You may have heard the term “timbre” being used in musical conversations.
It could have popped up in a method book, magazine or even in a YouTube video.
It’s possible it left you scratching your head wondering what it is.
That's because there’s a term that commonly gets used in its place these days, which is “tone”.
There are plenty of associated terms, too, like “tonal characteristics”, “tone color”, “tone quality”, “sound quality” and many others.
But it all relates to how something sounds – more specifically, how we hear it.
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What Is Timbre?
I was a guitar teacher of over 10 years, so naturally I like to reference guitar related examples when discussing this subject of timbre or tone.
First, have a listen to Eddie Van Halen’s guitar sound (don’t pay as much attention to the technique he’s using as the quality of his guitar tone, though the techniques certainly do play a part in his tone):
Van Halen’s “brown sound” tone was considered a revelation when people first heard it in the late 70s (which also tells you that no one had achieved his “tone” before).
In subsequent years, many copied but few if any replicated.
Now listen to Matt Bellamy’s (Muse) guitar sound:
It’s quite a bit different from Van Halen’s, isn’t it?
Van Halen and Bellamy both play rock music.
They even use some of the same techniques!
So, why do they sound so different?
There are a ton of factors, including but not limited to:
- The strings, guitar, amp, amp settings, effects and effects settings they’re using.
- Their fingers, pick, attack and specific approach to playing.
- And so on.
Bottom line – the difference you’re hearing is a difference in tone.
This is a specific example of how timbre can vary from one instrumentalist to another (even though they're playing the same instrument).
So, the point is that timbre is how we distinguish one sound from another.
It’s how you’re able to tell apart your mom’s voice from your dad’s voice.
It’s how you’re able to tell apart a violin from a trumpet.
And so on.
What Is Timbre In Music?
A soundwave is produced whenever an instrumentalist plays a note on their instrument or a singer sings a note.
When it comes to instruments like piano, we could all play a specific key (like middle C) and achieve close to the same timbre – especially if we were all playing on the same piano.
Meanwhile, when it comes to voice, everyone’s timbre is different, because there are many factors affecting how one’s voice comes across.
And, how a note comes across is dependent on its waveform.
Different instruments and different players produce different timbres as you’ve already seen.
You can also watch this video to get a better sense of how this works:
When a note is played on an instrument, it creates a complex soundwave that contains more than one frequency.
And, that’s a basic explanation of timbre as applied to music.
What Is Timbre In Sound?
Timbre in sound doesn’t describe anything we haven’t already explored.
What’s important to know is that sound is characterized by pitch, loudness and quality.
The ear can tell apart a variety of sounds, whether it’s a dog barking or a car passing by.
When you think about it, we are all dependent on these cues in our daily lives.
It would be confusing if a car sounded like a dog and a dog sounded like a car.
It would be inconsistent with what you already know.
So, timbre is a factor of the harmonic content of a sound as well as its dynamic characteristics (e.g. vibrato or attack-decay envelope).
I don’t like to focus on the technical definition of things too much, and you can probably see why.
If it can’t be explained simply, then can it really be explained?
So, let’s take a different approach to this.
Here’s a video demonstrating the difference between Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” original versus the remaster:
You may have heard that term, “remaster” before and wondered what it meant.
Basically, all it means is to make a new master of the recording and improve its sound quality.
Having listened to the two versions of “Master of Puppets”, would you say that there was a noticeable difference between the two?
Would you say there was a difference in tone?
It might be subtle, but I noticed a couple of things.
So, we could conclude that there’s a difference in timbre between the two masters.
And, therefore, production also plays a part in how music sounds.
It affects timbre.
What About Vocal Timbre/Timbre As Applied To Voice?
You can probably draw some basic conclusions about how timbre applies to voice already.
For instance, you could easily tell apart Mariah Carey’s voice from Michael Jackson’s (assuming you've heard their voices before).
They both have incredibly recognizable voices but they’re clearly different.
