Recently a student asked for a precise definition of “tone”. Since people use the term rather loosely, after defining it for him I decided to consult Webster’s Dictionary and other sources, where I discovered incredibly vague definitions: “quality of sound” doesn’t tell us much. When I looked up the words used in the definitions, I often found “tone” as part of their definitions. That’s like saying a cat is a feline and a feline is a cat.
In addition to the challenge of defining tone in general, every instrumentalist and every singer has a different idea of what good tone is. That’s as it should be; we all have our preferences. It’s best not to make the mistake of thinking there’s a standard for any instrument or for voice. Yes, Amati and Stradavari may be the gold standards for violins, and there are certain favorites for other instruments, to the degree that if someone didn’t agree they wouldn’t dare say so. But the truth is, “good tone” is what’s good to your ear.
Furthermore, tone may not only describe the sound inherent in the individual instrument but also the quality of specific sounds a player makes on an instrument. And beyond that, the best tone of an instrument is only brought out by those whose technical skills allow the full tonal potential of an instrument to be audible. (I sometimes tell my students that if they don’t learn to play with good technique they’ll get a $300 sound from a $3000 instrument.) Much more important than the inherent tone of an instrument is how well the player brings out its best tone.
Interestingly, after years of owning the finest instruments tone-wise, I now have instruments that are suited to the size of my hands and body instead; I find that unless someone purposely compares one instrument to another and judges their tones accordingly, they sound just fine. No one is going to walk up to me and say, “Your little 1890’s guitar doesn’t sound as good as the Martin I heard last week.”
Let’s look at the word Timbre (pronounced tamber). Wikipedia says: “the quality of a musical note or sound or tone that distinguishes… string instruments, wind instruments, and percussion instruments… In simple terms, timbre is what makes a particular musical sound different from another, even when they have the same pitch and loudness. For instance, it is the difference between a guitar and a piano playing the same note at the same loudness. Experienced musicians are able to distinguish between different instruments based on their varied timbres, even if those instruments are playing notes at the same pitch and loudness.”
Therefore, don’t confuse the word timbre with the word tone. A guitar sounds like a guitar and a harp like a harp – that’s timbre. How the individual instrument sounds, as in my little 1890’s antique guitar compared to a modern Martin guitar – that’s an assessment of tone.
Below, I’ve defined very simply the most common terms that pertain specifically to tone. Knowing the common usage of these words can help you communicate better with other musicians.
• Tone: the quality of an instrument’s or voice’s sound, which is the product of several factors. Some informal descriptions of tonal quality might include:
o Muddy: the unpleasant effect of clashing notes sounding simultaneously; often heard in instruments with long sustain (notes keep sounding when additional notes are sounded.
o Tinny: brash, harsh quality of tone.
o Brash: piercingly sharp, or unfocused (as in too many clashing overtones)
o Rich: the degree of audibility of pleasing overtones.
o Bright: exceptional richness, volume and clarity in the mid and upper range of the instrument.
o Mellow: less bright quality of tone (but not necessarily degree of volume), and perhaps fewer overtones and/or less sustain.
o Subtle: not overstated.
o Deep: the degree to which the lowest undertones of each note are discernable, and/or the bass range is pleasingly audible.
o Round: balanced quality of tone throughout the range of the instrument, from deep to bright.
• Resonance: (often used interchangeably with tone) the quality of sound vibration in resonating chambers such as the soundboxes of acoustic instruments (or for singers, the mouth, throat, nasal cavities, bronchii and lungs). Also, the tendency of an object to vibrate sympathetically when a similar or identical tone is made by another object (this concept is often used in therapeutic terms referring to physical body responses to musical sounds; a kind of sympathetic vibration in which it is implied that there is also a psychological response; the person “resonates” to the music.)
• Volume: the degree of loudness or softness.
• Balance: comparable volume and quality of low, middle, and high ranges of the instrument.
• Fundamental: the note you hear most obviously when you pluck a string.
• Overtones: the higher notes that one string produces in addition to the fundamental note when plucked; overtones are not necessarily audible unless you know exactly what you’re listening for. (Not to be confused with sympathetic vibration – see below.)
• Undertones: same as overtones, but pertaining to notes lower than the fundamental.
• Harmonics: the purposeful accentuating of a specific overtone by damping the fundamental note of a plucked string so you can hear the overtone. The string is damped lightly in a specific place, at the same time it is plucked. Every string has more than one harmonic (octave, fifth, third, etc.), depending on where you touch the string to damp it.
• Sympathetic vibration: not to be confused with richness (the audibility of overtones and undertones of one plucked string), sympathetic vibration is the sounding of other strings that are set in motion by the sound waves or the motion of one plucked string or from another source; or the sounding/vibrating of other (unrelated) objects due to the stimulus of sound waves from a primary source.
• Sustain: how long strings ring after plucking, or how long a singer or wind instrument player holds a note.
If you’re interested in the phenomena of overtones, undertones, harmonics, and resonance, check out my book Singing the Universe Awake, available from the Books page of my online store at http://www.laurieriley.com