What Is the Meaning of the Word "timbre" in Music?

In the simplest terms, timbre is the distinguishable characteristics of a specific sound aside from its pitch, loudness and length. If a listener heard a guitar play a note and then a flute play that same note at the same volume for the same length of time, that listener would be able to easily tell the difference between the two instruments because of the difference in timbre.

Listeners can make the distinctions in timbre because each note from a musical instrument or voice is a complex wave with unique multiple frequencies. The characteristics that describe types of timbre are descriptive in nature and include:

  • Reedy
  • Warm
  • Breathy
  • Dark or bright
  • Heavy or light
  • Flat
  • Having, or lacking, vibrato.

Timbre is sometimes referred to as the “color" of a specific sound. Usually, this in reference to the difference between the sound of two of the same instruments. Two trombones, for example, may have a different color from one another.