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2.8 Timbre

4 min readjanuary 3, 2023

Mickey Hansen

Mickey Hansen


AP Music Theory 🎶

72 resources
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Just by listening, can you tell a piano from a flute? Of course, you can! And that's because the two have distinct timbres or qualities of sound.
In music, timbre (also known as "tone color" or "tone quality") refers to the distinctive sound of a musical instrument or voice. It is what allows us to distinguish between different instruments or voices, even when they are playing the same pitch.
Timbre is determined by a number of factors, including the type of instrument or voice, the way it is played or sung, and the harmonics (overtones) that are present in the sound. For example, a piano and a guitar can both play the same pitch, but they will have different timbres because they are different types of instruments and produce sound in different ways. Similarly, two people singing the same pitch will have different timbres due to differences in their vocal cords and the way they sing.
Timbre is an important aspect of music and can have a big impact on the overall sound and character of a piece. It is often used by composers and musicians to add interest and variety to their music and to create a particular mood or atmosphere. This is why some musicians opt for only string pieces of solo pieces, whereas others write for a full chamber orchestra. 
Timbre is an important aspect of orchestration, which is the art of arranging and scoring music for an orchestra or other ensemble. When orchestrating a piece of music, a composer or arranger must consider the timbre of each instrument and how it will contribute to the overall sound of the piece.
For example, a composer might choose to use a particular instrument or group of instruments to create a specific timbre or mood in a piece. For example, using a string section with a lot of violin and viola can create a bright and lively sound, while using a string section with more cello and bass can create a warmer and more mellow sound.
Orchestrators must also consider how different instruments will blend together and whether certain instruments will stand out more or less in the ensemble. For example, using a solo instrument with a distinctive timbre, such as a solo violin or oboe, can add interest and variety to a piece.
In fact, timbre and orchestration go way back. Timbre started to play an important role in orchestration during the mid 18th and 19th centuries. Wagner and Berlioz contributed to the development of orchestration. Debussy and Mahler also made important developments in this area. 
A unique timbre is not only something you can make out between different types of instruments. As musicians, we know that timbre can also vary between different models of the same instrument; therefore, you can even tell the difference between two different upright pianos or two oboes, just as you can tell the difference between two human voices.
Furthermore, when it comes to a specific instrument, sound quality is often affected by the register, or where in the instrument's range it's being played.
Just so we are clear, the word timbre comes from French 🇫🇷 and is pronounced "tam-ber" not....
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Describing Timbre 

If you’re anything like me, if someone asks you to describe timbre, you’d be like 🤨. A violin sounds like a violin!! Here are a few examples of how you could describe different timbres in music:
  • The timbre of a violin is bright and smooth, with a strong emphasis on the upper harmonics.
  • The timbre of a cello is warm and rich, with a strong emphasis on the lower harmonics.
  • The timbre of a flute is bright and piercing, with a strong emphasis on the higher harmonics.
  • The timbre of a saxophone is smooth and warm, with a strong emphasis on the upper and lower harmonics.
  • The timbre of a human voice is highly variable and can range from warm and rich to bright and piercing, depending on the individual and the way they sing.
  • The timbre of an electric guitar can be highly variable, depending on the type of amplifier and effects pedals that are used. Electric guitars can produce a wide range of timbres, from warm and smooth to bright and aggressive.
  • The timbre of a piano is rich and full, with a wide range of harmonics present in the sound. The timbre of a piano can also change depending on how hard the keys are struck.
🦜 Polly wants a progress tracker: How would describe the timbre of a bass voice versus a soprano? How about a trumpet versus a xylophone?
Browse Study Guides By Unit
🎵Unit 1 – Music Fundamentals I (Pitch, Major Scales and Key Signatures, Rhythm, Meter, and Expressive Elements)
🎶Unit 2 – Music Fundamentals II (Minor Scales and Key Signatures, Melody, Timbre, and Texture)
🎻Unit 3 – Music Fundamentals III (Triads and Seventh Chords)
🎹Unit 4 – Harmony and Voice Leading I (Chord Function, Cadence, and Phrase)
🎸Unit 5: Harmony and Voice Leading II: Chord Progressions and Predominant Function
🎤Unit 7 – Harmony and Voice Leading IV (Secondary Function)
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