various ...

orchestra
or
concert band A concert band, variously also called a wind ensemble, symphonic band, wind symphony, wind orchestra, wind band, symphonic winds, symphony band, or symphonic wind ensemble, is a performing ensemble consisting of members of the woodwind, brass ...

concert band
is played, the sound is a combination of 440 Hz, 880 Hz, 1320 Hz, 1760 Hz and so on. Each instrument in the orchestra or concert band produces a different combination of these frequencies, as well as harmonics and overtones. The sound waves of the different frequencies overlap and combine, and the balance of these amplitudes is a major factor in the characteristic sound of each instrument. William Sethares wrote that
just intonation In music, just intonation or pure intonation is the attempt to tune all musical intervals as whole number ratio In mathematics, a ratio indicates how many times one number contains another. For example, if there are eight oranges and six ...
and the western
equal tempered An equal temperament is a or , which approximates by dividing an (or other interval) into equal steps. This means the ratio of the of any adjacent pair of notes is the same, which gives an equal perceived step size as is perceived roughly a ...
scale Scale or scales may refer to: Mathematics * Scale (descriptive set theory)In the mathematical discipline of descriptive set theory, a scale is a certain kind of object defined on a set (mathematics), set of point (mathematics), points in some Poli ...
are related to the harmonic
spectra
spectra
/timbre of many western instruments in an analogous way that the inharmonic timbre of the
Thai Thai or THAI may refer to: * Of or from Thailand, a country in Southeast Asia ** Thai people, the dominant ethnic group of Thailand ** Thai language, a Tai-Kadai language spoken mainly in and around Thailand *** Thai script *** Thai (Unicode block) ...
renat (a xylophone-like instrument) is related to the seven-tone near-equal tempered
pelog Pelog ( su, ᮕᮦᮜᮧᮌ᮪, translit=Pélog /pelog/, jv, ꦥꦺꦭꦺꦴꦒ꧀, translit=Pélog /pelok/) is one of the essential tuning systems used in instruments that has . The other, older, scale commonly used is called '. ''Pelog'' ...
scale in which they are tuned. Similarly, the inharmonic spectra of
Bali Bali () ( ban, ) is a province of Indonesia Indonesia ( ), officially the Republic of Indonesia ( id, Republik Indonesia, links=yes ), is a country in Southeast Asia and Oceania between the Indian Ocean, Indian and Pacific Ocean, Pacif ...

Bali
nese metallophones combined with harmonic instruments such as the stringed
rebab The ''rebab'' ( ar, ربابة, ''rabāba'', variously spelled ''rebap'', ''rubob'', ''rebeb'', ''rababa'', ''rabeba'', ''robab'', ''rubab'', ''rebob'', etc) is the name of several related bowed (but sometimes plucked) string instruments t ...

rebab
or the voice, are related to the five-note near-equal tempered
slendro Image:Slendro vs whole tone scale on C.png, 350px, ''Slendro-djawar'' scale in comparison with whole tone scale on C or . Slendro ( jv, ꦱ꧀ꦭꦺꦤ꧀ꦢꦿꦺꦴ, translit=Sléndro) ( su, ᮞᮜᮦᮔ᮪ᮓ᮪ᮛᮧ, translit=Saléndro) is ...
scale commonly found in Indonesian
gamelan Gamelan () ( jv, ꦒꦩꦼꦭꦤ꧀, su, ᮌᮙᮨᮜᮔ᮪, ban, ᬕᬫᭂᬮᬦ᭄) is the traditional A tradition is a belief A belief is an Attitude (psychology), attitude that something is the case, or that some proposition ab ...

gamelan
music.


Envelope

The timbre of a sound is also greatly affected by the following aspects of its ''envelope'': attack time and characteristics, decay, sustain, release (
ADSR envelope In sound In physics, sound is a vibration that propagates as an acoustic wave, through a transmission medium such as a gas, liquid or solid. In human physiology and psychology, sound is the ''reception'' of such waves and their ''perception' ...

ADSR envelope
) and
transient Transience or Transient may refer to: Music * Transient (album), ''Transient'' (album), a 2004 album by Gaelle * Transience (album), ''Transience'' (album), a 2015 album by Steven Wilson Science and engineering * Transient state, when a process v ...
s. Thus these are all common controls on professional
synthesizer A synthesizer (also spelled synthesiser) is an electronic musical instrument An electronic musical instrument is a musical instrument that produces sound using electronics, electronic circuitry. Such an instrument sounds by outputting an el ...
s. For instance, if one takes away the attack from the sound of a piano or trumpet, it becomes more difficult to identify the sound correctly, since the sound of the hammer hitting the strings or the first blast of the player's lips on the trumpet mouthpiece are highly characteristic of those instruments. The envelope is the overall amplitude structure of a sound.


