Have you ever asked yourself what makes 2 instruments sound different?
It’s a very good question that I’ve also been asking myself.
In a music theory book I found a definition that stated:
“The timbre is the quality of a sound that differentiates two sound, even though they have the same height, duration or volume”.
This is pretty much a partial definition.
In my opinion it doesn’t really say anything.
There are many things that make it possible for a human being to differentiate between two sounds.
It’s about the structure of the sound, a subject that can’t be covered in just one article.
How would the music be if there only was one timbre?
It would be horrible.
All songs would sound the same, and the monotony would be present even in the biggest masterpieces.
Even the most brilliant composer would be limited.
The fact that there is a large variety of timbres available makes me believe that music is still a gold mine, which hasn’t been fully exploited.
Which is the real difference between musical timbres?
Firstly, the difference is given by the number and the position of the harmonics.
It doesn’t matter if the instrument is traditional or analogue because any instrument has harmonics.
The harmonics are just reflections on higher pitches of the fundamental frequency.
A guitar chord doesn’t vibrate on her entire length only.
It vibrates on seconds, thirds,etc, like any other instrument.
The harmonics are smaller divisions of the fundamental frequency.
They always depend on the main sinusoid.
You will most likely understand what I’m trying to explain better by looking at the next image:
Now that we’ve started to shed some light let’s continue.
The first difference between musical timbres is represented by the position of these harmonics.
When it comes to blowing instruments like the whistle, and wooden blowing instruments in general the harmonics are odd.
You can notice this in the following image:
The vibrations 2, 4, 6, 8,etc. are missing.
The blowing instruments emit a sound which is warmer and softer in comparison with the sound emitted by instruments made of brass.
They have a lower number of harmonics, which makes them sound “cleaner”.
Of course they also contain harmonics on high frequencies.
A good example of an instrument which has many harmonics is the synthesizer!
Traditional instruments have a large variety of harmonics on medium frequencies, but not so many on high frequencies.
Most “natural” instruments have their high frequencies blurred, this being the main reason why they don’t sound as rich.
Harmonics like the “saw” has all the natural divisions of a fundamental.
The sound is stronger, jagged, maybe even a bit abrasive.
The second characteristic which makes it possible to differentiate between two instruments is the length of these harmonics.
The most important rule in music is that the higher the frequency is the shorter the duration of that particular frequency must be.
The sinusoids on the high frequencies don’t need to last very long. I will explain why in future articles.
As I was saying the second thing that allows us to differentiate between two sounds is the length of the harmonics.
When you are using a Xylophone for example, the duration is very small, you could even say that it’s a percussive element.
The third characteristic is the detuned effect.
This is a slight dissonance between the harmonics that has the role of covering the stereo space, but you must not over do it because you could even make it sound out of tune.
Even further, you could destroy the harmony, which is the most important element in a good composition.
I’ve tested some presets from Nexus, especially “Dance Leads” and in most of them the detuned effect has been used and in my opinion the effect was overused making them sound a bit detuned.
There are some producers that use these types of sounds and they actually are their main sound.
How many musical timbres do exist?
Even though I’m not at such a level so that I could speak about music in every aspect, I could draw the following conclusion: the number of timbres is infinite.
There are so many possible combinations that it’s pretty much impossible to cover them all even by simply thinking.
Music is not made out of harmony on it’s own.
This is extremely important.
When you are listening to a musical composition that sounds very nice and at the same time you hear a certain detuned combined with harmony you realise how various the combinations can be, but this is already a new chapter over which I will go in the future.
Which are your favourite timbres?
I’m very curious, so please leave a reply in the comment section bellow.
PS: I would like to ask you:
What would you like me to write about in the sound and music domain?