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Re: origin of 'timbre'
Title: Re: origin of 'timbre'
Sorry, for those of you with finite memories, my format obscured
the fact that the timeline I was adding one item to was originally
from a web page of John Puterbaugh, and sent to the auditory list by
Hugo de Paula in 2004, in response to an inquiry by Jim
Harvey Holmes had also sent a reply saying what's in the OED
about it; this 1828 use I found seems to predate what the OED found
for this "sound quality" meaning. Harvey said, based
on the OED, "The modern meaning apparently arose only in the 19th
century (Charlotte Bronte and later), first meaning 'sound of a bell',
then 'sonorous quality of any instrument or of a voice', and finally
(1853) 'character or quality of a sound [as distinct from its pitch or
intensity]', which is equivalent to the German 'Klangfarbe',
essentially its current meaning."
So since 1828 is early than the Charlotte Bronte 1849 point and
the 1853 point, it seemed worth mentioning.
The 1828 book is a new translation of a new edition -- so timbre
may appear even earlier -- of Institutiones Physiologicae (1787) by
Johann Friedrich Blumenbach of Göttingen
original was in Latin; the preface notes that the previous edition had
been translated into German, Dutch, French, English, Spanish, and
Russian. So timbre probably got around pretty well already
Here's the book:
The only earlier edition I can find, the 1786 Latin one, doesn't
have timbre in it. Looking further, however, I do find
several uses, in English, meaning tone quality, in 1812:
A Journal of natural philosophy, chemistry and the arts
A Continuation of Experiments on the soniferous Vibrations
the Gasses, &c. by Messrs. Kerby and Merrick.
The Gentleman's magazine, Volume 82, Part 1
A Series of Letters on Acoustics, Letter II
by C. J. S.
So better add 1812 to the timeline; and 1824:
The latter being an American book with discussion of timbre on
An elementary compendium of physiology: for the use of
Author François Magendie
Translated by Edward Milligan
Your ability to read the Google-scanned books at these links may
depend on what country you're in. Some other hits on Google book
search need to be regarded with care, as the dates 1895 and 1898 (if I
recall correctly) have been misrecognized as 1805 and 1808.
At 8:30 AM -0800 2/11/10, Richard F. Lyon wrote:
Sorry the 5.5-year delay in responding.
I had to wait for Google Book Search...
Here's another point for the
"timbre" timeline, perhaps the first in English; note also
The Elements of Physiology
Johann Friedrich Blumenbach and John
Edition 4,Longman, Rees,
Orme, Brown, and Green, 1828
With regard to the sensation of sound,
four independent qualities must be distinguished :
1st. The tune, or pitch ; which depends on the
frequencies with which the vibrations succeed each other.
2d. The loudness, or
intensity; which is determined by the amplitudes of the
3d. The volume, or
richness; which depends upon the number of co-existing undulations
that arrive at the ear.
4th. The timbre: ? For this
word, adopted in France to express the specific differences of sound
which are not comprehended in any of the preceding definitions, there
is no analogous term in our language; nor have we at present the least
idea of the true causes of these modifications of sound. In some cases
the indefinite _expression_ quality of tone is employed.
When two or more sounds are heard simultaneously, or successively, the
mind by a peculiar faculty perceives the relative frequencies and
coincidences of the vibrations. Two sounds are regarded, as consonant
when the ratio of their vibrations is very simple, and as dissonant
when the ratio is more complex. The rules which determine the most
agreeable successions and combinations of sounds constitute the
science of music.
Sorry for the delayed answer.
Timbre definitions (history):
One says that the timbre is shrill not merely that the timbre of a
shrill - Dictionairre de Trevoux.
Timbre functions to differentiate types of sounds - Diderot and
Rousseau used descriptive adjectives for different types of timbre
soft, dull, bright) - Dictionnaire de Music
All sonorous bodies yield simultaneously an infinite number of sounds
gradually decreasing intensity. The phenomena is similar to that
obtains for the harmonics of strings; but the law for the series
harmonics is different for bodies of different forms. May it not be
difference which produced the particular character of sound called
which distinguishes each form of body and which causes the sound of
Your voice has another timbre than that hard, deep organ of Miss
- C. Bronte's Shirley.
Klangfarbe depends primarily on sound spectrum. Helmholz also mentions
beginning and end as well as wind noise and bow noise - Helmholz
Clang color, or timbre, refers to the different types of tones
(clangs) of musical instruments which mainly result from the
composition of the sounds or clangs - Rieman in Encyclopaedic
Timbre is the quality which differentiates sounds of the same pitch
same intensity - Riemann in Dictionnaire de Musique.
