Author Topic: No__125___The 3 T's (No - Not the 3 Tenors) but Tone, Timbre, & Texture  (Read 66 times)

Peter Anderson

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Tone, Timbre, and Texture

We use different terms to refer to how music sounds, and here are three familiar ones, tone, timbre, and texture.

They are sometimes even used interchangeably, but they do differ, so let us examine these three T’s.

The first one is         Tone

Tone is one of the most common terms used to define a piece of music.

                   It can refer to   a)     a specific type of interval,
                                          b)     the space between two adjacent notes
                                          c)      the notes themselves
                                          d)     the general sound of an instrument or ensemble   (but this should be called timbre.)

In this Post, we start by concentrating on tone, which I take to mean the overall blend of the frequencies present in a sound, that produce the general sound itself.

Pure sounds, consisting of a single sound wave vibrating at a single frequency are extremely rare in the real world.
Most sounds we hear, even those which sound simple, actually consist of a complex assortment of many sound waves vibrating at a wide range of frequencies.

The sound waves for a musical sound generally have a particular relationship, which we call the harmonics.
This simply means that the higher frequency waves function at multiples of the lowest or fundamental  frequency.

For a given frequency, it is the relative strength of the harmonics, that determine the tone of the sound.

This is why two sounds can have exactly the same pitch, and even though they are playing exactly the same note, will be very different in tone.

Many electronic instruments or players have either one or a series of tone knobs.    For example, CD players, electric guitars, and even Televisions, often have these features.   

Turning the knob one way concentrates the energy in the higher frequencies and cuts out the lower frequencies, producing a more treble sounding tone, while turning it the other way will produce a sound with more bass.

As a result even bass instruments, like the bass guitar, can have the tone adjusted to produce a more treble tone.

Despite the difference achieved by varying the tone, the note(s) sounded will still be at the same pitch.

In the next Reply we give further thought to this idea of Tone.

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Peter Anderson

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We use the word Tone to describe the sound that musical instruments or voices produce.   

It is a word that refers to the audible characteristics that performers make.

Tone is the product of all the influences on musical sounds that can be heard by the listener, including the characteristics of the instrument itself, and differences in playing technique.

These include                     embouchure for woodwind and brass players*,     see note below
                                         fretting techniques
                                         the use of a slide in stringed instruments or some brass ones like the trombone     or
                                         the use of different mallets in percussion.

They also include the physical space in which the instrument is played.

In electric and electronic instruments, tone is also affected by the
                                           special effects,    and
                                           the speakers used by the musician or the one playing it back.

In recorded music, tone is also influenced by
                                           the microphones,
                                           the signal processors,   and
                                           the recording media used to ...
                                                           mix,                     and
                                                           master the final recording.

Yet another factor, of course, is the audio system that is used to play back the recording.   Your Lounge Hi-Fi will reproduce the same music CD very differently to your Walkman.

In the next Reply, we look at the effect of the instruments themselves, and other "gadgets" that impact on this feature.

        *To read more about    embouchure for woodwind and brass players  click on this link:


                   or take a look at Peters Pearls Nos  89, 90, 93 & 94

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Peter Anderson

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The tone of individual instruments, especially the string family, is further influenced by factors related to construction of the instrument and the materials used in its manufacture, and the player's technique.

Especially for string instruments, their shape, particularly of their resonant cavity, as well as the choice of material for the body, neck, and fingerboard, are all major factors that determine their tone.

The material and age of the strings is another key factor.

Beside all this, playing technique itself, also influences the tone, including subtle differences in the amount of pressure applied with the fretting hand, picking or bowing intensity, as well as the use of muting and/or drone techniques.

The sound of an amplified electric or electronic instrument is affected by each component in its signal chain, from the initial instrument right through to the speakers.

At minimum, the signal path will consist of the instrument, a pre-amplifier, a power amplifier, and one or more speakers.

Additional signal processing can be added at various points in the signal path, and may also be integrated into the pre-amplifier circuitry.

Pre-amplifiers and signal processing units typically provide multiple controls to allow the user to create their own unique tone.

These may include equalization controls, like the tone controls on electric guitars, basses, and amplifiers,
                                                as well as the gain, drive, fuzz, reverb  controls,        and so on.

Electronic keyboards and synthesizers typically have multiple patches that can be selected to make the instrument produce a very different effect.

You have probably come across, or even have on a piece of equipment that is commonly referred to as an equalizer
These are called EQ’s for short, and are used to control the tone of individual instruments, as well as either whole ensembles or just sections of ensembles.

They depend on their ability to hear and distinguish fundamental and harmonic frequencies.

We can learn to identify treble and bass tones in a particular piece of music. 

Very often a certain instrument in a piece will have a constant tone throughout, but sometimes some instruments will change their tone either between sections of a song, or, for a particular effect, during a solo.

In the next Reply we will consider Timbre

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Peter Anderson

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The word Timbre is French in origin, and is often pronounced    TAM-ber,   and, sometimes with a more French-influenced second syllable, TAM-bruh.   

Timbre in modern English refers to the quality of a sound made by a particular voice or musical instrument, where timbre is distinct from pitch, intensity, and loudness as a description of sound.

But because English is rarely straightforward, the word can be spelt    timber.

So   timbre    may also be correctly pronounced just like timber as   TIM-ber.

Now to address our subject here....

Timbre  is essentially that feature that makes one instrument or voice sound very different to another.

In music, timbre, which is also referred to as tone colour or tone quality, is the perceived sound quality of a musical note, sound or tone.

Timbre distinguishes different types of sound production, such as choir voices and musical instruments.
         For instance, we can easily identify a string instrument.

