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In music, timbre (pronounced /ˈtæmbər/, like the "tambour" of "tambourine", or spelling pronunciation /ˈtɪmbər/; French: [tɛ̃bʁ]) is the quality of a musical note or sound or tone that distinguishes different types of sound production, such as voices or musical instruments. The physical characteristics of sound that mediate the perception of timbre include spectrum and envelope. Timbre is also known in psychoacoustics as tone quality or tone color.

For example, timbre is what, with a little practice, people use to distinguish the saxophone from the trumpet in a jazz group, even if both instruments are playing notes at the same pitch and loudness. Timbre has been called a "wastebasket" attribute (Dixon Ward, 1965) 55) or category (Tobias 1970, 409), or "the psychoacoustician's multidimensional wastebasket category for everything that cannot be qualified as pitch or loudness" (McAdams and Bregman, 1979).



Tone quality and color are used as synonyms for timbre, as well as the "texture attributed to a single instrument." Helmholtz used the German Klangfarbe (tone color), and Tyndall proposed an English translation, clangtint. But both terms were disapproved of by Alexander Ellis who also discredits register and color for their pre-existing English meanings (Erickson 1975, 7).

The sound of a musical instrument may be described with words like "bright", "dark", "warm" or "harsh" or other terms. There are also colors of noise such as pink or white.

In visual representations of audio, timbre corresponds to the shape of the sound (Abbado 1988, 3).

American Standards Association definition

The American Standards Association definition 12.9 of timbre describes it as "[...] that attribute of sensation in terms of which a listener can judge that two sounds having the same loudness and pitch are dissimilar", and a note to this definition adds that "timbre depends primarily upon the spectrum of the stimulus, but it also depends upon the waveform, the sound pressure, the frequency location of the spectrum, and the temporal characteristics of the stimulus" (American Standards Association 1960, 45).

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