What are Tone, Timbre and Voice On A Piano?
When looking at acoustic pianos, something you’ll often hear a lot of people talk about is the tone, timbre, colour or voice of the piano. For those not in the know, these can be rather ambiguous terms, but there are reasons for their differentiation!
Today we’ll be running you through these terms to make sure you’re in the know and understand all of the needed piano lingo to make a well informed decision when finding the perfect piano for you!
What Do Tone, Timbre and Voice Mean?
Tone, timbre, colour and voice of a piano are all actually all relatively interchangeable terms. A quick google and you’ll find that the definition for tone is: “A musical or vocal sound with reference to its pitch, quality, and strength.”, whilst for timbre it is: “The character or quality of a musical sound or voice as distinct from its pitch and intensity.”
Whilst these are subtle differences, there is a distinction, but ultimately all three refer to the surrounding sound an instrument creates. Within any instrument, the sound that anything makes depends on two things – the thing generating the sound, and the thing hearing the sound. In this case, the piano and our ear.
Timbre then takes this a little further and distinguishes characteristics of a sound, and the reason that a middle C on piano sounds very different from a middle C on violin or trumpet, yet they are both the same note.
Another way to look at this is by using a colour analogy, For example, navy blue and baby blue are both blue, but look totally different, Timbre is the result of the differing harmonic content produced by different instruments, and the balance of the different harmonics.
The above image shows how every harmonic of the same note is an octave of the fundamental. In the above example, 440Hz, 220Hz and 110Hz are all ‘A’ notes, however they sound completely different. Although our ear hears a certain pitch, it may be that some of the higher harmonics are in fact louder than the fundamental!
This essentially means that when our ears hear a sound which is bright and hard sounding will have an emphasis on the higher harmonic. Whilst a sound which is soft and warm sounding will have an emphasis on the lower harmonics
Fun fact, humans are capable of picking up between 20Hz and 20,000Hz, but we are far better at hearing frequencies in the mid-range, as this is the pitch of human voices!
How do our brains interpret this sound?
As with most things musical, the brain is always working in an incredibly unique way when we hear sound, when we hear a low note for example, we perceive a low pitch, but are actually hearing more of the higher harmonic frequencies, but our brains tell us that we’re hearing a low note. This is because a low note has a lot more audible harmonics that are within our hearing range, whereas a high pitched note has harmonics that are beyond our hearing – Ever tried the test where you see how high pitched you can hear? It’s the same principle!
When it comes to a piano, the lowest note on a piano is A0. This note has a fundamental frequency of 27.5Hz, so we can hear all the harmonic frequencies it produces as well as the fundamental frequency, many of which are louder than the fundamental. This gives the note it’s powerful feel and deep tone that we all know and love. One the other end of the piano, we have the highest note, C8, which a fundamental frequency of over 4,187Hz, so at most we will hear 3 harmonic tones above this, and they’ll be quieter than the fundamental tone, giving a spritely, but soft tone that is used more as a delicate addition to most pieces.
To make things even more complicated….
We understand that a lot of these terms may take a few reads to get your head around, but just to add another layer of complexity into what gives a piano it’s voice, we then have (one of our favourite terms) – ‘inharmonicity’.
This essentially means that because all of the components that make sound within a piano such as the strings, wood and metal are not perfectly flexible, and have stiffness, some of the overtones, especially on the lower notes, are not perfect multiples of the fundamental frequency.
If left as they were this would give the piano an incredibly ‘odd’ sound that wouldn’t resonate well with the ear – that is why expert piano manufacturers and technicians actually tune pianos using an incredibly complex mathematics to tune the piano flat in the bass, and sharp in the treble, so that it sounds in tune to the human ear.
This is an incredibly oversimplified way to explain inharmonicity, but something that our experts love to talk about! Next time your piano is due for a tuning, feel free to ask them about it!