Why is it so, that a one guitar “sounds” better that the other? Indeed, why does a guitar sound different from a piano or a violin even if they play the exact same note (same pitch)? Why does an electric guitar playing a song using distortion sound different from the very same guitar playing it without one?
The answer to all this is rather difficult to put in words, though it seems quite obvious to everyone – it’s a quality of that instrument that causes the sounds to differ; it is the nature and property of that instrument. Any means of altering the sound produced may be used. But what exactly is that property, and why is it so that even though they are playing the exact same frequency, they sound so very different?
The property concerned that determines the nature of the sound for a particular instrument is its timbre. Timbre has been defined by the ASA as that quality of note that differentiates it from another note bearing the exact same pitch (frequency) and loudness. Timbre is also referred to as “tone quality” or “tone color.”
Major parameters of acoustics for a particular sound that effect timbre are:
• The range of frequencies being produced by the instrument along with the primary tone. The associated frequencies (pitches) may be harmonics, intervals or just random unrelated frequencies (noise).
• The different values of loudness of each of these pitches that are sounded together (spectral envelope)
• The onset and duration of each of these pitches with respect to one another along with the rate of rise and fall for each.
• Any special character of that sound – like the sound produced may be different at different times after sounding that note till the end of the note (changes within a fraction of a second). E.g. the notes on a guitar are louder and shriller when the string is plucked.
This is the basic of the theoretical aspects of timbre in music. Try and listen to your instrument and find out which of these properties are applicable to it. Check for the above described properties. Compare with another instrument and try to differentiate the two timbres.
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