CCSF MUS27A Symposium musician with his seven-stringed lyre beside the fluted column of a building, ca. 460 b.c.  University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology (c) Instructor: Larry Ferrara  
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Music Appreciation



Week 3




Pronounced "tambour" it means: The tone quality or the unique characteristic of a tone. Another word(s) for timbre is tone color. The timbre of a note produced on an instrument or sung by the human voice is determined in part by the size, design and make up of the instrument or vocal chords, what is being vibrated and by the way the sound is produced. Others considerations that influence the timbre of an instrument is what the instrument is made of. Wood vibrating has a different sound than air within a brass chamber vibrating. In addition a stretched skin vibrating over a resonating chamber produces yet another timbre. Dark, bright, nasal, sweet, natural, smooth, full, thin, sharp, dull, mellow, round, full bodied and warm are just some of the adjectives used to describe the timbre or tone quality of an instrument or singing voice.



Still Life with Musical Instruments,Pieter Van Roestraten (1630 - 1700 London) Gemeentemuseum, The Hague Still Life with Musical Instruments
Pieter Van Roestraten (1630 - 1700 London) Gemeentemuseum, The Hague

When one thinks of timbre one thinks of an instrument or voice producing sound. Once an instrument produces sound and the sound waves are carried through the air, the listener hears the sound and turns it into something meaningful. The types and kinds of musical instruments of the world are many and varied. In Western Classical music there are six categories and at least four instruments from each. Most of the instruments from the following categories cover the range from high to low SATB (soprano, alto, tenor, bass):

  Plucked Strings




Instruments on which tones are produced by the vibrations of tightly stretched strings. The strings are long-drawn-out across a wooden resonator to increase the volume. When playing string instruments they can be either bowed, plucked or strummed. In western music the term “strings” refers to the bowed instruments of the symphony orchestra. From high to low they are:

  Cello (violoncello)
  Double Basssans



"Violin (or fiddle): An instrument to tickle human ears by friction of a horse's tail on the entrails of a cat."

Ambrose Bierce, 1911

The highest pitched member of the bowed string family. It consists of a wooden body in an outline of a figure eight. With f shape sound holes, the length of the violin was determined by the average length of the human arm from the shoulder to the palm of the hand. More solo and orchestra works in the classical literature have been written for the violin then any other instrument. The 4 strings were originally made of pig gut or sheep intestine, today the are metal or less common nylon. The bow which helps grab the strings while they are being played is made of a wooden stick strung end to end with horse hair. Resin is applied to help grip the hair of the bow onto the violin string. The notes are produced by drawing the bow across the strings. The right hand holds the bow while the left hand holds the strings down by placing it on the fingerboard to effectively shorten the string length and make the notes higher.




"The viola is a philosopher, sad, helpful; always ready
to come to the aid of others, but reluctant
to call
attention to him or herself."

Albert Lavignac (1846-1916)

The alto or midrange member of the string family of instruments. It is longer and larger than the violin and it is tuned a fifth lower than the violin (5 scale steps). Because it is longer it is often said that an ideal violist should have long arms. The viola produces a thicker and perhaps warmer tone than it’s brighter sibling the violin. Violists play most often in middle parts as accompaniment. As a result they are often very kind and friendly people. (joke! but sometimes true).





The greatest cellist of all time and some feel the finest musician alive today is Yo-Yo Ma. His easy going, nice and profound personality is perhaps largely due to the fact that he plays one of the worlds most beautifully rich instruments.

The tenor of the string family. Much larger than the violin or viola. So large that it’s performer sits with the cello resting on his or her knees. A spike at the end of the cello supports the instrument from the floor up. Having the same proportions as the violin and viola the larger cello requires a greater stretch of the left hand fingers but it can still play arpeggios, chords, scales, etc. The cello is noted for its lush, vocal like qualities and consequently has some of classical music’s most expressive pieces are written for it. It’s nick name “violoncello” means “little bass viol or small double bass.”




Double Bass

“The lewd trebles speak nothing but bawdy, and the basses roar blasphemy.”

The Way of the World, 1700.
{trebles (high strings), bawdy (rudeness), blasphemy (wickedness)}

The lowest of the string instrument family. Known also as the “bass” (pronounced “base”) or the “bull fiddle.” Because of it’s low register the double bass almost never plays the main theme in a symphony orchestra setting but instead provides the foundation for an orchestras tone. An average height of a double bass is six feet tall and the bass player has to stand or sit on a high stool while playing. The strings of a double bass are very thick and the hands of a player must be large and strong to play it comfortably.




