Properties of Sound – Timbre [part 1]

Sound Colour | Quality of Sound 
It’s what separates the sound of the saxophone from the sound of the banjo.

I often underestimate how choosing the right tone colour can alter, elevate or diminish a music piece. Imagine singing Twinkle Twinkle Little star with a breathy voice, and with a rawring voice. The meaning changes. It gives me goosebumps just thinking how powerful timbre is! Choosing the appropriate sound colour could be as simple as choosing to play the melody in a specific range, high or low, articulation, dynamics. Sometimes that’s all it takes to convey your meaning. But alas, there is always more, much, much more!

To discover what our instrument can do, its possibilities regarding timbre, we will be looking at acoustic instruments without any pedals and we will start with the conventionally agreed normal playing style of the instrument. How would the instrument sound like if it played a piece written by a composer in the classical era. I think it’s a good base to start from.

Distraction 1
Listen and discover your instrument’s timbre.
Identify the normal / proper way of playing your instrument. Discover the full spectrum (sound colour) of your instrument while maintaining its primary character. Then try mixing techniques together.

mix and match and add other ones!

It always helps if I am trying to describe a person I know already, or an animated character or an animal. A heavy elephant, a slithering snake, the river, would sound like *this* on my instrument.

That is the characteristic sound of your instrument. Try to add some adjectives to establish its sound, e.g: The flute has an airy sound, the violin has a mellow sound, the saxophone has a bright sound. In this so called normal playing we still vary the colour of the brightness, airiness, and mellowness of the instruments by slightly tweaking some properties of sound or combining them together, like dynamics (loudness), articulation (envelope), duration if possible, and the range we are playing in (pitch), but the sound still keeps its identity. Also, try changing your location and ask someone to tell you what they can hear.

I’ll quote what say about the bassoon describing its timbre.

The bassoon’s double reed gives it a rich, slightly buzzing quality in the lowest notes and a sweet nasal sound higher up. Bassoons can be extremely expressive as solo instruments and their warm vibrato enables them to sound remarkably human, a little like a resonant baritone singer. They are also great for creating punchy rhythmic lines and as bass instruments they help provide support for the whole orchestra”.

This is the timbre of the bassoon in the classical orchestra, without any external or imaginative sound effects. Isn’t it remarkable and fascinating?!

Even though there is a charm in playing like this we can and we should* go beyond these boundaries, especially as educators. Timbre is such a powerful tool. It creates an engaging storytelling experience, the student can learn muscle control, breath control and so on, it promotes individuality, and confidence to say the least. You can’t play a multiphonic or a jet whistle, or pianississimo unless you put your whole heart into it. Composers should* know – or be aware of the possibilities – of an instrument and performers should* be playing and discovering new possibilities of their instrument, even if it’s just new to them.*should: of course, that’s my opinion. I’d like to hear your thoughts.

Exploring the timbre of an instrument, voice, ensemble, leads us to the (in)famous extended techniques!!!

These techniques are extended in one sense, as they go beyond the conventional techniques we are used to hearing and playing in classical music. They are part of what the sound of the instrument. I prefer talking about Contemporary Techniques as I feel it’s a more appropriate description, they are used more prominently in contemporary times. 

Distraction 2
To familiarise ourselves with the shades of timbre, the possibilities of our instruments and how timbre affects storytelling, choose a simple melody or song and play it in different ways. Again, thinking about characters will help the process A Lot! An elephant hopping around some sleepy mice trying not to wake them up

Here are some ideas you can work withNot all ideas will work for your instrument, but elaborate:
1) use a lot of air. 
2) Play it using harmonics, very high harmonics
3) sing as well. You can also be playing one low note and it will act as a bass note.
4) combine different, pizzicato / staccato techniques
5) place different instruments around you while playing

Distraction 3 ‒  ELEMENTS
You need a card deck. 
♠️ = Water
♥️ = Earth (stone) 
♦️ = Wind 
♣️ = Fire

Pull out one card at a time and your students need to describe the element by producing music / sound. All students need to play at the same time. It gets noisy but there are reasons for it. They have to be impulsive, they don’t have time to sensor or rethink their option to make it pretty, and they will feel less self-conscious if everyone is playing at once. Encourage them to use sounds that go beyond the pretty playing of the instrument and give them a chance to demonstrate. There is no wrong or right way as long as there is a logical explanation. The execution may not be perfect at first but it gets the brain working. Try to add different restraints, like play only forte / piano, fast / slow, set a specific number of notes they can use each time…

© Rania Chrysostomou, 2020

One response to “Properties of Sound – Timbre [part 1]”

  1. […] Extended techniques article is here and part […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Create a website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: