What is Timbre in music? Timbre in music refers to unique sound quality that a voice or instrument creates when making a sound in a piece of music. When you are writing or talking about what is timbre in music, you are discussing the sound quality of the individual instrument or the ensemble as a whole. It is important when describing what is timbre in music to use adjectives to help others know what can be heard in the music. There are countless words that can be used to describe what timbre is in music, and what you hear depends not only on the instruments in the music, but how those instruments are creating or producing a sound in the music.
A simple example of what is timbre in music, is to think about the guitar. There are several different types of guitars, from the classical nylon string guitar, to the steel string acoustic guitar, to the many different electric guitars and then the different effects pedals that can be used. Each of these instruments, although they are all a type of guitar, all sound very different to one another. Then, when you add in the different techniques that can be used to create a sound on the guitar, such as picking, sliding or strumming, the types of unique sounds that can be created are only limited by the imagination of the musician.
When talking about what is Timbre in music, it is important to note that there are other names or terms that can be used to discuss the instruments used in a piece of music. One term is Performing Media. Performing Media in music is the collective name given to the instruments used in an ensemble or piece of music. Tone Colour and Sound Sources are other names that can be used interchangeably with Performing Media and can help you to better understand what is timbre in music.
When discussing the Timbre of the instruments in an ensemble or piece of music, there are a few things that you need to do. The things to listen for and help you discuss this Element of Music come under the headings of – Identify the Instruments, Classify the Instruments, Explain the Techniques, Describe the Sound Quality, Range, Role and Register of all the instruments.
What is Timbre in Music Definitions
Identify the Instruments
When discussing what is the Timbre of the instruments in a piece of music, the first thing you need to do is listen for all the instruments that are being used. Listen to the music and list all the instruments that you can hear. You might find that between sections of the music, the same instruments are being used, but they might be played using a different technique. All these factors will need to be considered when describing what is timbre in music, and how each instrument contributes to the ensemble.
Classify the Instruments
To classify an instrument, you can use a couple of different musical instrument classification systems. Most instruments in Western Culture, fit neatly into the Instruments of the Orchestra and the Instrument Families. But there are many instruments from World Cultures, and Modern Music, that do not fit this system of instrument classification. For this reason, it is sometimes easier to use the Hornbostel-Sachs instrument classification categories.
Instrument Families of the Orchestra
In the Orchestra, there are four families of instruments. These include the String Family, the Brass Family, the Woodwind Family, and the Percussion Family. Each family of instruments has a common element that unites them together. The definitions of what makes each family of the orchestra unique are below.
String Family – instruments with strings. These include musical instruments such as the violin, viola, cello, double bass OR string bass, harp, harpsichord, piano, and guitar. These instruments are mostly bowed, plucked, or strummed to make a sound.
Brass Family– the instruments that belong to this family were all originally made from brass and have a cup shaped mouthpiece. To make a sound on a member of the brass family, the brass player blows air through a cup shaped mouthpiece. Instruments that belong to this family include the cornet, bugle, trumpet, trombone, French horn, and tuba.
Woodwind Family – the defining feature of instruments that belong to this family of the orchestra were that they were all originally made of wood OR have a reed in the mouthpiece. Like the brass family, these instruments require moving air to make a sound, but the mouthpieces for this family of instruments vary greatly. Instruments that belong to the Woodwind Family include the piccolo, flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon, contrabassoon, saxophone and even the recorder!
Percussion Family – for an instrument to belong to this family, the sound production method is what unites them. In simple terms, percussion instruments are those that can be hit, shaken, or scraped to make a sound. But percussion instruments can be categorized further as either tuned or untuned. The difference between these is that a tuned percussion instrument has definite pitch and untuned percussion instruments do not have definite pitch.
Tuned Percussion instruments include – xylophone, glockenspiel, marimba, tubular bells, timpani and celeste.
Untuned Percussion instruments include – bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, bongo, gong, triangle, tambour, tambourine, clave, guiro, shakers, woodblock, drum kit and many, many more!
