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Learn the Language of Music ; Timbre

Updated: May 1, 2021

(pronounced: tem-ber )

Pick string number 1 on your guitar and listen to the tone. The vibrating string is sounding the pitch E. There are other instruments that can produce the same pitch. A trumpet, a violin and a flute are three instruments that can produce the same pitch as string number 1 played open on your guitar.

But would all of the notes sound the same?

Tonal Color

Imagine that there are two musicians standing behind you who are holding two different instruments; one is holding a violin and the other is holding a trumpet.

If musicians both play the pitch E at the same time, for the same duration, and with the same intensity, could you tell the instruments apart ?

You might find this test very easy; you might say "The violin is somewhere behind my left shoulder, and the trumpet is somewhere behind my right shoulder"

The two instruments are made of different materials, and they produce their tones in different ways.

A violin is made of wood and produces a tone by the musician dragging a bow string made of horse hair over a string on the instrument, causing the string to vibrate.

A trumpet is made of brass metal and procedures a tone when the musician vibrates their lips on the mouthpiece while they are blowing air through the instrument. So it makes sense that even though these instruments can play the same pitch, for the same duration, and with the same intensity, they will still sound different, because the tone that each instrument produces has a different timbre.

Timbre refers to tone quality or to the tonal color of a sound.

Timbre on the Guitar

We compared two different instruments to gain an understanding of timbre, but even a single instrument procedures notes of different timbre throughout its range.

On the guitar, it's even possible to play the same pitch and hear a different timbre. Play string number 1 on your guitar and listen again to the tone as the string vibrates and sounds the pitch E.

Now follow string number 3 up the neck until you reach fret number 9.

Hold this note so that your fingertip is pressing right behind fret number 9 and pick the string. If you are holding the correct note, you will hear the pitch E, which is the same pitch that you hear when you play string number 1 open.

When you compare these two notes, can you hear how the note E on the ninth fret sounds thick and warm, compared to the note E open which sounds bright and thin, even though they are sounding the same pitch?

E on the ninth fret is played on a larger string, which has also been made shorter, as the string is ringing from fret number 9 to the bridge saddle.

E Open is played on a smaller string, which is also longer, as the string is ringing from the nut to the bridge saddle.

As you experiment with different strings and play different notes, you may notice that smaller strings produce bright or thin timbre, and larger strings produce thick or warm timbre.

A composer who is sensitive to timbre may require a musician to play in a different position to produce notes if a different tonal color.

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