These three terms are often used loosely and interchangeably – but they do each have a specific meaning!

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 disti