Timbre is the tone color, or tone quality, of a voice or an instrument.

TL;DR (Overview)

  • Timbre is the tone color, or tone quality, of a voice or an instrument.
  • The different timbres of voices or instruments is how we can tell them apart.

Go to the extras to check your understanding!

Can you tell the difference between the sounds of different musical instruments? Listen to four musical excerpts below, and try to guess which instrument is in each one.

If you didn’t get the answers right, don’t worry. If you did, congratulations! Either way, you were able to hear the differences between the instruments, right? That’s because each one has a different “timbre“. Sometimes we also say “tone color” or “quality” when we talk about an instrument or a voice. We can use many different words to describe a singer’s voice, for example: bright, clear, dark, hoarse, breathy, nasal… These adjectives all describe the “tone quality” (not the singing ability!) of a singer’s voice. If two different people say exactly the same thing in exactly the same way, you can usually tell the difference, right? Sometimes it’s more difficult, when the two people are members of the same family, for example. But if the people are not related, they’ll have different physical characteristics which make their voices sound different. This is what we mean by timbre.

Bonus Question

What language does the word "timbre" come from? Think about your answer, then flip the card to see if you're right!


Yep! "Timbre" is a French word, meaning "the quality of a sound."
Watch the video below for a great explanation of timbre in music.



Timbre, tone color, tone quality