Frequently asked questions and summary
after lesson 7.

Question: What is timbre?

Answer: It is

  • the tone colour and character of a sound
  • the quality that allows a listener distinguish between two sounds when pitch, loudness and duration of the notes are exactly the same.
In other words if two different instruments
  • play the same note
  • at the same volume
  • for the same length of time
we can still tell them apart.
tuning fork - flute - violin  playing A (and cymbal !)

Question: What gives these instruments a different timbre?


  • the size and shape of each instrument
  • the material from which each is made
  • how the note is actually sounded or excited
In other words...
  • DB and Vln on stavea double bass has a different timbre from a violin even though they have the same basic shape;
  • Xylo and Glock on stavea xylophone has wooden bars and does not have the same timbre as a glockenspiel, which has metal ones;
  • ravel string quartet mp3  an instrument that is plucked has a different timbre from one that is bowed or blown or struck.

Question: How can these different timbres be described in plain English?

Answer: By using words like 'mellow', 'harsh', 'bright' and 'dull' or by associating the sound with something most people would know eg 'like someone snoring'; 'like rain falling on a tin roof'. And finally...

Question: Timbre doesn't look like an English word. How do you pronounce it?


  • It is pronounced tam-brr but it's okay to say tim-ber, even tom-brr. Nobody seems to mind.
  • In Germany they call it Klangfarbe ('tone colour') but it is difficult to find an exact match in other languages. 
  • It is also the French word for 'postage stamp'.
  • 'Tim-ber' is possibly the last word that someone hears before a tree falls on them...



1. When  we  hear a  musical  note  we  hear  its   pitch  eg C2 or F#5.   The fundamental  frequency governs the  pitch.   It is usually the strongest frequency. 

2. We can  also  tell  what  sort  of  instrument  is  playing  it

  • provided  we've heard that  instrument  before  and 
  • provided we  hear an adequate amount of the note 
  • provided the initial part of the sound hasn't been cut out ie the scraping of the bow or the spurt of the player's lips or the click of the plectrum

3. The timbre  is influenced by

  • the strength of the individual harmonics that are produced by 
  • the various waveforms  that depend on
  • the size and  shape of the instrument as well as
  • the materials from which it is made and
  • the method by which it produces its sound (eg buzzing lips or a reed) and of course 
  • the way in which its sounds are made to resonate (eg the hollow wooden body of an acoustic guitar) and obviously
  • the way in which each sound actually begins and
  • the rate of decay of each of the harmonics.
The End

Student home
Project home