Musical Timbre

Timbre (pronouced “TAM-ber”) is the unique, distinguishing characteristic or quality of a sound made by a musical instrument. For example an oboe has a woody, nasal tone, contasted with a violin which can have a lyrical, flowing, singing tone (or a hoarse, scratchy tone). The composer’s intentions are carried out in this regard by which instrument(s) he or she specifies to play the notes of the piece.

This is a very important issue in ensemble playing. Especially when scoring for orchestral resources.

Timbre is the qualitative description of the physical, acoustic properties or qualities of a sounding musical note or instrument.  Timbre is sometimes the biggest factor determining an individual’s reaction to a piece of music.

As usual, the timbres involved in the piece should be integrated with the other components of the piece. So, a delicate melody should be played by an instrument capable of expressing the proper context. A theme (or harmony) of “noble” quality might be best represented by brass (particularly a french horn). The electric guitar is a very interesting case (one that especially fascinates me, I am primarily a guitarist & grew up playing electric guitar). It has the ability to “sing” expressively like a violin, the ability to sound glass-like transparent with a clear ringing bell-tone like a harp. It also has the ability to sound incredibly ugly & noisy like an industrial machine that is disintegrating.

Timbre can be measured in physical, quantitative, scientific terms.  This can be done by means of observing the waveform any given sound source makes on an oscilliscope.  This can help us grasp why certain instruments sound as they do, why we describe their timbre in certain terms.

The most basic waveform is the ideal sine waveform.

Toward the bottom of that wiki entry is an image showing a sine wave, as well as the other three basic waveforms:  square, triangle, sawtooth.

Those idealized waveforms are not very interesting sounding, and more to the point, the waveforms that actual musical instruments produce is much more complex.  But any given waveform can be thought of, visualized and represented by a mixture of, or variation upon, those basic waveforms.

For example, toward the bottom of this page there are simple representations illustrating the difference in the waveforms of the sounds of a pure oscilliscope sine wave, a violin and a piano.

The waveform of an overdriven electric guitar, typical of pop & rock music, is closer to a squarewave.  This is why a “distorted” or “overdriven” guitar can sound harsh or abrasive, the standard sine wave curve is “clipped” and squared off by electronic gear (amplifiers and, or effect units).  The more the waveform is clipped, the harsher the sound.  This page illustrates the concept.

Being able to observe, measure and alter the resultant waveform is what led to the development of the synthesizer.  Even the most basic wavetable soundcard in an inexpensive PC is capable of a wide range of sounds.  Expensive synths and virtual software are able to reproduce sounds virtually indistinguishable from their real-world counterparts.  These pages go into great detail about synthesizers.

But, it is important to remember that the sound is primary.  The waveform on the oscilliscope is not the actual thing we hear, it is a graphic-electronic representation of the sound.

Now that we know how musical timbre is described, the next important aspect to consider is how any given timbre is used.   Pleasure or displeasure of any given timbre is a complex reaction.  The pleasure can be solely perceptual  level; “That flute sounds soft and soothing”.  It can be also on a conceptual level; “That soothing flute is a good choice for playing the secondary theme of the piece.”  The displeasure can be due to a timbre simply being a source of auditory annoyance.  For example, the buzzing overdrive of an electric guitar to a lover of classical music; or the piercing wail of a violin to a lover of pop music.  The displeasure can also be conceptual.  For example, “That violin makes a pretty sound, but it is completely out of place in that pop-rock song.”

Obviously melody, harmony, rhythm and overall structure are essential characteristics.  But timbre can in some cases be *the* deciding factor.  For example, no matter how much a rock guitarist uses Baroque melodies, harmonies and rhythms, a lover of actual Baroque music (Bach, Vivaldi, etc.) might not enjoy it because it is presented with rock instrumentation (electric guitar, drums, bass).  And those rock music timbres might be annoying to the person used to finding pleasure in the timbres harpsichords and other orchestral instruments.  Likewise, no matter how much a symphonic orchestrator mimics a pop tune, a lover of pop music might not enjoy it because it just doesn’t have the timbres normally expected.

With all this in mind, the following audio examples are my attempt to remove the elements of melody, harmony, rhythm & structure from the equation.  I have taken the simple nursery rhyme melody “Mary Had a Little Lamb” & played it in C major using a variety of different timbres, by means of using different instruments.

The result is timbre as the sole variable in the equation.

Next, I took those isolated recordings & put them in their stereotypical setting.  So, the violin melody gets surrounded by string orchestra, while the electric guitar gets surrounded by a rock ensemble (bass, guitar & drums).  There is a little variation in harmony & rhythm in order to slightly adjust for the specific insturments & style of music being represented.  But, overall we get the same piece of music played by different instruments in different settings.

Piano solo melody.

Piano arrangement.

Harpsichord solo melody.

Harpsichord arrangement.

Violin solo melody.

Violin orchestra arrangement.

Classical guitar solo melody.

Classical guitar arrangement.

Jazz guitar solo melody.

Jazz guitar ensemble arrangement.

Blues guitar solo melody.

Blues guitars melody & harmony.

Blues guitar ensemble arrangement.

Rock guitar solo melody.

Rock guitars melody & harmony.

Rock guitars melody, harmony & rhythm guitar.

Rock guitar ensemble arrangement.

Rock guitar solo melody higher register.

Rock guitars melody & harmony higher register.

Rock guitars melody, harmony & rhythm guitar higher register.

Rock guitar ensemble arrangement in higher register.

My advice to listeners of pop music trying to understand orchestral music, or any classical, romantic music, is to listen at least a few times.  But listen with the understanding that you are a stranger in a strange land.  Listen the first time for something that sticks out.  After you can abstract one timbre or part as separate, then focus on it!  Follow it, notice when it disappears and returns.  Then try that with another timbre, sound or instrument.

When you can follow several different timbres separately, then try to follow them together.  To this end, it can be helpful to listen to samples of each orchestral instrument isolated so you know what you are hearing.

The reverse can also work for those unfamiliar with modern pop music.  Get familiar with the isolated sound of acoustic guitars, electric guitars, synths, drums, etc. There is always the possibility that the timbres in any given genre of music (orchestral, pop, etc.) will make it impossible for an individual to enjoy.   So, don’t give up without a sincere effort.  But if you don’t enjoy it, why suffer over it?  Just enjoy what you enjoy and avoid the rest.