In music, timbre (/ˈtæmbər/ TAM-bər, also known as tone color or
tone quality from psychoacoustics) is the perceived sound quality of a
musical note, sound or tone.
1 Synonyms 2 ASA definition 3 Attributes
3.1 Harmonics 3.2 Envelope
4 In music history
5 Psychoacoustic evidence
Tone quality and tone color are synonyms for timbre, as well as the
"texture attributed to a single instrument". However, the word texture
can also refer to the type of music, such as multiple, interweaving
melody lines versus a singable melody accompanied by subordinate
Hermann von Helmholtz
Range between tonal and noiselike character Spectral envelope Time envelope in terms of rise, duration, and decay (ADSR, which stands for "attack, decay, sustain, release") Changes both of spectral envelope (formant-glide) and fundamental frequency (micro-intonation) Prefix, or onset 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, the sound similar to that produced when a radio is not tuned to a station. Erickson (1975, 6) gives a table of subjective experiences and related physical phenomena based on Schouten's five attributes:
Tonal character, usually pitched Periodic sound
Noisy, with or without some tonal character, including rustle noise Noise, including random pulses characterized by the rustle time (the mean interval between pulses)
Coloration Spectral envelope
Beginning/ending Physical rise and decay time
Coloration glide or formant glide Change of spectral envelope
Microintonation Small change (one up and down) in frequency
Tremolo Amplitude modulation
Final sound Suffix
See also Psychoacoustic evidence below. Harmonics Further information: Fourier transform
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. The lowest frequency is called the fundamental frequency, 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 is double the fundamental frequency. Other significant frequencies are called overtones of the fundamental frequency, which may include harmonics 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 subharmonics at whole number divisions of the fundamental frequency. Most instruments produce harmonic sounds, but many instruments produce partials and inharmonic tones, such as cymbals and other indefinite-pitched instruments. When the tuning note in an orchestra or 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 and the western equal tempered scale are related to the harmonic spectra/timbre of many western instruments in an analogous way that the inharmonic timbre of the Thai renat (a xylophone-like instrument) is related to the seven-tone near-equal tempered pelog scale in which they are tuned. Similarly, the inharmonic spectra of Balinese metallophones combined with harmonic instruments such as the stringed rebab or the voice, are related to the five-note near-equal tempered slendro scale commonly found in Indonesian gamelan music (Sethares 1998, 6, 211, 318). Envelope
A signal and its envelope marked with red
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) and transients. Thus these are all
common controls on professional synthesizers. 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, so called
because the sound just "fits" inside its envelope: what this means
should be clear from a time-domain display of almost any interesting
sound, zoomed out enough that the entire waveform is visible.
In music history
Instrumental timbre played an increasing role in the practice of
orchestration during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Berlioz
(Macdonald 1969, 51) and Wagner (Latham) made significant
contributions to its development during the nineteenth century.
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
Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune
Mahler, Symphony No. 6, Scherzo, Figure 55, bars 5–12
Mahler, Symphony No. 6, Scherzo, Figure 55, bars 5–12
See also Klangfarbenmelodie.
In rock music from the late 1960s to the 2000s, the timbre of specific
sounds is important to a song. For example, in heavy metal music, the
sonic impact of the heavily amplified, heavily distorted power chord
played on electric guitar through very loud guitar amplifiers and rows
of speaker cabinets is an essential part of the style's musical
identity. You could not take the heavily amplified electric guitar
part and substitute it with the same notes played on a grand piano or
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, acoustic analysis shows waveforms
irregular enough to suggest three instruments rather than one. David
Luce (1963, 16) suggests that this implies that "[C]ertain strong
regularities in the acoustic waveform of the above instruments must
exist which are invariant with respect to the above variables."
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 from studies
of vision and visual perception (Erickson 1975, 11).
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 algorithm to
aggregate their dissimilarity judgments into a timbre space. The most
consistent outcomes from such experiments are that brightness or
spectral energy distribution (Grey 1977), and the bite, or rate and
synchronicity (Wessel 1979) and rise time (Lakatos 2000), of the
attack are important factors.
h = 1
h = 1
h = 5
h = 1
displaystyle T_ 1 = frac a_ 1 sum _ h=1 ^ H a_ h qquad T_ 2 = frac a_ 2 +a_ 3 +a_ 4 sum _ h=1 ^ H a_ h qquad T_ 3 = frac sum _ h=5 ^ H a_ h sum _ h=1 ^ H a_ h
Abbado, Adriano (1988). "Perceptual Correspondences: Animation and
Sound". MS Thesis. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Acoustical Society of America Standards Secretariat (1994).
"Acoustical Terminology ANSI S1.1–1994 (ASA 111-1994)". American
National Standard. ANSI / Acoustical Society of America.
American Standards Association (1960). American Standard Acoustical
Terminology. New York: American Standards Association.
Del Mar, Norman (1980). Mahler’s Sixth Symphony: A Study. London:
Dixon Ward, W. (1965). "Psychoacoustics". In Audiometry: Principles
and Practices, edited by Aram Glorig, 55. Baltimore: Williams &
Wilkins Co. Reprinted, Huntington, N.Y.: R. E. Krieger Pub. Co., 1977.
Dixon Ward, W. (1970) "Musical Perception". In Foundations of Modern
Auditory Theory vol. 1, edited by Jerry V. Tobias,[page needed].
New York: Academic Press. ISBN 0-12-691901-1.
Erickson, Robert (1975). Sound Structure in Music. Berkeley and Los
Angeles: University of California Press.
Grey, John M. (1977). "Multidimensional Perceptual Scaling of Musical
Timbres". The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America
Lakatos, S. (2000). "A Common Perceptual Space for
v t e
Balungan Cadence Interval Melodic motion Motif Ornament Pattern Phrasing Pitch Rhythm Sequence Steps and skips Timbre Type (figure) Voice Voice leading
v t e
Claque Coup de glotte Divertissement Entr'acte Melodrama Overture Répétiteur Timbre
Fach Gesamtkunstwerk Kammersänger Leitmotif Literaturoper Regietheater Sitzprobe Sprechgesang
Duodrama Hovsångare Insertion aria Monodrama Overture Travesti
v t e
Musical range or compass and register
Whistle Falsetto Modal Vocal fry
Soprano Boy soprano Castrato Mezzo-soprano Contralto Countertenor Tenor Baritone Bass
Treble Bass Sub-bass
Chest voice Clef Extension Head voice Passaggio Pedal tone Organ registration Tessitura Timbre Vocal range Vocal weight
v t e
Colors of noise Fundamental frequency Jivari Loudness Microinflection Noise Overtone Pitch Rustle noise Sawari Spectral envelope Sympathetic string Tonality Waveform
v t e
Types · Genres
Singing Choral Opera Lied Vocables
Fach Non-classical music
Concepts · Techniques
Backup vocals Coloratura Chest voice Crooning Falsetto Head voice Lead vocals Passaggio Quintus Rapping Scat singing Sprechgesang Tessitura Timbre Vocal pedagogy Vocal range Vocal register Vocal resonation Vocal weight Death growl
Sound equipment (popular music)
Microphone Monitor speaker In-ear monitor Pitch correction Sound reinforcement system
Choirmaster Vocal coach