Quality serves to distinguish between musical sound of the same pitch
intensity produced on different instruments - Barton
Quality, timbre, or tone-color depends on the form of the
vibrations. The general motion to and fro is periodic, but the
within the period are usually highly complex and this complexity
tones of a given character. Differences of quality are due to the
unions of partial tones - Pratt
Timbre is frequently defined as that characteristic of the sensation
enables the listener to recognize the kind of musical instrument
the tone, that is, whether it is a cornet, a flute, or a violin.
depends principally upon the overtone structure, but large changes in
intensity and the frequency also produce changes in the timbre -
One might use the other two characteristics (pitch and loudness) in
definition and say that it is that
characteristic which enables one to judge
that two tones are dissimilar while still having the same loudness and
By timbre is meant the distinguishing or characteristic quality of
is by their timbre that we recognize an instrument, a voice, or the
of an organ stop, regardless of the pitch or intensity of the note
Timbre depends only on the relative energies of the various harmonics
not on their phase differences - Sir Jean James.
In general we may say that aside from accessory noises and
elements, the timbre of a tone depends upon: (i) the number of
partials present, (ii) the relative location or locations of these
in the range from the lowest to the highest, and (iii) the relative
or dominance of each partial - Seashore in Psychology of Music
The characteristic tone quality of an instrument is due entirely to
relationship among the fundamental upper partials which relationship
supposed to remain unchanged no matter what the fundamental is
Bartholomew's Harmonic Theory.
Tone quality depends largely on the degree of complexity of the
The quality of even a musical tone must
be considered usually as a complex
of both harmonic and inharmonic components - Bartholomew.
The characteristic tone quality of an instrument is due to the
strengthening of whatever partial lies within a fixed or relatively
region of the musical scale - Bartholomew's Formant Theory.
Timbre may be said to be the characteristic which enables the listener
recognize the kind of musical instrument which produces the tone.
six physical characteristics which determine the quality, namely: (i)
number of partials, (ii) the distribution of the partials, (iii)
relative intensity of the partials, (iv) the inharmonic partials, (v)
fundamental tone, (vi) the total intensity - Olson.
Timbre is that characteristic of a tone which depends upon its
structure. The timbre of a tone is expressed in the number,
distribution, and phase relations of its components. Timbre, then, may
said to be the instantaneous cross section of the tone quality -
Timbre, an _expression_ for quality of sound, especially in
- Groves Dictionary of Music.
Timbre is defined as a subjective quality of sound which makes that
seem pleasant or unpleasant to the ear. Timbre is dependent on
as well as the nature of the attack and any formants which may be
- Encyclopedia de la musique.
Timbre is that attribute of auditory sensation in terms of which a
can judge two sounds similarly presented and having the same loudness
pitch are dissimilar - ASA.
Harmonic Structure Theory (classical theory) - the acoustic spectrum
tone is the primary determinant of musical quality. The physical
of timbre lies in the cross-sectional analysis of a tone represented
momentary duration of one cycle - Saldanha and Corso.
Formant Theory - the characteristic tone quality of an instrument is
the relative strengthening of whatever partial lies within a fixed
relatively fixed region of the musical scale. In contrast with the
theory that is based on a fixed spectrum of a tone, the formant
relies upon changes in the spectrum of a tone to produce constancy
musical quality - Saldanha and Corso.
Although spectrum, transient, phenomena, and quasi steady-state
processes may be the most important dimensions, each of these is
characterized by a great many subparameters, and the definitions based
Ohm\u2019s Law are inadequate for any definition of timbre which might
musical value - Tenney.
Timbre may be not too much more than one of these leftovers from a
musical system - J.K. Randall.
I would hope that we could soon find whatever further excuse we still
to quite talking about mellow timbres and edgy timbres and timbres
altogether, in favor of contextual musical analysis of developing
of vibrato, tremolo, spectral
transformation, and all these various
dimensions of sound which need no longer languish as inmates of
metaphor - J.K. Randall.
Now vibrato is just one of many potentially structurable aspects
sound which have been too often written off as ingredients of
vague - J.K. Randall.
In the broad sense, timbre depends upon several parameters of the
sound including the spectral envelope and its change in timbre,
periodic fluctuations of the amplitude, and whether the sound is
a tone or noise - Schouten in Aspects of Tone Sensation
The five major acoustic parameters of timbre: (i) the range between
and noiselike character, (ii) the spectral envelope, (iii) the time
in terms of rise, duration, and decay, (iv) the changes in spectral
(formant-glide) and fundamental frequency (microintonation), and (v)
prefix, the onset of a sound is quite dissimilar to the ensuing
vibration - Schouten.
