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  • Chris Anderson

Music Revision - Timbre

We’ve covered the different groups of musical instruments. In this blog I’ll go over timbre.


Nothing to do with trees! Timbre is best described as the type of sound an instrument makes. Another way of describing it is as the tone colour.

A note is made by a vibration. If a key on a piano is struck, the hammer hits the string causing it to vibrate. When a guitarist plucks a string, it vibrates. When a bow rubs along the string, it vibrates. When a brass player blows a raspberry into the instrument a vibration causes the note. The different vibrations produce different timbres.

The size of the instrument will also affect the timbre as will the material from which the instrument is made.

Every player will have a (slightly) different technique of playing, this will also affect the timbre.

Yet another word to use instead of timbre is sonority. Sonority and timbre are much the same thing. However, if something is described as sonorous it means that the sound is resonant, loud, resounding.

Here’s the groups of instruments we’ve covered preciously and a list of their possible timbres. The list is not exhaustive!

Brass - Bright, metallic, brassy(!). Adding a mute (see this blog) will change the timbre to, nasal, distant

Guitars (Classical) - Mellow, hollow, open, warm

Guitars (Electric) - Abrasive, electronic, harsh, heavy, scratchy, bright, warm (the timbre will depend on the effects used - see below).

Keyboards (Harpsichord) - Sparkling, metallic, dry, gritty

Keyboards (Piano) - Bright, warm, resonant, shimmering, rich, solid (depends on how it’s played (obvs!)

Percussion - Percussive, powerful, closed, ringing, wooden (timbre will also change depending on what is used to produce the sound)

Strings - Resonant, shrill, warm, sensitive (pizzicato and Arco will produce different timbres)

Woodwind - Woody(!), breathy, piercing, peaceful, mellow, reedy, harsh

Vocal - rich, thick, thin, sparkling, nasal, breathy

When asked to describe the timbre be as descriptive as you can but try to avoid using emotional words as that is the effect of what’s happening, or indeed an interpretation. For example don’t use words like “excited”, “happy” or “angry” to describe timbre. Instead use “bright”, “brassy”, “harsh”.

Electronic Effects

So far we’ve looked at the timbre produced by acoustic instruments (with the exception of the electric guitar). Here we’ll look at some of the different ways that timbre can be altered electronically.

It is important to note however, that unlike an acoustic instrument where if you play louder (or softer) you get a different timbre, on an electric instrument you just get the same timbre at a different volume.

Chorus - an effect that makes it sound like more than one instrument or singer performing. The original sound is copied several times, mixed together with slight changes in pitch and timing.

Delay - an effect that “records” an audio signal for play back a specific amount of time after the original signal. A short delay will provide a rock ’n’ roll type “slapback” where the voice is replicated very quickly.

Distortion - This adds a consistent crunch or grit to what you’re playing. The original signal is pushed to clip and then compressed thus adding a harmonic and colourful sound. Distortion is a more aggressive form of overdrive.

Echo - Following on from delay an echo also repeats a signal but with a longer gap (and often repeats).

Queen’s “The Prophets Song” is an excellent (vocal) example of the use of delay and echo. Here is the original version and here is a mind-blowing live version!

Flanger - A modulation effect that produces a similar sound to a phaser. The whooshing, swirling effect created is quite intense. Listen to the bass in this song.

Octave Effects - This adds an octave above or below the notes being played.

Phaser - A subtle version of the flange producing a watery quality when played at high speed. Listen to the guitar in this song.

Pitch Shifting - Bending a note, adding a note (electronically), auto-tuning a note, are examples of pitch shifting.

Reverb - Short for reverberation, this is not to be confused with echo (though the effect can be quite echoey). Reverb gives a certain resonant effect to a sound. Imagine going to an empty sports hall and clapping or singing a song; the sound would bounce around the room. Do the same thing in a small carpeted room and the sound would be quite dead. Reverb can add resonance effects.

Tremolo - On an acoustic instrument tremolo is an effect where the note trembles. In fact the word tremolo is Italian for trembling. It’s often produced with a a shake of the bow. An electronic effect will produce a this same effect. Don’t confuse tremolo with vibrato. Tremelo doesn’t affect the pitch, it just pulses quickly. Vibrato varies the pitch very slightly (and quickly).

You can get plugins for your computer software for nearly any electronic effect you want.

If you want an effect for your live instrument:

Keyboards - Often will have many buttons or settings you can adjust.

Guitars - You can buy a pedal for a specific effect. Very often you’ll see a guitarist with a pedal board and numerous pedals they can switch on or off to give them desired effects.

I have used guitar pedals on other electronic instruments (including keyboards) to produce some really interesting sounds.

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