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Encyclopedia > Timbre

In music, timbre, or sometimes timber, (from Fr. timbre; IPA /'tæmbəɹ/ as in the first two syllables of tambourine, or /'tɪmbəɹ/, like timber)[1] is the quality of a musical note or sound that distinguishes different types of sound production, such as voices or musical instruments. The physical characteristics of sound that mediate the perception of timbre include spectrum and envelope. Timbre is also known in psychoacoustics as sound quality or sound color. // Music is an art form consisting of sound and silence expressed through time. ... Articles with similar titles include the NATO phonetic alphabet, which has also informally been called the “International Phonetic Alphabet”. For information on how to read IPA transcriptions of English words, see IPA chart for English. ... “Buben” redirects here. ... This article is about music. ... A musical instrument is a device constructed or modified with the purpose of making music. ... Psychoacoustics is the study of subjective human perception of sounds. ...

For example, timbre is what, with a little practice, people use to distinguish the saxophone from the trumpet in a jazz group, even if both instruments are playing notes at the same pitch and amplitude. Timbre has been called "the psychoacoustician's multidimensional wastebasket category" [2] as it can denote many apparently unrelated aspects of a sound. The saxophone (colloquially referred to as sax) is a conical-bored instrument of the woodwind family. ... The trumpet is the highest brass instrument in register, above the French horn, trombone, baritone, euphonium, and tuba. ... For other uses, see Jazz (disambiguation). ... Pitch is the perceived fundamental frequency of a sound. ... It has been suggested that pulse amplitude be merged into this article or section. ...



The Chinese developed a sophisticated understanding of the musical quality of timbre during the Song Dynasty[citation needed]. They discovered that the timbre of string instruments could be changed depending on how the strings were touched. Strings could be plucked, brushed, hit, scraped, or rubbed to produce different sounds[citation needed].The Chinese composed music on the Qin, a long, wooden board with strings. Their Qin songs emphasized the timbre, and the changes in sound could be heard throughout the song. Northern Song in 1111 AD Capital Kaifeng (960–1127) Linan (1127–1276) Language(s) Chinese Religion Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism Government Monarchy Emperor  - 960-976 Emperor Taizu  - 1126–1127 Emperor Qinzong  - 1127–1162 Emperor Gaozong  - 1278–1279 Emperor Bing History  - Zhao Kuangyin taking over the throne of the Later Zhou... Qin, Qín or Chin (Wade-Giles) can refer to. ...


Tone quality is used as a synonym for timbre.

Tone color is also often used as a synonym. People who experience synesthesia may see certain colors when they hear particular instruments. Helmholtz used the German Klangfarbe (tone color), and Tyndall proposed its English translation, clangtint. But both terms were disapproved of by Alexander Ellis who also discredits register and color for their pre-existing English meanings (Erickson 1975, p.7). Synesthesia (also spelled synæsthesia or synaesthesia, plural synesthesiae or synaesthesiae)—from the Ancient Greek (syn), meaning with, and (aisthÄ“sis), meaning sensation—is a neurologically based phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. ... Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholtz (August 31, 1821 – September 8, 1894) was a German physician and physicist. ... // The Tyndalls are originally an Anglo-Scots family hailing from Tynedale in Northumberland, and who held estates in the English and Scottish Border Ridings. ... Alexander John Ellis (or Alexander Sharpe) (1814 - 1890) was an English philologist. ...

Colors of the optical spectrum are not generally explicitly associated with particular sounds. Rather, the sound of an instrument may be described with words like "warm" or "harsh" or other terms, perhaps suggesting that tone color has more in common with the sense of touch than of sight. Color is an important part of the visual arts. ... The visible spectrum is the portion of the optical spectrum (light or electromagnetic spectrum) that is visible to the human eye. ... Somatic sensation consists of the various sensory receptors that trigger the experiences labelled as touch or pressure, temperature (warm or cold), pain (including itch and tickle), and the sensations of muscle movement and joint position including posture, movement, and facial expression (collectively also called proprioception). ...

American Standards Association definition

The American Standards Association defines timbre as "[...] that attribute of sensation in terms of which a listener can judge that two sounds having the same loudness and pitch are dissimilar". A note to the 1960 definition (p.45) adds that "timbre depends primarily upon the spectrum of the stimulus, but it also depends upon the waveform, the sound pressure, the frequency location of the spectrum, and the temporal characteristics of the stimulus." The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) is a private, non-profit United States. ... The horizontal axis shows frequency in Hz Loudness is the quality of a sound that is the primary psychological correlate of physical intensity. ... Pitch is the perceived fundamental frequency of a sound. ...


