All three refer to the quality of a sound: its overall characteristics. That’s why you might hear somebody talking about the tone of a violin, or violin timbre, or the texture of a strings arrangement. Or you may have come across an article on improving your guitar tone, crafting the perfect guitar timbre, or how the texture of a guitar solo performance affects the musical impact.
The three terms are clearly related, but each does have its own meaning and you should understand the difference.
What is tone?
The tone of an instrument generally refers to the overall frequency balance. Even if you haven’t done frequency ear training you probably understand the concepts of “bass” (low sounds) and “treble” (high sounds).
“Tone” refers to the balance of frequencies present in a sound.
For example, if a guitar sound is very bassy, you would say it has a bass-heavy tone. This is what the “tone controls” on an electric guitar affect: the balance between bass and treble. Or if a singer has a very shrill piercing voice, you might say they had a very treble tone to their singing.
People will often use the word “tone” more generally, to mean the general nature of a sound, but this is incorrect. What they mean is “timbre”.
What is timbre?
The term “timbre” refers to the characteristic sound of an instrument. In a sense, timbre is everything that lets you distinguish one instrument from another. For example, a trumpet has a brash timbre compared with the smoother timbre of a saxophone. A violin and viola have very similar timbres (which is why you might struggle to distinguish them by ear). The timbre of a string instrument is completely different from a keyed or wind instrument.
Outside the world of music we use timbre to distinguish different sound sources – such as the difference between a dog barking and a child shouting, or the difference between a male and female voice speaking.
Timbre is a combination of many factors. It includes tone but also aspects like how suddenly or smoothly the notes start and end, the number and strength of harmonics in the sound, and how the sound varies over time.
Timbre should technically refer to the sound of a single instrument. When you combine instruments in a piece of music, there is a different word for how their sounds combine…
What is texture?
There are two common meanings to “Texture”.
The first one: “Texture” means the overall sound created by multiple instruments in music. You can think of it as “the combined timbre of a group of instruments”.
This meaning is generally used in the world of music production, for example when talking about the texture of a mix.
Secondly, “Texture” means the type of different musical “voices” in a piece of music. This includes categories like monophonic, polyphonic and more.
This is the classical music theory definition of “texture” and relates closely to the art of composing and arranging music.
Both meanings provide useful ways to think about what’s going on in a music track and how each instrument plays its part.
How to train your ear for tone, timbre and texture
Once you understand the concepts of each of these three terms, it’s time to start training your ear for each of them specifically.
Next time you listen to a piece of music:
- Try to hear the overall texture. How many independent “voices” can you hear, and how is the “big picture” musical atmosphere created?
- Then listen closer, picking apart each instrument in the mix. Can you hear the timbre of each instrument and follow its notes? How do the instruments complement one another and combine to create the texture?
- Finally, listen for tone. You can single out an instrument and use your frequency skills to analyse how much bass and treble is present in the instrument’s sound. Or, listen on the broader scale and assess the overall tone of the musical whole. Is it a very bass-y piece? Or light and treble-y?
It’s important to use the correct vocabulary in music, so take the time to get clear on the difference between tone, timbre and texture, and then include each of the three in your regular ear training.
Want to know more? Here’s a full tutorial on hearing Tone, Timbre and Texture.
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