- Max Kuehn
Have you ever wondered what makes a note on the trombone sound different than a pitch on the saxophone, electric guitar, or saxophone? It’s all because of timbre!
Musicians, whether they play an instrument or sing, must understand timbre. So, Fidlar will teach you what is timbre in music exactly, timbre examples, what factors affect it, and ways to describe timbre.
Timbre Music Definition
In music theory, timbre (pronounced tam-ber) refers to the sound quality or tone quality of a note on a musical instrument. Two musical instruments can play the same pitch at different volumes but still produce distinctive musical sounds or timbres.
When comparing instruments from different families, the effect of timbre can be most evident. For example, brass instruments produce a different tone than string instruments and human voices.
Different instruments can have different tone timbres, even within the same family. Both the clarinet and the oboe are wind instruments, but their tone colors differ.
You can describe different timbres using brassy, bright, round, full, and breathy words. To create the right sound for your music, you can use different vocal timbres.
Overtones, Frequency, And Timbre In Music
Instruments can produce a different sound from one note to another due to the overtones and basic pitches.
Music’s timbre is heavily dependent on its waveform. This waveform varies depending on the number of harmonics (AKA overtones), frequencies, and relative intensities.
Frequency spectrum refers to the distribution of the amplitudes in the sound waves. This indicates how loud or quiet the music is.
What Factors Affect The Music’s Timbre?
Different timbres can be created by musicians based on the frequency of their instruments.
What factors influence the timbre of music? Many factors affect timbre, depending on what instrument you use.
One example is how someone pushes air through an Oboe. This will influence the sound frequencies that are emitted as well as the way it’s heard, giving it a distinctive timbre.
- Forced air
- Breath control
- There are differences in frequencies
- The instrument’s shape
- The sound envelope of an instrument
7 Ways To Describe The Music’s Timbre
It can be difficult to describe the sound’s timbre using only words. There are some words that can be used to describe audio characteristics.
- Nasal is often used to refer to a loud fundamental pitch that has minimal overtones.
- A sound with many overtones is called “rich” or “thick”.
- “Noisy” is a term that describes a sound in which overtones dominate the fundamental pitch.
- “Distorted” is often used to describe compressed sound waves in which high and low frequencies have been cut off, while middle frequencies are amplified.
- “Breathy” is a description of sounds that are not produced by airflow.
- “Vibrato,” which refers to the audio effect of oscillating frequency, results in small pitch shifts.
- “Tremolo” refers to changes in the amplitude of a sound wave, which can cause rapid volume changes.
Frequency Spectrum And Envelope
A sound wave is created when a note is played or sung.
Different instruments and voices produce other sound waves.
Due to the harmonics associated with each wave, the frequency spectrum is what makes each one different.
Each sound wave made by an instrument has a fundamental frequency. This is the note you are playing.
The fundamental frequency of the A4 example is 440 Hertz (Hz).
There are also harmonics, which can be heard faintly in addition to the fundamental frequency.
These frequencies are higher in pitch than the fundamental and multiples of it.
If the fundamental frequency is 440 Hz, the harmonics would be 880, 1320, 1760 Hz, etc.
The frequency spectrum of a particular note shows how loud or weak the harmonics are.
Notes with many harmonics above them (easily noticed ones) have a brighter quality, which produces a louder note. A note without harmonics is subdued and darker.
You can see how the video plays a low note A from various instruments. Also, notice how different lines appear on the right side.
These are the harmonics. Try to hear a note sound with more or fewer harmonics.
The envelope of a note describes the loudness or amplitude of the note over time.
Sometimes called the ADSR envelope. ADSR stands for Attack, Decay Sustain, Release.
The attack of a note refers to how fast a note peaks in volume, and it starts with the instrument’s first play.
There is then a decay between the initial attack and the main loudness, where the note can sustain itself until the instrument stops playing.
The release refers to how long the note ringes out after the instrument has stopped playing.
Because each instrument has its envelope, the ADSR envelope can affect the timbre and timbre of a note.
A piano note can be played by hitting a string with a hammer, but a stringed instrument will have a much longer attack.
It would be difficult to identify which instrument played the note if we changed one aspect of the envelope. The timbre of an instrument can also be challenging to discern.
This video explains more about the ADSR envelope.
How Do Overtones Affect The Timbre Of An Instrument?
Instruments have different timbral characteristics because of the relationships between their fundamental pitches and the overtones that they produce.
You produce a fundamental frequency when you play a particular musical note on an instrument. F3 is the fundamental frequency.
In addition to the fundamental frequency, any note you play also produces overtones-additional frequencies in the harmonic series, in this case, F4, C5, F5, A5, and so forth.
Lower pitched instruments generally produce more audible harmonizations than those with higher pitches. A cello, for example, produces more audible harmonizing sounds than a violin.
The high-pitched piccolo produces less audible harmonics than the low-pitched flute. These differences affect the timbre of each instrument.
Different instruments have different overtones, which can lead to different musical timbres. Some woodwind instruments like the clarinet amplify the sound of harmonics, while others like the oboe project the fundamental louder.
Some instruments like crash cymbals produce overtones so loud that it is nearly impossible to discern a specific pitch. This gives them a distinct timbre.
How The Sonic Envelope Affects The Instrument’s Timbre
The sonic envelope of a sound alters how the listener perceives its timbre. The sonic envelope comprises four factors: decay, sustain, attack, and release, sometimes abbreviated as ADSR.
- Attack refers to the time it takes for one note to reach its highest volume.
- Decay refers to the time it takes for a note’s peak volume to drop to a sustainable level.
- Sustain refers to the level of loudness at the post-peak level that lasts until the player stops playing the note.
- Release refers to the time for the sound to cease to be audible and then to become silent after the instrumentalist has stopped playing.
The timbre of the sound produced by different instruments, synthesizers, patches, and vocalists can be affected by how they use different sonic envelopes. This could explain the differences between singers singing the same cantata.
Different brands of instruments can produce different timbres due to their ADSR envelopes. The same instrument can make multiple sonic envelopes.
A violin played pizzicato (plucked) has a faster decay and attack than a violin with an arco bow. Variations in playing style can affect the physical characteristics and sounds made by the violin.
We hope you found this article helpful in learning about timbre music. Because it is more difficult to understand than pitch or rhythm, it is difficult to grasp. If you want to learn about other musical elements, check out our website: https://fidlarmusic.com/