J.F. Schouten (1968, p.42) describes the "elusive attributes of timbre" as "determined by at least five major acoustic parameters" which Robert Erickson (1975) finds "scaled to the concerns of much contemporary music": Robert Erickson (March 7, 1917 in Marquette, Michigan–April 24, 1997 in San Diego, California) was a composer. ...

  1. The range between tonal and noiselike character.
  2. The spectral envelope.
  3. The time envelope in terms of rise, duration, and decay.
  4. The changes both of spectral envelope (formant-glide) and fundamental frequency (micro-intonation).
  5. The prefix, an onset of a sound quite dissimilar to the ensuing lasting vibration.


The richness of a sound or note produced by a musical instrument is due to the combination 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. For example, in western music, instruments are normally tuned to A = 440 Hz. The other frequencies are called overtones of the fundamental frequency, which may include harmonics and partials. Harmonics are whole number multiples of the fundamental frequency — ×2, ×3, ×4, etc. Partials are other overtones. Most western instruments produce harmonic sounds, but many instruments produce partials and inharmonic tones. FreQuency is a music video game developed by Harmonix and published by SCEI. It was released in November 2001. ... The fundamental tone, often referred to simply as the fundamental, is the lowest frequency in a harmonic series. ... Pitch is the perceived fundamental frequency of a sound. ... An overtone is a sinusoidal component of a waveform, of greater frequency than its fundamental frequency. ... In acoustics and telecommunication, the harmonic of a wave is a component frequency of the signal that is an integer multiple of the fundamental frequency. ... An overtone is a sinusoidal component of a waveform, of greater frequency than its fundamental frequency. ... The whole numbers are the nonnegative integers (0, 1, 2, 3, ...) The set of all whole numbers is represented by the symbol = {0, 1, 2, 3, ...} Algebraically, the elements of form a commutative monoid under addition (with identity element zero), and under multiplication (with identity element one). ... In music, inharmonic refers to the degree to which the frequencies of the overtones of a fundamental differ from whole number multiples of the fundamentals frequency. ...

When the orchestral tuning note is played, the sound is a combination of 440 Hz, 880 Hz, 1320 Hz, 1760 Hz and so on. The balance of the amplitudes of the different frequencies is responsible for the characteristic sound of each instrument.

The fundamental is not necessarily the strongest component of the overall sound. But it is implied by the existence of the harmonic series — the A above would be distinguishable from the one an octave below (220 Hz, 440 Hz, 660 Hz, 880 Hz) by the presence of the third harmonic, even if the fundamental were indistinct. Similarly, a pitch is often inferred from non-harmonic spectra, supposedly through a mapping process, an attempt to find the closest harmonic fit. In music, an octave (sometimes abbreviated 8ve or P8) is the interval between one musical note and another with half or double its frequency. ...

It is possible to add artificial 'subharmonics' to the sound using electronic effects but, again, this does not affect the naming of the note.

William Sethares (2004) wrote that just intonation and the western equal tempered scale derive from the harmonic spectra/timbre of most western instruments. Similarly the specific inharmonic timbre of Thai metallophones would produce the seven-tone near-equal temperament they do indeed employ. The five-note sometimes near-equal tempered slendro scale provides the most consonance in the combination of the inharmonic spectra of Balinese metallophones with harmonic instruments such as the stringed rebab. In music, just intonation, also called rational intonation, is any musical tuning in which the frequencies of notes are related by ratios of whole numbers. ... An equal temperament is a musical temperament — that is, a system of tuning intended to approximate some form of just intonation — in which an interval, usually the octave, is divided into a series of equal steps (equal frequency ratios). ... In music, a scale is a set of musical notes that provides material for part or all of a musical work. ... In most modern usages of the word spectrum, there is a unifying theme of between extremes at either end. ... Generally speaking, a metallophone is any musical instrument consisting of tuned metal bars which are struck to make sound, usually with a mallet. ... Slendro (called salendro by the Sundanese) is a pentatonic (five tone) scale, one of the two most common scales used in Indonesian gamelan music. ... Bali is an Indonesian island located at , the westernmost of the Lesser Sunda Islands, lying between Java to the west and Lombok to the east. ... The rebab , Arabic الرباب or رباب (also rebap, rabab, rebeb, rababah, al-rababa) is a string instrument which originated in Afghanistan, no later than the 8th century, and was spread via Islamic trading routes over much of North Africa, the Middle East, parts of Europe, and the Far East. ...


The timbre of a sound is also greatly affected by the following factors: attack or interonset interval, decay, sustain, release and transients. Thus these are all common controls on samplers. 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 blat of the player's lips are highly characteristic of those instruments. In music the interonset interval or IOI is the time between the beginnings or attack-points of successive events or notes, the interval between onsets, not including the duration of the events. ... Transient means passing with time. ... An AKAI MPC2000 sampler Playing a Yamaha SU10 Sampler A sampler is an electronic music instrument closely related to a synthesizer. ...

