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How to Listen to Timbre in Music

Updated on December 4, 2017
Reginald Thomas profile image

25 years as a conductor, professional trombonist, and teacher. This author enjoys writing about his passion for music.

How to Listen to Timbre in Music.

One of the five basic elements in music (melody, rhythm, harmony, and form) is called “timbre” (tam-ber). We also refer to it as “tone color“ or “tone quality”. Timbre tells us all of the things about a sound (whether musical or not ) that does not have anything to do with its pitch, volume, or length.

The human ear is amazing in that it can distinguish the difference between the sound of a trumpet and a flute, or car horn and an alarm clock. We hear each mixture of sound waves or frequencies not as separate sounds, but as the color of that sound. Our hearing along with the brain allows us to hear and understand small variations in the timbre.

This article will discuss this element of music and how we can listen to timbre differences in music.

Alarm Clock

The "timbre" of an alarm clock is different from a bank alarm.
The "timbre" of an alarm clock is different from a bank alarm. | Source

Examples of types of timbre or tone color in music.

I remember years ago listening to certain vocalists and picking out a few of them as being my favorites. I used to tell my dad that I liked this person or I liked that person and he would ask me “why“? My response was very simple. “I don’t know why, I just like them”.

It didn’t dawn on me until years later that one of the main reasons why I like certain vocalists and for that matter instrumentalists also, was that their tone quality or timbre was very appealing to me. At the time of singleing out my favorite musicians, I wasn’t a trained musician. I didn’t have any special skills, but my ears told me that they liked the sound of these artists.

To this day, I still love hearing the voice of Nat King Cole. Whenever the voice of Perry Como comes on the radio I will listen. Now that I practically dated myself, another vocalist that comes to mind is Michael Bublé. Why? The timbre of his voice is what I enjoy. Along with the fact that he is a great jazz singer.

Another example if I may. The jazz trombonist, Bill Watrous is an amazing musician and remains at the top of my list of jazz musicians.

Below is a list of types of tone color or timbre in music today.

  • vocal music - music that is sung either in a group or solo.
  • a cappella - music that is sung without instrumental accompaniment.
  • instrumental music - music performed only by instrumental musicians.
  • acoustic music - non- amplified or electronically controlled.
  • amplified music - devices used to increase the volume of instruments.
  • electronic music - sounds produced by electronic devices.

Bill Watrous

Michael Buble

One of the top recording artists today. In the style of Sinatra, Bennett, Martin.
One of the top recording artists today. In the style of Sinatra, Bennett, Martin. | Source

Michael Buble

Science and Sound

I wish not to get too technical with this part so therefore I’m going to keep it as simple as possible.

Any sound, whether musical or non-musical, is caused by something vibrating. Without vibration, sound does not exist. We hear a sound because air vibrates against our eardrums and that causes them to vibrate. The brain is then notified and figures out what kind it is. Is it music? Is it a bird singing? It is a car horn? In the brain is pretty quick so you’re going to get a response almost immediately. How about that?

Because sound waves are picked up by each special eardrum and then analyzed by each different brain, it’s probably best to say that no two people will hear the same sound in the same way.

Here’s a great experiment for you to try. Below, is a list of words. I’d like you to just read one at a time before moving onto the next one. The reason for this I want you to take some time after you read the first word and see if you can come up with a sound in your head that describes that word. Write down the sound. The sound could be a musical instrument or non-musical. Then continue to do this throughout the list.

What you will probably find is that you have stored in your brain an image and a soundbite recorded in your brain that describes these words.

  • Brassy
  • Piercing
  • Harsh
  • Warm
  • Mellow
  • Dark
  • Bright

Good tone quality versus bad tone quality

I’ve conducted instrumental music groups for many years and I repeatedly remind the ensembles the importance of good tone quality versus bad tone. Good tone quality on musicians doesn’t happen overnight. This is a developing skill that takes sometimes years to master.

I’m pretty sure that most people have heard a youngster starting out playing a new instrument and the sounds coming out of that instrument or ones that make a wish that Johnny or Mary that never started learning this instrument.This is an example of poor or bad tone quality. But as the young musician practices the timbre of that instrument will improves over time.

Another example that I can share with you is this. For any musician that wishes to become a member of an orchestra may it be a major symphony orchestra or a civic orchestra, they must go through the audition process. Most all audition procedures in this type of medium are quite similar. There are usually three people adjudicating behind a curtain and the instrumentalist is on stage and can’t see the three people that I’ll be listening to the audition.

The adjudicators will instruct the person in the audition to play certain places but usually the first thing they will require is for the instrumentalist to play a rather slow or ballad type piece much like an aria. The reason for this is to give the adjudicators a good idea of the timbre or tone quality produced by this musician. And they can find out in a very quick fashion. If they are not pleased with the tone quality coming out of the instrument then they will dismiss the instrumentalist and the audition is over. It is important to note that these judges are musicians themselves and usually includes the conductor of the orchestra or band. They not necessarily interested in how fast you can play or how high or low you can play, but if the tone quality isn’t there it will be a short audition.

Rick Wakeman

When I was in college I stumbled across an album (in those days it was called vinyl or an LP) titled “Journey to the Center of the Earth”. I found it in a trash and treasures store and not knowing what I had, I bought it anyway because the cover looked intriguing. And it was only a dollar so my investment wasn’t going to break the bank. I took it home and I played it and it was my introduction to what I call “synthetic music” or man-made sounds.

The music on this album was incredible. Nothing that I never heard before. And by pure accident I was now discovering a new type of music or genre that I was going to follow and look into.

The music was all about mythical interpretations set to modern day synthesizers along with drums, guitar, bass. The virtuosity of the artist Rick Wakeman Was extremely impressive. Wakeman is a keyboard artist and his music exhibits his fine piano skills and his improvisational make up on several keyboards displayed on stage that illustrate the amazing sounds that come out of synthesized music.

I was instantly impressed with this new technology and the use of it And after investigating and researching more about this new medium for performance I did find that he was probably the king of this type but others did follow and others were around at the same time. Groups like Emerson Lake and Palmer.

Below is a recording of Rick Wakeman performing a cut from his album. I include this in this article primarily because it’s a great example of ”timbre“ or “tone quality” with man-made sounds. Listen to it, I think you will be very impressed.

Rick Wakeman - Journey to the Center of the Earth

The timbre of a full symphony orchestra.

Keep in mind that our ears are incredible parts of the human body, and if we put them in front of a full symphony orchestra they will be able to distinguish between the different instruments on stage. Now, that is true only if our brain knows what those instruments are. Some people may not recognize an english horn, contrabassoon or a viola, but as the brain learns the instruments our recall is quicker.

Below is an example of a full symphony orchestra performing one of my favorite compositions known as Tchaikovsky‘s Symphony No. 4, 4th movement. This will give you a good idea of what timbre is all about with a large orchestra. This is a wonderful piece to listen to.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Chicago Symphony Orchestra - considered one of the best orchestra in the world.
Chicago Symphony Orchestra - considered one of the best orchestra in the world. | Source

Chicago Symphony Orchestra - Tchaikovsky Symphony No.4, 4th mvmt

© 2017 Reginald Thomas

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