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What is Timbre in Music and the Voice? Why is it Important?

Fans of easygoing independent rock have been paying attention to Sloan Peterson, a young Australian singer whose vocal delivery has been described as being similar to that of Lana del Rey, but with a natural timbre that does not suffer from overproduction. What music critics suggest with this comparison is that the first recordings by Lana del Rey indeed suffered from too much engineering of her voice, which sounded otherworldly at times. Sloan Peterson’s voice, on the other hand, is the result of a natural effort that sounds heavenly and colorful.

For all the comparisons between Lana del Rey and Sloan Peterson, there is no chance that you would confuse their voices even if they agreed to record the same Edith Piaff song and tried to sound like each other; what will make them different is their timbre, which can be defined as their unique sound quality.

All sounds, notes, and tones possess timbre. Voices, musical instruments, and even noises can be distinguished by a series of attributes that collectively make up their timbre or tone color. Although the perception of these attributes can be subjective to a certain extent, we could use a spectrometer to analyze timbre and measure the following:

  • Sound envelope.
  • Amplitude and frequency modulation.
  • Noise range.
  • Acoustic prefix and final sound.
  • Rise and decay.

Instruments have their own timbre; if we ask a seasoned jazz performer to play John Coltrane’s “Alabama” on clarinet and oboe, we would be able to distinguish between the two. We could also take a couple of Fender Stratocaster guitars manufactured in different years and run them through the spectrometer in order to get a graphical representation of their timbre difference. People with hearing disabilities can also discern timbre through vibrotactile experiences.

People have always been able to distinguish timbre; nonetheless, the studious application of tone color in musical composition started in the 18th century. Composers such as Richard Wagner mastered the use of timbre in order to make their works more dynamic and masterful.

The Importance of Timbre in Music Learning

Timbre is a topic that you can never stop learning about. It is easy to understand the basics and take them for granted; in fact, we can even play around with timbre when we speak, sing, or play instruments even if we are not familiar with sound attributes such as prefix, modulation, envelope, and decay. Some musicians, recording engineers, and scientists tackle the musical topic of timbre very seriously and in some cases obsessively.

Jamaican recording engineer Osbourne Ruddock, better known as King Tubby, created the Caribbean music subgenre known as dub thanks to his deep interest in electronics and sound. Ruddock used to remix analog recordings of ska and reggae songs; however, he experimented with isolating tracks, running the audio through jury-rigged filters, playing with the envelope, punching up the reverb, adding delay, and applying all sorts of weird tricks resulting in a recordings that were radically transformed from the original. King Tubby was thoroughly haunted by timbre on a cosmic level, and he believed that harmony and melody took a backseat to sound modulation.

If you agree with the axiom of understanding being the key to learning, you will likely agree that teaching children about timbre is a good way to help them develop a solid musical foundation. The topic of timbre as it relates to music theory is part of the Prodigies Music curriculum; our program takes a playful approach to teaching topics such as pitch, chromatic notes, timbre, and scales. Children can certainly get the concept of timbre, and they can also learn to manage it in ways that they can incorporate it into melodies.

Texture, Tone, and Timbre

Early exposure to music theory makes for smarter musicians. Children will not be able to grasp all the nuances of timbre on the same level as King Tubby did, but they can become familiar with certain elements of sound and music so that they can develop finely critical hearing, which they can in turn apply to performance and composition.

As previously explained, we hear a combination of sound elements when recognizing timbre. These elements may include tone and texture, which have their own meaning. Texture is what happens when timbre sounds play together; disgraced music producer Phil Spector mastered texture to create his “wall of sound” technique for recording songs that could be appreciated on amplitude modulation radios.

Tone refers to the techniques we can apply to produce balanced sounds. When you play around with the bands on the graphical equalizer of digital media players, you are setting the tone of the audio you wish to listen. It is easier to adjust tone, texture, and timbre when you understand what they are.

Adjusting Timbre

Comedians and entertainers who impersonate voices on radio programs are adept timbre adjusters; they understand the factors that can affect timbre and know how to change them. Singers do this as well, although they prefer to perform with their signature timbre for the purposes of establishing a personality for their voices. In the aforementioned case of Lana del Rey, the initial overproduction of her recorded voice pushed her to train her singing voice so that fans would recognize her in live performances and subsequent recordings.

The vocal tract is far more flexible than we realize. We can loosen or tighten the interplay of our throat and tongue in order to produce a different timbre. In the case of guitar players who perform classical pieces focus on how their fingering produces sounds on steel and vinyl strings. Those who play electric guitar have tone controls and effects to create adjustments in addition to string fingering techniques.

Something important to understand about timbre is the role it plays when conveying emotion to sound. Highly emotional singers such as Joe Cocker and Adele inject a lot of feeling into their performances, but what you hear is the result of extensive rehearsals working with vocal coaches and producers who figured out the right timbre and tonality. You can apply as much feeling as possible to singing or instrumental performance and still fail to transmit the desired emotion if you do not strike the right timbre. The legendary bossa nova singer Astrud Gilberto has a natural timbre that sounds angelical without any adjustments; this is why some people are surprised to see her very passive live performances. The bottom line of timbre is that it can make or break musical pieces, and this is why serious musicians and audio engineers pay close attention to this dynamic element of sound.

Timbre in the Prodigies Music Program

The desk bell instruments or the Prodigies Bells mobile app for iOS and Android devices feature unique timbre and sound signatures that make them ideal for teaching the concepts of melody and harmony. Keeping in mind that the Prodigies Music curriculum is focused on music theory, timbre helps students understand chord notation and structure. The C, G, and F major chords are introduced in the first chapter of the Primary Prodigies program; later, the chords are used to explain unison, melody, and harmony. The timbre of the desk bells allows for the performance of unison so that children can notice the textural differences.

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