Timbre is often thought of as the quality of an instrument's sound. If two instruments play the same note at the same loudness and for the same duration, you can hear the difference in each instrument's texture, so you can distinguish the sound as belonging to a particular instrument. Timbre is caused by the physics of acoustics, which deals with the wavelengths and overtones produced by an instrument. A trumpet has a distinct timbre often described as "bright" or "brassy."
Principles of Acoustics
Sound is measured in wavelengths; each pitch is an intricate wave of multiple frequencies. What we actually hear is not each frequency itself but rather the combination as a particular tone. The tones we hear have a quality or color that enables us to tell the difference between instruments that produce the note. People can learn the general tone an instrument produces; for example, people can hear a note and know whether it is a trumpet or not. Players can also change the tone of the instrument; for example, trumpeters can make their instrument sound "brassy" or "mellow" to vary the tone quality.
A trumpet player produces sound by buzzing his lips against a mouthpiece. Air flows through the instrument, and the player can change the pitch by adjusting his embouchure (lip shape and position) and pushing down valves, or buttons that change the length of the tubing of the instrument. The materials that make up a trumpet affect its timbre, and different mouthpieces can also have an effect on the sound quality. Deeper cups in mouthpieces cut out some high harmonic frequencies, making the tone darker. A more exaggerated flare of the trumpet bell results in a brighter tone more rich in higher harmonic frequencies.
Trumpets are often described as "bright" because they produce a great deal of high harmonic frequencies. There is a range of notes that is difficult to play softly on the trumpet, so its tone is often piercing. Notes below a written middle C are hard to play loudly, but the notes from a middle C to a high G above the treble clef staff are the most brilliant-sounding on the trumpet. The trumpet speaks quickly, meaning harmonics are heard at the beginning, or attack, of the note. Words that are often used to describe timbre include "brassy," "clear," "focused," "rounded," "piercing," "mellow," "dark," "bright," "heavy," "light," "warm," "strident" and "harsh." All of these words can be applied to the quality of sound a trumpet can produce. Trumpets are often thought of as being "strident," "brassy" or "piercing," but a variety of tone quality is possible.
Because of its distinctive timbre, the trumpet has specific uses within an orchestra or other ensemble. The trumpet is almost indispensable for fanfares. The trumpet can produce a great deal of volume, and it can be incisive and assertive. Jazz players like to wail on the trumpet, and notes above even the high C (the one an octave higher than the C above the treble clef staff) are possible. Although the trumpet is stereotyped into as a "bully" and a loud instrument, it can also play a delicate and lyrical melody.
- Connexions: Timbre: The Color of Music; Catherine Smith Jones
- Cosmo Learning: Timbre -- Overtones and Pedal Tones on Trumpet and Flugelhorn; Nick Drozdoff
- "The Technique of Orchestration"; Kent Kennan; 2002
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