Why am I learning this?
Timbre is often what people care most about in music. Think about why you love one pop group or another: a big factor is likely the timbre of the singer’s voice and the sound of the ensemble. So if you want to make music that people care about, it helps to know about timbre. It is especially important to know what partials you are approximating.

Timbre or tone color is the color of sound. Timbre is determined mainly by the arrangement and strength (amplitude) of partials (sound components), which is called the spectrum, and by the envelope (the growth and decay of the partials). Different instruments as well as different playing techniques produce different timbres. Timbre has also been defined as that which distinguishes sounds apart from pitch and loudness, but some musicians reject this definition as non-specific.

History and etymology

Timbre has always been extremely important for all music everywhere. That being said, it is only starting in the twentieth century, especially since the 1970s, that a number of composers have made the manipulation of timbre a main point of interest in music. Such music is commonly known as spectral music, despite some objections to the term as reductive (because timbre is not just about spectrum).

Example: Gérard Grisey, “Partiels,” from Les Espaces Acoustiques (1975): A paradigmatic piece of spectral music, it imitates the attack of a low E on the trombone.

The word timbre comes from the French timbre (bell). Bells arouse an interest in timbre because the ear can both analyze the components of a bell sound and synthesize them into a single sound with a single timbre; this is not generally the case with most musical instruments.

General aspects

Musicians describe timbre as bright versus dark. Bright timbre, such as a trumpet sound, is associated with strong high frequencies, and dark timbre, such as a horn sound, is associated with weak high frequencies. Musicians similarly describe timbres as warm or full versus thin. Warm or full timbre is associated with strong low frequencies and a strong fundamental (lowest partial), such as a low cello sound, and thin timbre is associated with weak low frequencies and a weak fundamental, such as a high flute sound. Musicians use many other descriptions as well.


strong weak
high frequencies bright dark
low frequencies warm or full thin


It has been said that timbre is like the texture of a sound. This statement makes some sense if you consider that a texture is made up of multiple sounds, and a timbre is made up of multiple sound components.

Specific aspects

The voice and most musical instruments have harmonic spectra, meaning that the partials are multiples of a fundamental (in terms of frequency). Sounds with harmonic spectra have a more distinct pitch, namely that of the fundamental. The series of partials that are multiples of a fundamental is called its harmonic series. You can play the first four octaves of a harmonic series here. Here is an approximation of the beginning of the harmonic series for a low C (the notation of partials 7, 11, and 13 is especially approximate):

The partial numbers (below the notes) are proportionate to the frequencies; i.e., partial 2 has twice the frequency of partial 1, partial 3 has thrice the frequency of partial 1, etc. The more a chord resembles a portion of a harmonic series, the more resonant it is. Most tertian chords and some quartal chords resemble portions of a harmonic series. For example, a major triad resembles partials 4, 5, and 6, and a three-note fourth chord voiced in fifths resembles partials 4, 6, and 9. The root of such a chord will correspond to the lowest of these partials. For example, the root of a major triad corresponds to partial 4. Also, the more a scale resembles a harmonic series, the more potential there is for resonance. Recall that the acoustic scale resembles the first thirteen partials of its tonic, rearranged into steps. Note: the harmonic series is sometimes called the overtone series, in which case the first overtone (tone over the fundamental) is the second partial, etc. Avoid this confusing term.

Non-pitched instruments and some pitched instruments, especially bells, have inharmonic spectra, meaning that the partials are not multiples of a fundamental. Sounds with inharmonic spectra have a less distinct pitch or no pitch.

Further reading

  • Stephen Kostka, Materials and Techniques of Post-Tonal Music, Chapters 11–12

External links

The Wikipedia article on timbre is not unified, is not comprehensive, and has some extraneous and erroneous information.


Twentieth- and Twenty-First-Century Music Copyright © by Matthew Arndt. All Rights Reserved.

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