Timbre in Music

A visual representation of timbre in sounds of a symphony orchestra. Digital Art by Edward Kliszus
A visual representation of timbre in sounds of a symphony orchestra. Digital Art by Edward Kliszus

Initially, one might think timbre (aka tone color) in music is difficult to understand. Most people understand that a violin has a different sound than a trombone and this description may be the simplest way of visualizing tone color. However, on a broader scale, timbre can be simply described as an element of music that helps convey meaning to the listener. This contrasts with other expressive elements like rhythm and melody. For instance, imagine the driving beat of Disco that makes you dance, or beautiful melodies in songs that touch your heart.

Meanwhile, you’ll discover that a sound’s tone color can inspire your imagination and affect your emotions as we explore its use in the realm of the macabre or mysterious. 


On an aside, tone colors can be literally associated with the phenomenon of synesthesia. It’s extremely fascinating – where the stimulation of one sense leads to an automatic association with another sense. For instance, some individuals may notice a vivid burst of colors when they hear music. Although it’s still uncertain why it occurs, researchers believe it could be connected to how our brain is structured. It could be viewed as a unique ability that influences creativity and imagination.

The Red Gaze by Arnold Schoenberg posted in Timbre in Music on OpeningNight.Online. Public Domain

The Red Gaze by Arnold Schoenberg. Public Domain

Frightening and Unsettling

To whet your appetite for a look at tone color or timbre, listen to this music from the horror movie Insidious. Notice how tone colors express fear and tension through dissonant harmonies, low-pitched sounds, sudden changes in volume, unexpected musical motifs, and electronic effects that create a frightening and unsettling viewer experience. While melody and rhythm are vague, timbre emerges as the dominant means of expressing meaning in this film score.


As you’ve discovered by now, timbre is just a fancy word for “tone color,” and that’s where the fun begins! Next, listen to his example of music from an era of the early 20th century known as The Second Viennese School. Because timbre is the dominant means used to express human feelings, melody and rhythm are less important.

Pierrot Lunaire

This is Nacht (night) from a set of songs by Arnold Schoenberg entitled Pierrot Lunaire. Schoenberg was indeed part of the European Expressionist art movement that began before WWI. Moreover, you have likely seen paintings associated with Expressionism, like The Scream by Edvard Munch.

Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1893, National Gallery, Oslo. Public Domain
Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1893, National Gallery, Oslo. Public Domain

Intense, Emotional Portrayal

Absent driving rhythms or beautiful melodies, Schoenberg’s Nacht is an intense, emotional portrayal of night’s dark and mysterious nature, expressing fear and unease. Furthermore, the listener experiences calm to intense terror with haunting, eerie melodies, and jarring instrumentation. Whereas the singer’s high notes express anguish, fear, and despair, the piece draws listeners into a journey through the darker parts of the psyche. Wow. 

Horror Movies

Modern filmmakers who write music for horror movies can thank Schoenberg for switching away from the Romanticism of the 19th century.

Readers may also enjoy more of our Music Appreciation series with Melisma In Music, Rhythm in Music, Melody in Music, and The Counter Reformation.

If you’re dining out in New York City check out our reviews of Bar Italia Madison, and Chez Josephine.

Timbre in Music


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