Danlee Mitchell and
Jack Logan, Ph.D.
The harmonic profile or sound quality of a sound source is timbre
or tone color in music. Certain descriptive words may
be used to express the effect of musical timbre or tone color such as:
dark - brilliant; opaque - transparent; rich - mellow; fuzzy - clear;
dull - sharp; complex - simple, et al. As a metaphor, musicians consider
sound in the same manner that painters consider "color" (hence the term
"tone color") and respond to the mixing of sound sources much the same
as a painter responds to the mixing of oils. Music timbre contributes
greatly to the effect of mood in music.
Timbre is determined by the harmonic profile of the sound source. Every
sound source has an individual quality that is determined by its harmonic
Timbre influences human mood. Sound sources which have a complexity of
harmonic profile enjoy a psychological "richness" of sound. Timbre stimulates
human energy levels without regard to rhythmic or harmonic saturation.
Sound sources that have simple harmonic profiles have "darker" timbres
and tend to soothe human emotions.
Bright or rich timbres coupled with loud dynamics affect moods of vigor,
turmoil, conflict, and valor. The same timbres coupled with soft dynamics
affect moods of sensuality, passion and compassion.
Dark or simple timbres coupled with loud dynamics are encountered only
occasionally in music and affect moods of starkness and loneliness. The
same timbres coupled with soft dynamics affect moods of mystery and terror.
These combinations are subjective to all listeners but are well understood
by theater and movie composers.
Timbral combinations provide unique possibilities for music. Often composers
assign successive segments of melody or other material to different instruments.
Certain orchestral combinations of instruments sound very much like other
non-orchestral instruments. Instruments of music have long been associated
with the natural world. Flutes, for example, very often represent the
songs of birds.