                   Similarly, we can recognise wind instruments, and no one has trouble  appreciating the sound of percussion instruments.

But Timbre, also enables the listener to distinguish different instruments in the same category.   
          For example, most people can distinguish between an oboe and a clarinet, which are both woodwind instruments.

In simple terms, timbre is what makes a particular musical sound have a different sound from any other.

Therefore, for example it is the difference in sound between a guitar and a piano, which are playing exactly the same note at the same volume.

Both instruments can sound equally tuned in relation to each other as they play the same note, and while playing at the same amplitude, each instrument will still sound distinctive, having its own unique tone colour.

Experienced musicians are also able to distinguish between different instruments of the same type, based on their varied timbres, even if those instruments are playing notes at the same fundamental pitch and loudness.     Many professional pianists insist on having a particular make of piano on the stage for their performances, and tone is one of their preferences here, beside touch etc.

Obviously there are so many other factors that come into play, but most people can tell an expensive quality instrument from a cheap brand.   

In the AR-Group we members were attracted to the ‘sound’ of the Yamaha AR, from the very first moment we heard it and recognised its outstanding quality from that very moment!     
Don't forget the original sounds inputted into the instrument, together with the amplifiers and the speakers all play their part in producing that final sound.
I think we all realise that there is a tone difference between the Yamaha AR100 and the Yamaha AR80.

The physical characteristics of sound that determine the perception of timbre include spectrum and envelope.

Singers and instrumental musicians can change the timbre of the music they are singing or playing by using different singing or playing techniques.
                  For example, a violinist can use different bowing styles or play on different parts of the string to obtain different timbres.

One example is by them playing sul tasto, which produces a light, airy timbre, whereas playing sul ponticello, produces a harsh, even and aggressive tone.

To find out more about playing sul tasto click on this link:

To find out more about playing sul ponticello click on this link:

On the electric guitar and electric piano, performers can change the timbre using their effects and graphic equalizers.   
Similarly, we can change the sound of any voice on our Yamaha AR, by use of the Effects page.

In the next reply, we’ll continue to look at Timbre, and the Effects page.

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Peter Anderson

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So we have seen that Timbre allows you to hear a musical note and, usually, immediately recognise what instrument is playing it.

Although this sounds simple, timbre actually incorporates a number of different factors, including tone that we considered in an earlier Reply.

Studies have shown that there are many factors that operate in how we distinguish different sounds.

It is remarkable that, for most of us, our ears and brain, can hear a violin note and instantly know it is a violin.    This is even more remarkable when we consider just how complex timbre actually is!

Obviously we can apply the term timbre to an overall sound, as in considering the timbre of a song, but, it is best to focus on an individual instrument.

A key factor that influences the timbre of an instrument is how each note starts and stops.
Some instruments have a gentle smooth shape to the notes, while others have a sharp, punchy, precise onset and release.

Take a look at Page 117 of your AR Manual, which I have reproduced here:


I have taken the liberty to add additional extra detail especially in the    Attack  Decay   Release diagram,  for completeness.   
The diagram, taken from Page 117, graphically demonstrates the shape of the note.

Other factors include the overall frequency balance of a sound, which is closely related to tone, and how this varies over the duration of a note, how the pitch of a note fluctuates or stays steady, the presence of “noisy” sounds compared with “tonal” sounds, and much more.

For our purposes, we don’t need to worry too much about the specific factors which determine timbre, but learning a bit about them can help us, to appreciate musical timbre in a more precise and sophisticated way.

The better we get to know timbre, the easier it becomes to pick apart the different instruments in a mixed track and appreciate the contribution made by each performer.

Naturally this is doubly useful for the aspiring song writer, composer or audio engineer!

But it can help us to create better adjusted voices for our tracks and by getting the EQ right, we will further enrich the final effect of the voices we select.

One big area is to assist us in removing “muddy” sounds.

Unconsciously or deliberately, we utilise timbre when initially setting up our Yamaha AR to play any piece of music, because we select a mix that sounds good or likeable to us

In the next Reply, we turn to Texture.

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Peter Anderson

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Texture can refer to two related elements, which are:

   1.         The overall sound of an ensemble, including instrumentation and orchestration.
               Words like    Thick
     and the like can be used when referring to this kind of texture
   2.         How the different streams of sound in a piece of music relate and interact.
                Words like    Monophonic
    and the like are used when talking about this kind of texture.

Don't worry we explore these terms in the next Reply.
The first definition about the overall sound is a loose and informal one, often used in the studio or by audio professionals.
It really describes the overall timbre of a track as a whole.

The second definition about the different streams is the more traditional or classic term, and has useful meaning to sit alongside tone and timbre that we have discussed earlier.

In music, texture is how the     tempo,    melodic,   and    harmonic   aspects are combined in any composition.

Together, these determine the overall quality of the sound of a piece.

Texture is often used to describe the
                             density,  or    thickness        and
           even the    range or width,   between the lowest and highest pitches.

It may be used in relative terms, as well as more specifically distinguishing factors, like the number of voices, or parts,
and the relationship between those voices.

For example, a thick texture contains many 'layers' of instruments.   

One of those layers could be a string section, while yet another could be comprised of brass instruments.

The thickness is also changed by the amount and the richness of the instruments that are used to play the piece.

The thickness, pretty obviously, varies from light to thick.     

So the texture of a piece may be changed by
                                The number and character of parts actually playing at once
                                The timbre of the instruments or voices playing these parts    and
                                The harmony, tempo, and rhythms used.

In the next Rely, we look at that second description and unravel those ‘-phonic’  words.

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