Psychological Characteristics of Sound: (3) Timbre

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The Music Telegraph
Text 2020-02-08


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Psychological Characteristics of Sound: (3) Timbre


The tone quality or timbre of an instrument's sound enables the listener to distinguish which instrument it is. This may have various subjective tones depending on the listener. This is because there are many qualitative contents that indicate the timbre of an instrument. 



The most important element in the timbre of a sound is harmonic structure. Then what is harmonic structure? The harmonic structure is a data that represents the spectrum of timbre of a  sound by the values of partial and amplitude. The harmony structure graph shows the envelope of each partial over the course of the tone of the sound. This data tells you what part of the tone is located in that sound and how much of the amplitude affects the overall tone of the sound. For example, Partials that appear only for a very short time while a tone is in progress and exist only at the beginning of the sound are called 'Transient'.



▲ The vocal resonances are altered by the articulators to form distinguishable vowel sounds. The peaks in the vowel spectra are called vocal formants. Note the prominent role of the tongue in this process. The intent here is to illustrate the role of the articulators and to point to the fact that their action has a major influence on the harmonic content of the voiced sounds. The normal ear is able to clearly distinguish those differences. 


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In defining instrumental sounds, it is very difficult to distinguish and generalize such complex data. People learn the distinctive features of each musical instruments and combine them into each categories called timbre. Timbre is a term that describes the harmonic structure, including the changes in amplitude that can occur during the course of a sound so it is used as an implicit meaning to distinguish musical instruments. If the two instruments sound similar, it may be because of the similarity between the waveforms or the similarities between the partial and the amplitude. According to this assumption, different instruments will have the same tone if they have the same waveform. But the truth is not. In this case, the similarity between two instrument sounds based on 'formant' rather than the similarity of waveforms. Formant is the largest fixed frequency region among the partials that the tone produces. Formant defines the relationship between frequency and amplitude among all frequency components. The voices and pitches of two speakers are different, and the reason why listeners perceive the vowels in the language they say are the same is because of the similarity of formant rather than the similar waveforms of the vowels.



Looking at the differences in the harmonic structure of a sound, it is found that a group of several partials sounds at a single pitch. Changing the frequency and amplitude over a certain range of the sound will result in different tonal qualities. This series of processes is called change of timbre.






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