In music history

Instrumental timbre played an increasing role in the practice of
orchestration Orchestration is the study or practice of writing music for an orchestra (or, more loosely, for any musical ensemble, such as a concert band) or of adapting music composed for another medium for an orchestra. Also called "instrumentation", orches ...
during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Berlioz Louis-Hector Berlioz (11 December 1803 – 8 March 1869) was a French Romantic music, Romantic composer and conductor. His output includes orchestral works such as the ''Symphonie fantastique'' and ''Harold en Italie, Harold in Italy'', ...

Berlioz
and
Wagner Wilhelm Richard Wagner ( ; ; 22 May 181313 February 1883) was a German composer, theatre director, polemic A polemic () is contentious rhetoric Rhetoric () is the Art (skill), art of persuasion, which along with grammar and logic ( ...

Wagner
made significant contributions to its development during the nineteenth century. For example, Wagner’s “Sleep motif” from Act 3 of his opera ''
Die Walküre (''The Valkyrie''), Wagner-Werk-Verzeichnis, WWV 86B, is the second of the four music dramas that constitute Richard Wagner's ''Der Ring des Nibelungen,'' (English: ''The Ring of the Nibelung''). It was performed, as a single opera, at the Natio ...

Die Walküre
'', features a descending
chromatic scale The chromatic scale is a set of twelve (more completely, es) used in music, with notes separated by the of a . Almost all western s, such as the , are made to produce the chromatic scale, while other instruments capable of continuously variabl ...

chromatic scale
that passes through a gamut of orchestral timbres. First the woodwind (flute, followed by oboe), then the massed sound of strings with the violins carrying the melody, and finally the brass (French horns).
Debussy (Achille) Claude Debussy (; 22 August 1862 – 25 March 1918) was a French composer. He is sometimes seen as the first Impressionism in music, Impressionist composer, although he vigorously rejected the term. He was among the most influe ...

Debussy
, who composed during the last decades of the nineteenth and the first decades of the twentieth centuries, has been credited with elevating further the role of timbre: "To a marked degree the music of Debussy elevates timbre to an unprecedented structural status; already in '' Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune'' the ''color'' of
flute The flute is a family of musical instrument A musical instrument is a device created or adapted to make Music, musical sounds. In principle, any object that produces sound can be considered a musical instrument—it is through purpose that the ...

flute
and
harp The harp is a stringed musical instrument String instruments, stringed instruments, or chordophones are musical instrument A musical instrument is a device created or adapted to make Music, musical sounds. In principle, any object that p ...

harp
functions referentially".
Mahler Gustav Mahler (; 7 July 1860 – 18 May 1911) was an Austro-Bohemian Romantic Romantic may refer to: Genres and eras * The Romantic era, an artistic, literary, musical and intellectual movement of the 18th and 19th centuries ** Romantic music, ...
’s approach to
orchestration Orchestration is the study or practice of writing music for an orchestra (or, more loosely, for any musical ensemble, such as a concert band) or of adapting music composed for another medium for an orchestra. Also called "instrumentation", orches ...
illustrates the increasing role of differentiated timbres in music of the early twentieth century.
Norman Del Mar Norman René Del Mar Commander of the Order of the British Empire, CBE (31 July 19196 February 1994) was a United Kingdom, British Conductor (music), conductor, horn player, and biographer. As a conductor, he specialised in the music of late romanti ...
describes the following passage from the
Scherzo A scherzo (, , ; plural scherzos or scherzi), in western Western may refer to: Places *Western, Nebraska, a village in the US *Western, New York, a town in the US *Western Creek, Tasmania, a locality in Australia *Western Junction, Tasmania ...
movement of his Sixth Symphony, as "a seven-bar link to the trio consisting of an extension in diminuendo of the repeated As… though now rising in a succession of piled octaves which moreover leap-frog with Cs added to the As. The lower octaves then drop away and only the Cs remain so as to dovetail with the first oboe phrase of the trio." During these bars, Mahler passes the repeated notes through a gamut of instrumental colors, mixed and single: starting with horns and pizzicato strings, progressing through trumpet, clarinet, flute, piccolo and finally, oboe: See also
Klangfarbenmelodie ''Klangfarbenmelodie'' (German for "sound-color melody") is a music Music is the art of arranging sounds in time to produce a composition through the elements of melody, harmony, rhythm, and timbre. It is one of the universal cultural ...
. In
rock music Rock music is a broad genre of popular music Popular music is music with wide appeal that is typically distributed to large audiences through the music industry. These forms and styles can be enjoyed and performed by people with little or no ...
from the late 1960s to the 2000s, the timbre of specific sounds is important to a song. For example, in
heavy metal music Heavy metal (or simply metal) is a genre of rock music Rock music is a broad genre of popular music Popular music is music with wide appeal that is typically distributed to large audiences through the music industry. These forms and st ...
, the sonic impact of the heavily amplified, heavily distorted
power chord A power chord (also fifth chord) is a colloquial name for a chord in guitar music, especially electric guitar An electric guitar is a guitar The guitar is a fretted musical instrument that typically has six string instrument, stri ...
played on electric guitar through very loud guitar amplifiers and rows of
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s is an essential part of the style's musical identity.


