Timbre: A Quick Guide to Understanding Timbre

Here’s a word I came across as a very young child smashing woodblocks together in school lessons – Timbre.

When I jumped back into the music production scene, it started to rear its head again. Which inevitably led me to seek out – what exactly is timbre in music?

Timbre (pronounced tam-bur) – refers to the characteristics of a sound. It might be helpful to think of timbre as a finger print.  Most human being on this planet has a finger print that uniquely identifies them.

Two different humans can both have an index finger, but the finger print of those two fingers will be different.

Now translate this across to instruments in music – If we take 2 different flutes; both at exactly the same loudness with no difference in pitch – When they both play the same note, the difference in sound or sound characteristics is the timbre. Timbre can also be referred to as tone, tone colour or tone quality.

What is Timbre?: A visual representation

What is timbre in music? Describing timbre as the sounds colour

Here’s a screenshot taken from the video I have listed below.

As I mentioned above timbre can also be referred to as ‘tone colour’. Each colour in the ‘mix’ above has its own unique identity. Also notice, that while there are a number of ‘blues’ in the image, they all are slightly unique – very similar to our flute example above.

All of the colours are different in their own unique way, and in a piece of painting for example, they each colour would serve a different purpose to invoke a different feeling or emotion from the admiring the image.

Music is no different. We might have a ‘dark’ sound to invoke some sort of mysterious feel or a ‘bright’ sound to lighten the mood the little.

Types of Timbre

If you’ve watched as many Youtube videos on music and music production as I have you’ll have surely come across one or more these phrase when people are describing a sound or a song;

  • Brash
  • Dark or Bright
  • Heavy or Light
  • Flat
  • Brassy
  • Warm
  • Loud or Quite
  • Full or Thin
  • Choppy

+ a whole host of other words you’ve probably scratched your head at.

When a person uses any one of the above words (and more) they are in fact describing the timbre of the sound or song.

The timbre can play a very important role in the psychology of the listener. You can evoke specific ideas, events and emotions that can draw the listener in and capture their attention in unique way.

What is Timbre in Music? Timbre Examples

To get a real-life feeling and understanding of what timbre is in music – here’s a really easy to watch video from Understanding Music

Quick notes from the video:

  • Example: Even if you have to string instruments, playing identical notes with the same volume, the difference you hear in each instruments sound – is the timbre.
  • Tone Colour vs Timbre? They’re the same thing
  • Timbre Tips: One way to get the most out of listening to music is to be able to hear ‘subtle differences in timbre’
  • Timbre Tips: It might help to visualize timbre at a set of colours
  • Timbre Tips: If each instrument has a different colour, then you’ll be able to create even more colours by mixing different ones together:
  • Timbre Tips: Tone colour plays an important role when trying to evoke certain ideas, events or used to accompany a play, a video game or a film

Timbre in Music Production

Admittedly the above video talks about timbre in regards to composers and large orchestras – but how does timbre translate to a set of monitor speakers, headphones, a DAW and music production in general?

Well the same fundamentals apply – obviously. And while a composer can mix and match instruments to create a different ‘colour’ in their orchestra music, a music producer can do exactly the same thing inside their DAW – often to a better effect.

In music production an instruments timbre can be altered and changed using a number of processing tools including; EQ, reverb, delay and distortion.

Become a Better Music Producer: Practical Guide for Using Timbre in Music Production

Step-by Step Guide

  • Find 10 instruments or sounds
  • Insert the same midi note for each instrument or sound
  • Highlight different sounds and instruments by putting them next to a contrasting instrument
  • Start playing about with layering sounds and how they sound against each other.
    • Do they sit well together?
    • If so does it add more power to the sound?
    • Which sounds don’t go so well together?
    • Which sounds complement each other?
    • What happens when you layer 2 sounds together?
    • Can you layer 3 or more sounds together and still have a sound that’s pleasing to the ear?

Timbre: Why this technique works….

  • You might want a certain instrument to stand out in the mix at a certain point – so choosing two different instruments that don’t clash with each other might be the way forward