Exploring Music's Complexities

What is it About Music? Tone Color


Tone Color

If you play a musical instrument or have a favorite one, chances are you selected it because of its “tone color.” Tone color (or Timbre), as defined by musicologists, is what you hear being produced. You may have been attracted to the instrument’s richness or piercing quality or to how the sounds were being produced. Perhaps it was the strumming of a guitar, the plucking of the strings of a violin or the scraping sounds of a symbol. The physical characteristics of sounds that determine the perception of tone color include spectrum and envelope (1). It also depends on the “wave form, the sound pressure, the frequency location of the spectrum and the temporal characteristics of the stimulus (1).”

There are over twenty different kinds of musical instruments in an orchestra from violin to bass, trumpet to tube, and piccolo to bassoon. As you listen you may find yourself identifying instrumental tones with colors. For you, the clarinet may be producing a pastel shade of blue, the trumpet a brilliant red. Taken a bit further, you may associate different emotions to go with these colors. Arthur Elson (2) “came up with the following:

Violin All emotions
Cello All emotions but more he mannish
Piccolo A wild kind of gaiety
Oboe Rustic kind
Trumpet Bold or martial
Tuba Power or brutality
English Horn Dreamy or melancholy
Clarinet Eloquent and tender”

It is noted that every sound source has an individual quality that is determined by its harmonic profile (3). As noted previously, tone color influences moods. Sound sources that have a simple harmonic profile are thought to have “darker” tone color and tend to sooth human emotions.

If simple tone colors are combined with loud dynamics (a term for gradations of amplitude) it will produce moods associated with vigor, trouble, and heroism. These same simple color tones combined with soft dynamics are associated with terror and mystery. Dynamics serve as a natural indicator for emotional mood. Composers writing for film and theatre use these techniques to create background.

Similar to changes in dynamics, changes in tone color provide the listener with contrast and variety (4). If a melody is played by one instrument and then another, it sounds different because of the differences in each instrument’s tone color. The use of two different instruments may be chosen to highlight a new melody. As mentioned previously, specific instruments can reinforce a melody’s emotional impact (2 ). The use of electronic techniques allows the composer to create unique color unlike those produced by traditional instruments.

Composers of the Romantic period increased the use of tone color as a result of a move from “pure” or “absolute” music. They used tone color to write music that told a story, portrayed a mood or described an event. Classicists Hayden or Mozart wrote music for music’s sake. On the other hand, Berlioz, List, and Richard Strauss, nineteenth-century Romanticists employed program music thus concentrating on tone color (2). It has been suggested that Debussy’s music is credited with elevating the role of tone color in music as noted in Prelude a l après-midi d’un faun (5).

Afternoon Of A Faun



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For a composition to be effective it must contain two of music’s basic elements – tone color and dynamics. They contribute to the feeling of motion and movement in music. Musical instruments provide the tone colors. The combination of rhythm, melody, harmony, dynamics, tone color and instruments form music.

For examples of the use of different tone colors log onto www.wonderofsound.com.


American Standards Association (1960). American Standard Acoustical Terminology. New York: American Standards Association.
Goulding, Phil G. Classical Music. p.31. Fawcett Columbine, New York.
Erickson, Robert . The Structure of Music: A Listener’s Guide. University of California Press. 1975.
Grey, John M. (1977). “Multidimensional Perceptual Scaling of Musical Timbres”. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 61(5): 1270–77.
Samson, Jim (1977) Music in Transition: A Study of Tonal Expansion and Atonality, 1900-1920. New York: W.W.Norton & Company.

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