Timbre / Sound Quality

How can you describe the texture of sounds?

Describing the Texture of Sounds

One aspect of sound that traditional music notation is very poorly equipped to deal with, is the texture or timbre of the sound. There is no accurate way to describe musical timbre using traditional notation.

When we describe a sound as noisy or pitched, we are referring to its timbre. All sounds have a unique timbre, and it is this property of sound that allows us to tell sounds apart.

Listening Challenge

How many different timbres can you hear in this recording? Try to identify as many as possible.

Can you find more than your friends?

Find out more about this audio file.

Sonic Fingerprint

A sound’s timbre could be thought of as its fingerprint.

Each sound will have a unique timbre. Even sounds coming from the same source can possess different timbres (see also: Sound Type / Sound Source).

The particular timbre that a sound has is created by a combination of all its properties.

Activity

Discuss with a partner how you might best describe the qualities of the following sounds. Think about their shape, texture, relative noisiness – as well as their pitch, loudness and duration.

You might find it useful to sketch out pictures of how the sounds might look? (See also: Drawing Sounds.)

Sound One
Sound Two
Sound Three
Sound Four
Sound Five
Sound Six

Distinguishing Many Sources

Timbre allows us to distinguish between different sound sources and to separate out individual sounds. It is timbre that allows us to identify the many different sounds within a piece.

Listening Challenge

Listen to these two sound clips of traditional instruments:

An Instrument Playing the Note D2

Listen to the quality of this sound and compare it with the sound below.

 

A Second Instrument Playing the Note D2

Both instruments are playing the same note, but they sound very different.

Did they sound different? In what way?

 

This example demonstrates to us that there is much more to sound than pitch.

Similar Timbre

If we are presented with many sounds that have similar timbres, then it can be difficult to identify the number of sources.

Think, for example, of being in a crowded place (a shopping centre or a football stadium) where there are many people talking at once. We no longer hear the individual voices, but a mass sound for the whole crowd.

Voices

In this example, the many voices blend together into a cacophony of sound. Gradually as the layers of voices thin out, we begin to hear more and more details from individual phrases.

In traditional music, orchestration takes advantage of timbre, allowing musical elements to be separated and clearly distinguished.

Making music with sounds allows us to explore this idea even further and positions timbre as the most important aspect of music.

Each of these objects has a unique timbre. That is how we can tell them apart.

Back to: Noise & Glitch > Noise & Glitch (Intermediate)
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