Timbre, also called tone color or tone quality, is the quality of a musical note that differentiates different types of sound, such as a trumpet and a guitar. When these two instruments play a note with the same loudness and pitch, they still sound different. That is because the timbre of the instruments is different. Timbre is determined by the physical characteristics of the sound, such as the spectral envelope, the rise, duration, and decay time envelope, the prefix to the sound, micro-intonation, and the range between tonal and noiselike character. Timbre is the quality of a sound that makes it different from others.
Why is it that two singers with the same range, singing the same note, at the same volume, do not sound the same? They might sound similar, but they might sound extremely different. It depends on the physical aspects of that which produces the sound, such as the vocal cords, and the method of delivery. That’s why some people have extraordinarily beautiful voices and some people, frankly, do not.
Timbre is that which makes you cry when you hear a sad song. It is what makes bagpipes so mournful. It is what makes a violin sound so beautifully sad. But it is also what makes the saxophone and flute so joyful. The pitch plays no part in the emotions associated with the sound. The timbre controls that entirely. The method in which these instruments are played also affects how they sound. For instance, the violin can sound incredibly happy and upbeat when played in an Irish folk song. And the flute can sound wistful and lonely when played slowly, with long notes stretching out sorrowfully. All of the emotions we feel when we listen to music come from the tone quality, the timbre.
Here’s an example of the mournful, yet beautiful, bagpipes at work:
And here is an example of very interesting and beautiful timbre in a voice: