Encyclopedia > Timbre

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In music, timbre is the quality of a musical note which distinguishes different types of musical instrument. This is why, with a little practice, you can pick out the saxophone from the trumpet in a jazz group or the flute from the violin in an orchestra.

How It Works

Each note produced by a musical instrument is made of a number of distinct frequencies, measured in hertz (Hz). The foundational frequency is called the fundamental and the pitch produced by this frequency is used to name the note. For example, in Western music, instruments are normally tuned to A = 440Hz.

However, the richness of the sound is produced by the combination of this fundamental with a series of overtones or harmonics. These can be calculated by multiplying the fundamental by an increasing series of numbers - x2, x3, x4, etc.

Therefore, when the tuning note is played, the sound is a combination of 440Hz, 880Hz, 1320Hz, 1760Hz and so on. The balance of the different frequencies is responsible for giving each instrument its characteristic sound, which is exploited by FM synthesis.

There are two additional points that should be noted:

  1. The fundamental is not necessarily the strongest component of the overall sound. However, it is implied by the existence of the harmonic series - the A above would be distinguishable from the one an octave below (220Hz, 440Hz, 660Hz, 880Hz) by the presence of the third harmonic, even if the fundamental were indistinct
  2. It is possible to add artificial 'subharmonics' to the sound using electonic effects but, again, this does not affect the naming of the note.

See Also

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