Timbre refers to a sound’s unique sonic properties or characteristics. We might use words like bright, grainy, mellow, dark, rich, or brash to describe the sound of a particular instrument or voice. In each case, we are describing the timbre of the sound.
Timbre is created in part by the combination of overtones that naturally reverberate above the base sound, called the “fundamental.” The intensity of each overtone is dependent on numerous factors, including the shape and material of the instrument, the ways in which resonance is created and sustained by the instrument, and external factors such as how the instrument is held, the recording technologies used to process sounds, and the space in which it is played. (Recording technologies and performance spaces function as secondary instruments, as they shape the way a sound reverberates and is perceived.)
The first two activities below invite you to explore and describe timbres created through the voice and on an instrument.
Goal: Create and manipulate timbres using your voice.
- Sing a steady pitch for 10 seconds using one single breadth.
- As you sing, enunciate the following long vowel sounds, slowly morphing from one sound to the next: A – E – I – O – U. (As you manipulate the sounds, be sure not to change the pitch or dynamic.)
- Describe the timbres that you created while singing each vowel.
- Describe any salient hybrid timbres that you noticed as you were transitioning between vowels.
Goal: Create and manipulate timbres on an instrument.
- Choose an instrument that you know how to play.
- Play what you would consider a “normal” sound on the instrument and describe its timbre. In some cases, it may be appropriate to describe the “attack” of the note differently than its “sustain.”
- Explore the timbral range of the instrument (including extending techniques) by creating as many unique sounds as you can. The challenges below might help:
- How many timbres can you create on a single pitch?
- How does the instrument’s timbre change when increasing or decreasing the volume/intensity of the sound?
- How does timbre change across registers?
- How many gradations of timbre can you create between some of the unique timbral possibilities that you created?
After completing one or both of the activities above, we encourage you to reflect on your experience by considering how you might create and manipulate timbres more intentionally as you perform. How often do you use timbre to help color or express the musical idea? Are there pieces that you are currently playing that invite you to use widely different timbres? How often do you audiate the timbre of the sound before you play in addition to the pitch, dynamic, etc.? As you prepare a piece for performance, how might you use timbre to add greater dimension to the sound of your performance?
One way that musicians regularly exercise their ability to distinguish timbre is by aurally identifying the sounds of different instruments. The better one can identify instruments or voice types in a band, orchestra, or choir by ear, the better one’s sensitivity to subtle but impactful timbral differences.
Goal: Identify instruments and instrument families by ear, and develop descriptive vocabulary for timbre.
Instructions: Listen to Benjamin Britten’s A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. Describe the timbral qualities of each of the instrument groups (woodwinds, brass, strings, percussion) and individual instruments that are used during the presentation of the theme and variations.
Goal: Identify instruments by ear.
Instructions: Listen to the following excerpts and identify the primary instrument or instruments you hear.
Goal: Compare timbres by ear
Before you start: Download some sampled sounds from an open-access sound library such as Spitfire Audio or sample them from real pieces. The sounds can be produced either with acoustic or electronic instruments.
Instructions: Listen to the various sounds, compare their timbres (sound qualities) independent of other parameters like pitch, and create two collections: the first collection should contain three samples that have highly similar timbres, and the second should contain three sounds with highly distinct timbres. Optionally, explain your choices to a friend.