Psychoacoustic evidence

Often, listeners can identify an instrument, even at different pitches and loudness, in different environments, and with different players. In the case of the
clarinet The clarinet is a family of woodwind instrument Woodwind instruments are a family of musical instruments A musical instrument is a device created or adapted to make musical sounds. In principle, any object that produces sound can be cons ...

clarinet
, acoustic analysis shows waveforms irregular enough to suggest three instruments rather than one. David Luce suggests that this implies that " rtain strong regularities in the acoustic waveform of the above instruments must exist which are invariant with respect to the above variables". However, Robert Erickson argues that there are few regularities and they do not explain our "...powers of recognition and identification." He suggests borrowing the concept of
subjective constancy Subjective may refer to: * SubjectivitySubjectivity in a philosophical Philosophy (from , ) is the study of general and fundamental questions, such as those about reason, existence, knowledge Knowledge is a familiarity, awareness ...
from studies of vision and
visual perception Visual perception is the ability to interpret the surrounding environment (biophysical), environment through photopic vision (daytime vision), color vision, scotopic vision (night vision), and mesopic vision (twilight vision), using light in ...
. Psychoacoustic experiments from the 1960s onwards tried to elucidate the nature of timbre. One method involves playing pairs of sounds to listeners, then using a
multidimensional scaling Multidimensional scaling (MDS) is a means of visualizing the level of similarity of individual cases of a dataset. MDS is used to translate "information about the pairwise 'distances' among a set of n objects or individuals" into a configuration ...
algorithm to aggregate their dissimilarity judgments into a timbre space. The most consistent outcomes from such experiments are that
brightness Brightness is an attribute of visual perception in which a source appears to be radiating or reflecting light. In other words, brightness is the perception elicited by the luminance of a visual target. It is not necessarily proportional to lumina ...
or spectral energy distribution, and the ''bite'', or rate and synchronicity and rise time, of the attack are important factors.


Tristimulus timbre model

The concept of
tristimulus The CIE 1931 color spaces are the first defined quantitative links between distributions of wavelengths in the electromagnetic visible spectrum The visible spectrum is the portion of the that is to the . in this range of s is called ' or ...
originates in the world of color, describing the way three primary colors can be mixed together to create a given color. By analogy, the musical tristimulus measures the mixture of
harmonic A harmonic is any member of the harmonic series Harmonic series may refer to either of two related concepts: *Harmonic series (mathematics) *Harmonic series (music) {{Disambig .... The term is employed in various disciplines, including music ...
s in a given sound, grouped into three sections. It is basically a proposal of reducing a huge number of sound partials, that can amount to dozens or hundreds in some cases, down to only three values. The first tristimulus measures the relative weight of the first harmonic; the second tristimulus measures the relative weight of the second, third, and fourth harmonics taken together; and the third tristimulus measures the relative weight of all the remaining harmonics. More evidences, studies and applications would be needed regarding this type of representation, in order to validate it. :T_1 = \frac \qquad T_2 = \frac \qquad T_3 = \frac


Brightness

The term "brightness" is also used in discussions of sound timbres, in a rough analogy with visual brightness. Timbre researchers consider brightness to be one of the perceptually strongest distinctions between sounds, and formalize it acoustically as an indication of the amount of high-frequency content in a sound, using a measure such as the spectral centroid.


See also

*
Formant 250px, Spectrogram of American English vowels showing the formants ''F''1 and ''F''2 In speech science Speech science refers to the study of production, transmission and perception of speech Speech is human vocal communication using language ...

Formant


References

* * * * * * Footnotes {{Authority control Opera terminology Sound Acoustics