What about Mariah Carey and Beyoncé?
Well, even though they are considered similar singers, at the end of the day, you should be able to tell them apart just fine.
Here’s Mariah Carey’s “Heartbreaker”:
And, here’s Beyoncé’s “Crazy In Love”:
Interestingly, both songs feature JAY Z.
Still, I’m sure you can tell the two apart just fine.
Carey has a wide vocal range and uses it to her advantage in most of her songs.
Beyoncé’s vocal range is nowhere near as broad, and in the case of “Crazy In Love”, the melody is relatively monotonic.
But we’ve touched on something important here, which is the different types of voices that exist.
This is often what people are referring to when they talk about timbre with regards to vocals.
There are basically four voice types for male singers and three for female singers.
They are as follows:
- Male – Countertenor, Tenor, Baritone, Bass.
- Female – Soprano, Mezzo Soprano, Contralto.
Some vocalists have a huge range and can play jump rope with the established ranges, but it is a convenient system for categorizing and organizing different singers.
Where soprano singers are typically able to hit high notes, bass singers can hit lower notes most other types of singers would probably have trouble hitting.
Let’s look at some examples.
Barry White is one of the most famous bass singers there is.
Here’s one of his most popular tunes, “Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love Baby”:
When it comes to baritone voices, there’s a “king” that stands above them all.
Yes, I’m talking about the King himself, Elvis Presley.
Let’s have a listen to “Can’t Help Falling In Love”:
It’s not hard to find famous tenors, whether it’s Freddie Mercury, Frankie Valli, Luciano Pavarotti, Andre Bocelli, Art Garfunkel or otherwise.
Here I’ll feature Journey singer Steve Perry and his signature (but much copied) tenor voice in “Don’t Stop Believin’”:
Countertenors are kind of rare and aren’t necessarily in demand outside of the classical world.
With their higher pitch, they’re able to sound like a boy or even a woman.
One of the most known countertenors is Andreas Scholl, as seen here:
Moving now into the female category of singers, there are plenty of contraltos you should recognize, including:
Katy Perry, Amy Winehouse, Nina Simone, Annie Lennox, Cher and Sade Adu.
Here’s another you should know – Toni Braxton.
Here’s “He Wasn’t Man Enough”:
Mezzo sopranos are a little less common but that doesn’t mean they aren’t out there.
Some of the most recognized mezzos include Janet Baker, Christa Ludwig, Anne Sofie von Otter, Vesselina Kasarova, Christina Aguilera and so on.
Here’s a mezzo you’re sure to be familiar with.
Have a listen to Lady Gaga’s “Applause”:
When it comes to female singers, sopranos tend to get the most attention, and there are plenty of them, whether it’s Lily Allen, Celine Dion, Mariah Carey, Jewel or otherwise.
Any one of these singers would be worth featuring here.
I chose Whitney Houston.
Here’s “I Will Always Love You”:
Is That All There Is?
As I mentioned at the outset, this is a relatively convenient categorization system.
Some singers have incredible range and can cross the pre-established lines.
And, these voice types are often emphasized in classical music more than in pop music.
So, that’s all I wanted to say on the topic, but I hope you got a sense of how each voice varies in tone.
What Is Timbre In Music, Sound And Voice? Final Thoughts
Although timbre is kind of technical, it’s not a topic you want to glance over.
Some of the best singers, players and engineers around the world are keenly aware of timbre and use that knowledge to create and shape the tones they’re after.
How someone experiences your music has a lot to do with timbre.
Now, there are variables you can control, and those you have less control over.
Your voice is a factor you have less control over, because you were born with your voice.
It doesn’t mean you can’t bring different qualities out of your voice, nor does it mean you can’t put effects on your voice to change it.
But fundamentally, you sound like you.
So, if you’re a serious and committed singer, it’s about learning how you can make the best use of your voice.
That’s timbre in a nutshell.