Timbre (pronounced TAMber) is the tone quality of any sound. It enables us to identify and distinguish between a piano and a guitar, or the bark of a dog and the “moo” of a cow. Timbre also helps us to recognize a familiar voice. The timbre of a grown man’s voice is stronger, fuller, and deeper than that of a five-year-old boy.
In music we sometimes use the term tone color or just color as a synonym for timbre. Color also represents any combination of instruments and the resulting sound. Timbre is often described with terms like light, heavy, bright, dark, full, thin, soft, hard, reedy, harsh, warm, edgy, free, constricted, and resonant, just to name a few.
Identifying sound and timbre in music begins with the human voice. Our voices are broken down into four basic singing ranges. Women with a high vocal range are sopranos while those with a deeper voice are altos. Some women are in between the two ranges and are called mezzo-sopranos. Men with higher ranges are tenors and those who can sing the lowest are basses. In between these two categories are baritones. Many musical instruments follow this pattern of identification. For example, there are four main types of saxophone — the soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone.
There are five families of musical instruments — strings, woodwinds, brass, percussions, and keyboards. The orchestral instruments of the string family are, from highest to lowest, the violin, viola, cello, and bass. These instruments produce a tone by moving a bow against one of four strings. The resulting friction causes the string to vibrate, thus producing a musical sound. Sometimes string players produce tones by plucking the strings. Any instrument with strings that are bowed or plucked is part of this family that includes the guitar, electric bass, banjo, mandolin, ukulele, lute, sitar, and harp.
The main instruments of the woodwind section of an orchestra are the flute, oboe, clarinet, and bassoon. They were initially called woodwinds because they produced a sound when a musician blew air through a wooden tube-like instrument. Flutes are now made of metal but they are still considered part of the woodwind family. Other woodwinds include the saxophone and recorder.
Brass instruments are made of brass, of course, and have a cup-shaped metal mouthpiece that the player blows through. While the air goes through the mouthpiece the musician buzzes his or her lips which produces the initial tone. The length of the pipe of the instrument is changed by pushing down valves or moving a slide, thus making different pitches. The most commonly used brass instruments are the French horn, trumpet, trombone, and tuba.
Percussion instruments include anything that produces a sound when two objects are struck together. The simplest of percussion instruments are your hands when you clap with them. The main percussion instrument in an orchestra is the timpani, which are also called kettledrums because they look like giant kettles. Cymbals, the bass drum, snare drum, xylophone, and glockenspiel are also found in orchestral music, especially in compositions of the twentieth century. Keyboard instruments produce a sound when a musician pushes down a key that causes some other event to take place. In other words, when a piano key is pressed, that key is not making the sound by itself — it is connected to a hammer that hits a string. Other keyboard instruments are the organ, harpsichord, accordion, celeste, and synthesizer.
Just as each of these instruments has its own timbre, each player of these instruments creates a unique tone. While no two people have the exact same tone of voice, no two trombonists produce the exact same timbre. Also, most instruments produce a different tone color depending on how high or low it is playing. For example, the low register of a clarinet produces a dark, woody sound while the upper register has a brighter and clearer sound.
The instruments of an orchestra are like a palette of colors for a composer. He must judge which musical sections should be played by which instruments. A light and sprightly melody is much more likely to be played by a flute instead of a tuba. A powerful fanfare sounds best when played by brass instruments — not violas.