Helmholz showed that timbre depends principally upon the number
rela-tive intensity of the sounding
partials of the fundamental
Quality of tone - the characteristic of a tone that can distinguish it
others of the same frequency and
loudness. The harmonic structure of a tone
is quite inadequate to specify its quality. It was implied in the
quality outlined above that an instrument has a spectrum characterized
particular harmonic structure, which would be the same for each note
The number and positions of the formants determine the tone quality of
instrument - Formant Theory
The components of the harmonic content of sound which create its
the harmonic spectrum, (ii) which partials are present or absent,
their relative intensities, (iv) the pattern which those that are
form - Honegger in Dictionnaire de la Musique.
Timbre is tone quality -- coarse or smooth, ringing or more subtly
penetrating, scarlet like that of the trumpet, rich brown like that of
cello, or silver like that of the flute. The one and only factor is
production which conditions timbre is the presence or absence, or
strength or weakness, of overtone
- Scholes in the Oxford Companion to Music
Acoustical - one tries to associate the variation of timbre to
Psychological - deals with descriptions proceeding from the
The classical theory of von Helmholz holds that differences in the
tones depends on the presence and strength of partial tones and
independent of the differences in phase under which these partial
The individual character of a certain instrument is its acoustic
The purpose is to study the structure of the perception of timbre
colour, musical quality) and try to find physical correlates in the
spectrum. The most importance correlates to these perceptual factors
found in the relative strength of the harmonic partial tones: (i)
high level overtone richness, sonority, (ii) successively
intensity of the upper partials - overtone poorness, dullness, (iii)
fundamental intensity and an increasing intensity of the first
The amount of work done toward specifying the physical qualities of
unfortunately has been much greater than the work done toward finding
corresponding psychological attributes.
Factor analysis methods have been used to reveal a cognitive
of instrument types into woodwind, brass, and string and a
the sounds of these instruments into groups determined by the
amplitudes of a sound\u2019s partials.
More recently, multidimensional scaling techniques have been developed
means of which judgements of similarity of stimuli can be interpreted
cognitive distances between these stimuli
- Miller and Carterette.
The timbre or tone quality of a musical instrument has been used to
that property which enables a listener to identify the
The chief function of timbre in most Western concert music of the past
been that of carrier of melodic functions. The differences of timbre
different pitches and in different registers of instruments has been
The approach to timbre from acoustic searches for invariants taking
that if we are able to recognize and identify a clarinet under
changing pitch and loudness, in different environments, and with
players, then, as David Luce says, the implication is that certain
regularities in the acoustic waveform of the above instruments must
which are invariant with respect to the above variables
Timbre perception is just a stage of the operation of tone source
recognition - in music the identification of the instrument
Timbre is multidimensional. There is not a unidirectional scale
comparing the timbres of various sounds. The multidimensional nature
timbre has a
physical counterpart in the many degrees of freedom of a complex
Timbre refers to the color of quality of sounds and is typically
conceptually from pitch and loudness. Perceptual research on timbre
dem-onstrated that the spectral energy
distribution provided the acoustical
determinants of our perception of sound quality - Wessel.
A term describing the tonal quality of a sound; a clarinet and an
sounding the same note are said to produce different timbres. It is
reserved for descriptions of steady state notes and therefore the
quantity with which it is most closely associated in the harmonic
or the formant, or the spectrum
Timbre is an attribute of the subjective experience of musical
Timbre is coded as the function of the sound source or of the meaning
sound. Sounds cannot be ordered on a single scale with respect to
Timbre is a multidimensional attribute of the perception of sounds
Timbre is the miscellaneous category for describing the
attributes of sound, gathering into one bundle whatever was left over
pitch, loudness, and duration had been accounted for. - Dowling and
Timbre is the subjective correlate of all those sound properties that
directly influence pitch or loudness: sounds spectral power
it's temporal envelope, rate and depth of amplitude and frequency
and degree of its partials
Levels of timbre description include: (i) commonalities shared by all
tones, commonalities shared by all bowed tones, commonalities shared
all timpani tones, (ii) expressive variation available to
musi-cians and(iii) broader family distinctions of
distinc-tions (i.e., blown and bowed instruments whose behavior is
continuously; percussive instruments whose behavior is determined
at the instant when they are set into motion - Krumhansl.
Until such time as the dimensions of timbre are clarified it is better
drop the term timbre.
When we do find a characteristic of sound that can be obtained on
instruments, such as vibrato, the characteristic tends to be given a
and no longer falls into the nameless wastebasket of timbre
Timbre or tone quality depends upon the frequency of a tone, it's
enve-lope, it's duration, and the sound level at which it is heard
The character or quality of musical or vocal sound (distinct from its
and intensity) depending upon the particular voice or instrument
it from sounds proceeding, from other sources; caused by the
which the fundamental is combined with the harmonics or overtones
Timbre is the subjective attribute of source (instrument) that is
invariant properties that uniquely characterize the tones produced by
source. An adequate definition of timbre is both related to and
upon establishing which characteristics are important for
determining an instrument's distinctive
- Chi, Hall, and Pastore.
