Did You Know? Musical Notes from the Penn State Laureate

May 27, 2009

Q: What do we mean by tone color?

A: Do tones have different colors? Tone color and timbre are terms that refer to the character or quality of a musical sound. They do not refer to colors such as yellow or green. Instead, these terms describe the difference in the sounds that you hear from the various instruments. The sound of a clarinet is distinct from that of a flute or that of a trumpet. Each instrument has a unique quality because of the materials that are used in its construction, and because of the way it is played. For example, the sound from a flute has a more diffuse sound than that of a clarinet or oboe, which have more overtones and may be more penetrating.

We can make a wide range of tone colors with string instruments. Depending on where we place our bow on the string and how much pressure we use, we can play softly with few overtones (closer to the fingerboard) or louder by exciting many overtones (closer to the bridge). Any variation we make, such as a slower bow, more pressure on the bow, and even a vibrato with our left hand can influence the tone color or quality of the sound. Learning to control these aspects, we can create many different colors, from an ethereal floating sound to a soft but penetrating sound to a loud tone that excites the full rich spectrum of overtones.

Some composers specify where on the string to play, or use words to describe the particular tone quality they are seeking. These different effects are used to create a palette of tone colors to express moods and emotions. In Debussy, we have more of an impressionistic palette, including the use of harmonics (high overtones produced by lightly touching the string), pizzicato (plucking of the string), tremolo (fast repeated strokes), or flautando (moving the bow quickly over the string for a flutelike sound). In Brahms, we work to excite the richest sound possible with a warm projection. We can create a whole world of sound with just one instrument.

Please send any other musical questions that you always wanted to know but were too shy to ask to Penn State Laureate Kim Cook at kdc3@psu.edu.

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Last Updated November 18, 2010