In the European musical tradition, the only instrument that does not fit neatly into these families is the human voice. There are four main classifications of the voice, these include from the highest to the lowest – soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. There are two other voice types – mezzo soprano and baritone. The human voice is categorized by the range and register of the notes that it can perform.
Not all instruments that you can hear fit neatly into the instrument families from the orchestra. Erich Moritz von Hornbostel and Curt Sachs together devised a system to categorize instruments in the early part of the 2oth Century. These two men wrote about their new instrument classification system in Zeitschrift für Ethnologie, this was later translated into English in 1961. This system was based on another one devised by Victor-Charles Mahillon. Mahillon divided instruments into four broad categories. These were based on the method of sound production material – moving air column, strings, membrane and body of the instrument.
Hornbostel and Sachs based their instrument classification system on the Dewey Decimal Classification used in libraries. This musical instrument classification comes under five broad headings, and almost 300 subheadings! The five main categories are aerophones, chordophones, idiophones, membranophones and electric sounds or electrophones.
Aerophones – these instruments require moving air to make a sound. Examples of aerophone instruments include – flute, recorder, clarinet, saxophone, trumpet, trombone, cor anglais, french horn, piccolo, pan flute, harmonica, and ocarina.
Chordophones – a chordophone is an instrument with strings. There are several ways to make a sound with these instruments from bowing, plucking and strumming. Chordophones include the guitar, violin, cello, harp, mandolin, banjo, double bass, lute, hurdy gurdy, dombra, charango, bouzouki, and many more.
Idiophones – an idiophone is an instrument that is hit, shaken or scraped to make a sound. These instruments include the cymbals, guiro, tambourine, xylophone, glockenspiel, balaphon, mbira, slit drum, rattle, triangle, bell, Gamelan, tapping sticks, wood block, maracas, vibraphone, and too many more to list here!
Membranophones – a membranophone is an instrument that has a skin or membrane stretched across it. This group of instruments includes most drums such as the snare drum, bass, drum, bongo, tambour, djembe, talking drum, dun dun, congas, timpani, bodhran, tabla, darbuka, khol, and again, many more drums from all parts of the globe.
Electric Sounds or Electrophones – electric sounds, or electrophones, are instruments that require electricity to make a sound. These include instruments such as the electric guitar, bass guitar, electric piano, organ, synthesizer, theremin, Hammond Organ, electric drum kit and countless others
Explain how the sound is made
Another aspect of what is timbre in music, is the method of sound production by the performer on an individual instrument. Each musical instrument has several ways that a sound can be produced or even altered by the performer. The techniques used will depend on the type of instrument and how a sound is naturally made.
An example of a different timbre or tone colour produced on an instrument could be on the violin. On the violin the performer can make a sound that is bowed, plucked, double stopped, triple stopped or even a sound can be made by using the wood of the bow instead! The same melody could be played, each with a different technique, and each time the timbre of the instrument would be different and would make the melody sound different.
When describing the action used to produce a sound, it can generally come under the following musical techniques – blowing, singing, tapping, hitting, pressing, strumming, picking, plucking, scraping, humming, sliding, screaming, growling, and flutter tonguing.
To describe the timbre of an instrument, you will need to use an adjective. The adjectives used to describe the unique sound quality or tone colour of an instrument are limitless, and generally you can‘t go wrong with this because it really is a matter of personal opinion. In the table below are some adjectives that you can use to describe the timbre of an instrument, feel free to create your own list of words that you can use to describe the tone colour of an instrument in the music you like to listen to.
Role of an Instrument
There are four main roles that an instrument can perform in any given piece of music. Please note that not every piece of music will have an instrument in each of these roles.
Try thinking about the roles of an instrument as a meal that you order in a café or restaurant. When you order a meal, you order the main ingredient, for example, the steak. The steak is the hero of the meal, the main part, just like the melody is the main part that people remember in the music. The other parts that come with your steak, like some fries, a salad and a yummy sauce, all add to the steak to make it more enjoyable to eat. You could just eat the steak, but it would be boring! So to in music, you could just have the melody, but it would be a bit boring as well. When you add the other ingredients, or accompaniments to the meal, it makes for a more interesting experience. Just like a meal, the different musical roles performed by the different instruments in the ensemble, add to the melody and also make it a more interesting listening experience!