A timbre is a simple perceptual object. Adjectives for constellation
overtones: bright, dark, mellow, hollow, pure. Noise content:
hoarse. Attack: smooth, abrupt, sharp, gentle, easing. We attempt
categorize timbre mainly by relating what we hear to what we have seen
heard of other musical instruments. Timbre is the aggregate effect of
periodic and nonperiodic components of a sound and their envelopes
Timbre is the perceptual quality of objects and events; that is, what
Due to the interactive nature of sound production, there are many
time-varying acoustic properties. Timbre is an emergent property that
partly a function of the acoustic properties and partly a function of
Timbre generally has a certain constancy over large changes in the
Timbre is perceived in terms of the actions required to generate the
Timbre is perceived in terms of the acoustic properties and that
connection between acoustic properties
and object is learned by experience
Timbre groups fall into categories that are constrained by the
physic of the sound-generating systems
and that it is the goal of the ear/
brain system to discover such commonalities in the sounding world.
Parameters should be estimated in order to represent the articulatory
of timbre perception
- Casey et. al.
Timbre is not a thing. It is an abstraction.
Timbre is not an object. It does not exists in the real world as an
Timbre is an attribute of a musical tone that is abstracted from the
that we call a musical tone
Timbre is not even the only attribute of tone connected to tone
consider volume and density.
Timbre does have a perceptual order \u2013 actually, as a
attribute, it has several. In general, instruments are ordered first
impulse vs. continuant characteristics (relating to the rms amplitude
and overall envelope) and secondly along nasality or brightness
the spectral centroid) - John Hadja
Timbre is an emergent property of a stream \u2013 a grouping of the
array influenced by acoustic context, and the attention and learning
- Stephen Malloch's summary of Albert Bregman
Timbre can be defined as the primary aural information that is used in
perceptual task of assigning an identity to sound - Stephen
Electroacoustic musicians/composers and people doing
would tend to think of timbre as a gestalt that includes time
is difficult to decide whether the whole thing is a timbre or whether
itself is varying with time - James Beauchamp
Timbre becomes a rhetorical catch-all subsuming many diverse
> Date: Mon, 27 Sep 2004 09:36:20 -0400
> From: =?ISO-8859-1?Q?Claire_Pich=E9?=
> Subject: Re: origin of 'timbre'
> Hello Jim
> here is some cues so you can follow parts of the evolution of the
> TIMBRE : n.m. emprunté au grec byzantin /timbanon /(...) du
> classique /tumpanon /"tambourin", (...) étant associé
> orgiaques de Cybèle et de Dyonisos, le mot serait d'origine
> sémitique.(...) /Tympanum,/ d'où viennent la forme
> /tympe /(v.1155) et l'emprunt /tympan. /(...)/ Timbre /s'est
> progressivement éloigné de son sens d'emprunt /tambour de
> à l'ancien français; il s'appliquait à la cloche immobile
> frappait avec un marteau (1374), qui est à l'origine du
> métaphorique de "tête" (v.1450). De cette valeur
procède la locution
> /avoir le timbre fêlé. /(1606). De nos jours, le mot au sens
> désigne une calotte de métal qui, frappée par un marteau ou
> sert de sonnette (1858). Par métonymie, il désigne la qualité
> sonorité d'un timbre (1762; 1740, "son d'un timbre"
> généralement, d'un instrument donné, valeur importante en
> est employé aussi en phonétique
(1926; /timbre d'une voyelle/)./ Timbre
> /a eu un autre développement sémantique fondé sur une
analogie de forme
> avec le tambour ou la cloche nommée /timbre /au moyen âge.
> Rey, Alain, /Dictionnaire historique de la langue française.
> LeRobert: Paris, 1998 (1992). Tome 3.
> beaucham a écrit :
> >I would like to have a good historical reference for the
> >"timbre". One book (Helmholtz's Sensations of Tone)
> >was the original word for timpani. Another source says
> >of drum with stretched strings". A dictionary says both
> >struck by a hammer" and "tymbanon kettledrum".
Is there a
> >good source that discusses the original meaning of the
> >and how it came to take on its modern meaning?
> >James W. Beauchamp
> >Professor Emeritus of Music and Electrical & Computer
> >University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
> >2136 Music Bldg. MC-056
> >1114 W. Nevada, Urbana, IL 61801 USA
> >email: jwbeauch@xxxxxxxx (also:
> >phone: +1-217-344-3307 (also:
217-244-1207 and 217-333-3691)
> >fax: +1-217-344-3723 (also: 217-244-4585)
> >WWW: http://ems.music.uiuc.edu/beaucham