As well as pitch and volume, all musical notes have a tonal colour known as timbre. Timbre is what differentiates the sound of one instrument from another. It is a somewhat loose term compared to words like pitch and volume which we use to describe sound, but it can still be broken down and understood.
There are many ways to analyse timbre. Some of the components we might describe include:
- The strength of the note's harmonics, and how these change over time (think of a muted trumpet, or wah-wah guitar)
- Overtones and noise components (including clicks, scrapes and breaths)
- The "Attack, Decay, Sustain and Release (ADSR) envelope", defining how the note starts, continues and ends
- Fine pitch variations such as vibrato
An appreciation of timbre is what allows us to identify an instrument by ear. Often musicians will have an acute appreciation of timbre on their chosen instrument, allowing them, for example, to identify the specific type of instrument used on a recording by ear. Most experienced listeners can tell if, say, a note in a jazz record is a sax rather than a trumpet, while an experienced sax player might be able to tell you if it was an alto or a tenor sax being used.
Timbre is an oft-overlooked area of ear training, but developing an appreciation of these more subtle qualities can pay great dividends! Be brave, and explore beyond your chosen instrument or musical style.
Understanding the range of sounds that instruments are capable of allows us to work with a more vivid palate of sounds and communicate better with our fellow musicians.
Investing some time in learning about timbre can help you to:
- Identify instruments by ear
- Improve your playing by understanding how technique affects timbre
- Design your own custom sounds on a synthesizer
- Create more interesting arrangements when song writing
- Communicate better with your fellow musicians
Watch a short video introducing timbre:
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