In music, timbre is the perceived sound quality of a musical note. In simple terms, timbre is what makes a particular musical instrument or human voice have a different sound from another, even when they play or sing the same note at the same volume. One instrument or voice could be described as warm, another as bright, breathy, metallic, clean or reedy.
Timbre is not fixed for a particular instrument or singer – musicians can change the timbre using different singing or playing techniques. And subtle changes in timbre can occur depending on the particular instrument a musician chooses.
Timbre is influenced by the number of overtones in the sound, (the harmonic series), and the envelope of the sound (the properties of attack, sustain, decay and release).
Enough theory, it’s time to get magical
The best way to appreciate just how magical timbre can be is to experience it. Here are some more examples of instruments with timbres that I really like. You will, of course, have your own favourites. Let’s start with an alto sax:
A really distorted vintage Hammond organ:
Then there’s most versatile of all instruments, the voice:
Not to mention synthesisers, the only function of which is to electronically manipulate timbre:
Let’s finish with one real instrument, the electric guitar, an interesting example because, while it does have its own distinctive timbre, this can be radically altered depending on the choice of amplifier and effects:
I’ll add more when I think of them but I expect you’ve got the point. Timbre is one of the things that can make music magical. You can’t see it on a musical score but you can sure feel it in the gut.