Timbre, pronounced “TAM-ber,” is the character or quality of sound that distinguishes one instrument, voice, or other sound source from another. There are many ways to describe the timbers, also known as tone colors, of sounds. They may be described as thin, thick, light, dark, sharp, dull, smooth, rough, warm, cold, rich, nasal, etc. Tone color is that special sound that makes one instrument sound different from another. It’s what makes violins sound different from trumpets and xylophones sound different from clarinets.
Timbre is an important element at the composer’s disposal. A good composer must understand what an instrument can and cannot do. A flute can’t sound like a tuba, and a clarinet does not sound like a piano.
In addition to considering the timbre and tone color composers need to know the pitch range or register of a particular instrument. Register and airplanes have lots in common. Airplanes fly at different altitudes so they don’t run into each other. Instruments play in different registers so their sounds won’t run into each other. This lets the listener enjoy many combinations of sounds. Flutes play in a high register, bassoons play in a low register and trumpets play in the middle register. Instruments playing in different registers at the same time let the listener hear many sounds at once.
By using assorted tone colors, the composer can build a piece of music that evokes various emotions, and helps us to create images in our mind.