In music

Timbre is often cited as one of the fundamental aspects of music. Formally, timbre and other factors are usually secondary to pitch. "To a marked degree the music of Debussy elevates timbre to an unprecedented structural status; already in L'Apres-midi d'un Faune the color of flute and harp functions referentially," according to Jim Samson (1977). Surpassing Debussy is Klangfarbenmelodie and surpassing that the use of sound masses. // Music is an art form consisting of sound and silence expressed through time. ... Klangfarbenmelodie (German for sound-color-melody) is a musical technique that involves breaking up a musical line or melody out from one instrument to between several instruments. ... In contrast to more traditional musical textures, sound mass composition minimizes the importance of individual pitches in preference for texture, timbre, and dynamics as primary shapers of gesture and impact. ...

Erickson (ibid, p.6) gives a table of subjective experiences and related physical phenomena based on Schouten's five attributes:

Subjective Objective
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
Vibrato Frequency modulation
Tremolo Amplitude modulation
Attack Prefix
Final sound Suffix

Often listeners are able to identify the kind of instrument even across "conditions of changing pitch and loudness, in different environments and with different players." In the case of the clarinet, an acoustic analysis of the waveforms shows they are irregular enough to suggest three instruments rather than one. David Luce (1963, p.17) suggests that this implies "certain 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 the borrowing from studies of vision and visual perception the concept of subjective constancy. (Erickson 1975, p.11) Rustle noise is noise consisting of aperiodic pulses characterized by the average time between those pulses (such as the mean time interval between clicks of a Geiger counter), known as rustle time (Schouten ?). Rustle time is determined by the fineness of sand, seeds, or shot in rattles, contributes heavily to... Subjective constancy or perceptual constancy is the perception of an object or quality as constant under changing conditions. ...


Though timber is accepted, the more common spelling is timbre to distinguish the word from timber ("wood"). Timber in storage for later processing at a sawmill Timber is a term used to describe wood, either standing or that has been processed for use—from the time trees are felled, to its end product as a material suitable for industrial use—as structural material for construction or wood...

See also

Spectrogram of American English vowels showing the formants f1 and f2 A formant is a peak in an acoustic frequency spectrum which results from the resonant frequencies of any acoustical system. ...

Further reading

  • Stephen David Beck. "Designing Acoustically Viable Instruments in Csound" in Boulanger, Richard. The Csound Book.
  • Paolo Prandoni, then graduate student, wrote two fascinating papers on timbre, available here: http://lcavwww.epfl.ch/~prandoni/Research/timbre.html

Csound is a computer programming language for dealing with sound, also known as a sound compiler or a music programming language. ...


  1. ^ "timbre", Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, [1]
  2. ^ McAdams, S., and Bregman, A., "Hearing musical streams," Comput. Music J. 3, 26–63, 1979


  • Erickson, Robert (1975). Sound Structure in Music. University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-02376-5.
    • American Standards Association (1960). American Standard Acoustical Terminology. New York. Definition 12.9, Timbre, p.45.
    • Luce, David A. (1963). "Physical Correlates of Nonpercussive Musical Instrument Tones", Ph.D. dissertation. MIT.
    • Schouten, J. F. (1968). "The Perception of Timbre". Reports of the 6th International Congress on Acoustics, Tokyo, GP-6-2. Pp. 35-44, 90.
  • Samson, Jim (1977). Music in Transition: A Study of Tonal Expansion and Atonality, 1900-1920. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-02193-9.
  • Sethares, William (2004). Tuning, Timbre, Spectrum, Scale. ISBN 3-540-76173-X.

  Results from FactBites:
Timbre: The Color of Music (535 words)
Timbre describes all of the aspects of a musical sound that do not have anything to do with the sound's pitch, loudness, or length.
Timbre is caused by the fact that each note from a musical instrument is a complex wave containing more than one frequency.
Variations in timbre between specific instruments - two different trombones, for example, or two different trombone players, or the same trombone player using different types of sound in different pieces - may be called differences in timbre or color, or may be called differences in tone or in tone quality.
Relating Tuning and Timbre (4740 words)
Given an arbitrary timbre T (perhaps one whose spectrum does not consist of a standard harmonic series), it is straightforward to draw the dissonance curve generated by T. The local minima of this curve occur at values which are good candidates for notes of a scale, since they are local points of minimum dissonance (i.e.
Such a timbre is said to be induced by the m-tone equal tempered scale.
For example, harmonic timbres are induced timbres for the justly intoned scale.
  More results at FactBites »



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