Timbre refers to the complex sound created by harmonics. For example, a violin and a flute may be playing a note with the same pitch, but it sounds different on each instrument. The harmonics, as well as attack and decay characteristics, give each voice and each instrument its own distinct sound. Composers will select specific musical instruments because of their timbres. Depending on context, specific timbres of different instruments will convey particular meanings or emotions. The oboe, for example, is often used to express sadness, bittersweet emotion, and perhaps puzzlement, whereas a flute is more likely to express joy. In his famous piece Bolero (1928), Ravel has differ- ent instruments play the same theme repeatedly. Each instrument gives the theme a different feel, as Ravel builds up to finally having all the strings play the theme together and then the entire orchestra. Ravel’s Bolero also neatly illustrates a number of other principles. It is written in 3/4 meter, and you can hear the emphasis on the first beat of every measure. Moreover, as the piece progresses, the dynamics change, and the piece gradually builds from very soft to very loud.
Go to the next tab to listen to Bolero and see how the different intrument groups lead to a different musical color.