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Timbre is a relatively poorly defined perceptual quality of sounds. The American Standards Association (ASA) defines timbre in the following manner: “Timbre is that attribute of sensation in terms of which a listener can judge that two sounds having the same loudness and pitch are dissimilar”. That very broad "catch-all" definition would imply that practically all auditory distinctions other than those related to loudness and melody are "timbre" judgements, including, for example, the distinctions of the various speech sounds or phonemes.

In music, timbre is the quality of a musical note which distinguishes different types of musical instrument. See also: formant of speech, singing, and musical instruments. This is why, with a little practice, you can pick out the saxophone from the trumpet in a jazz group or the flute from the violin in an orchestra, even if they are playing notes at the same pitch and amplitude. Timbre has been called the psychoacoustician's waste-basket as it can include so many factors.

Though the phrase tone color is often used as a synonym for timbre, colors of the optical spectrum are not generally explicitly associated with particular sounds. Rather, the sound of an instrument may be described with words like "warm" or "harsh" or other terms, perhaps suggesting that tone color has more in common with the sense of touch than of sight. People who experience synaesthesia, however, may see certain colors when they hear particular instruments.

The physical characteristics of sound which are used in the determination of timbre are spectrum and envelope, but psychoacoustics also plays an important and little-understood part.

Contrary to its spelling, the word is pronounced in French, "TAM-ber".


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