The woodwinds are so called because they all used to be made of wood. In past times, especially during the Baroque period (1600-17500), the woodwinds were all wooden but today the flute, piccolo and saxophone are made of metal. In addition most woodwinds have a single or double reed. A reed is a very thin piece of bamboo, which vibrates against the mouthpiece of instrument. The clarinet and saxophone are single reed instruments (one piece of cane) and the oboe is a double reed instrument (two pieces of cane vibrating against itself).




"Tom, Tom, the piper’s son,
He learned to play when he was young,
But all the tune that he could play,
Was “Over the Hills and Far Away.”

Nursery rhyme, c. 1650


The high voice of the woodwind family but not the highest. The flute player holds the instrument sideways and blows air across the mouth piece. The tone is produced similar to when one blows across the top of a bottle. Flutes used to be made of wood but a modern flute today is usually made of silver and sometimes even gold. Flutes date back to ancient time when stone age man would make whistles from bone, clay or wood. The earliest flutes didn’t have any openings or finger holes. Once holes or openings bored into the flute’s side were added, a wider number of tones were possible to create melodies.The piccolo (or small flute) is the highest pitched instrument of the woodwinds and the highest instrument of the orchestra. It is an octave higher than the flute and produces a penetrating and shrill sound which adds brilliants to top end of an orchestras sound.There is a countrified feeling (pastoral feeling) conveyed in the sound of the flute. Composers have used it to invoke a feeling of loneliness which is often experienced by shepherds who use flutes to pacify time while tending sheep in the country side.





“That noise or sound which musicians make while they are tuning their instruments (to the oboe), is nothing pleasant to hear, but yet is a cause why the music is sweeter afterwards.”

Francis Bacon (1561-1626)


The most expressive of the woodwinds the oboe’s tone is produced by a player exhaling into two thin strips of reed (double reed). Oboists spend much of their time making and shaping their reeds. The thinner and narrower the reed the more agreeable the sound. The oboe produces a sharp twang or nasal sound but composers have used the oboe for some of the symphonic repertoire’s most expressive writing. Popular in Egypt, Greece and Turkey the early oboe (aulos or shawm) was the instrument that could make a snake dance out of a basket. Because of it’s position in the orchestra and it’s pointed tone, it is the oboe in today’s orchestra that gives the pitch “A” for all the instruments to tune to.





“The clarinet is suited to the expression of sorrow, and even when it plays a merry air there is a suggestion of sadness about it. If I were to dance in a prison, I should wish to do so to the accompaniment of a clarinet.”

Andre Gretry, Memoirs

The single reed member of the woodwind family. This means one piece of heavy cane is made to flutter against the mouth piece of the players clarinet. The clarinet has a fairly narrow body (not as narrow as the oboe), a tube about two feet long and seven holes bored into it’s side. As the single reed vibrates at the mouth piece, the players breath travels through the clarinet and comes out at the other end which is called the bell. The clarinet was invented in 1675 by Johan Denner of Nuremberg, Germany and is typically made of ebony an extremely hard, black wood.The clarinet has a richly expressive range of dynamics from a hushed piano to a swelled crescendo. It blends well with the strings and has a very mellow smooth sound. Also it is able to freely play fast passages of scales and arpeggios in low and high registers. The clarinet is most often used in the symphony orchestra and was a favorite instrument of Mozart’s during its early invention. But one also frequently hears the clarinet in a jazz and dance band settings were squealing, laughing tones are not uncommon.





"Tempestuous clarion, with heavy cry,
Came bluntly thundering, more terrible,
Than the revenge of music on bassoons."

Wallace Stevens, 1924

The bass of the woodwind family. The bassoon’s tube has a length of over eight feet and in the lowest register it has a heavy dark tone. The bassoon often plays amusing and humorous music and is sometimes referred to as the “clown of the orchestra.;” but it can also play serious, beautiful music including concertos. Like an oboe but much larger, the bassoon is a double reed instrument. It was invented in 1650 and a player must have large hands to comfortably control the finger holes the instrument. The rich sound of the bassoon takes on the character of grandfather in Prokofiev’s famous Peter and the Wolf.





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