Melody – a melody is defined as a series of pitches that form a tune. The melody, or main melody, is the part that is most memorable and is often the part you sing along to in the music.
Beat – an instrument that performs the beat is often a drum or percussion instrument. The beat is defined as performing the underlying pulse of the music and helps the listener to hear the tempo of the music.
Melodic Accompaniment – the melodic accompaniment can be performed by any pitched instrument that is not performing the main melody, but plays along and supports the melody. For example, if there was someone singing, and a guitar strumming the chords, then the guitar would be the melodic accompaniment and the melody would be sung by the vocalist.
Rhythmic Accompaniment – these are any instrument that performs with and supports the beat. These could be like a tambourine or shaker that plays a rhythmic pattern to accompany the drum kit that is playing the beat. The bass guitar, or double bass, are also often part of the rhythm section or rhythmic accompaniment. Even though the bass plays pitched notes, they often are in time and playing on the beat with the drum kit.
Register of an Instrument
The musical definition of register is the height of the pitch that an instrument performs in. For example, a violin can perform in a higher register than the cello, and the cello can perform higher than the double bass.
To describe the register of an instrument there are two main terms that can be used – treble or bass. A simple way to remember this is to think of a piano. Roughly in the middle of the piano is a note called “Middle C”. Anything above or to the right of this note is in the treble register, and any note below or to the left is in the bass register.
Describing the register of an instrument can go even further by adding the terms upper, mid or lower to treble or bass. For example, a melodic line performed by a piccolo could be described as played in the upper treble register. Another example could be the bassoon performing a melody or melodic line in the mid to low bass register.
Range of an Instrument
The range of an instrument can be defined as the distance between the lowest and the highest note being performed. It is like the range in a set of numbers or statistics. The range of a melody or melodic line can be described as narrow, medium, an octave, wide, very wide, or extensive. A good example of a melody that has a narrow range would be in the children’s nursery rhyme – “Hot Cross Buns”. This simple melody uses only three pitches, and therefore has a very narrow range.
A song with a medium range would be “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”. This melody has a range that does not go beyond the octave. An example of an instrument with the potential for an extensive range is the piano. From its lowest note, to its highest spans 7 octaves!
Why is Timbre Important in Music?
The Element of Music, Timbre, is important for several reasons. Timbre is what gives each instrument their unique sound or “voice” in the music. If every instrument sounded the same, then our music would not have a lot of variety!
The same piece of music, played by different instruments, can and does, sound very different in comparison to each other. The timbre of an instrument makes it appealing to people of all different ages, cultures, and tastes. Some people love the crunchy or distorted sounds of an electric guitar, where others prefer the sounds of a clean acoustic guitar. The timbre of an instrument is what makes music appealing to people everywhere.
Music Appreciation and Timbre
To appreciate music, or to enjoy a piece of music, it helps to understand the different timbres and tone colours produced by the performing media or sound sources. By knowing what instruments are performing, and how the sounds are being produced, you can begin to really appreciate what the performers are trying to communicate through the sounds that they are making.
The timbre of an instrument is what gives the music its own flavour. By using different techniques on an instrument, the sounds created add a bit of spice to the overall music. Next time you are performing on your instrument, try experimenting with the different types of sounds that you can create. Try “colouring” the notes with different techniques. They say, especially in Jazz music, that you should never perform the melody the same twice! Exploring the different timbres that your instrument can create will help you to make that melody different every time you repeat it.
Learn from other musicians and how they add timbre and originality to their sound. Ask yourself – How are they making that sound? What technique/s are they using? What instrument are they performing on? What words can I use to describe the sounds that are being made? What role are they performing in the ensemble? How does this role affect or contribute to the overall sound of the music? Then, when you know more, you can add to your own repertoire and become a better musician in the process.
Until next time
Julia from Jooya