Music Arrangement Basics: Timbre

In this six week series on arranging, we aim to help break down arrangement to six simple elements that we hope you can apply to your productions. These blogposts are meant to be short, simple and easy to digest with an average reading time of 5 minutes or less for the average producer who has not had any formal music education.

Here are the topics that we are going to cover over the next 6 weeks:

  1. Pitch
  2. Rhythm
  3. Dynamics
  4. Timbre
  5. Articulation
  6. Level of Activity


1. What is Timbre?


  • Timbre is the unique, distinguishing quality of a sound made by a music instrument.
  • Timbre allows you to identify two different instruments playing the same note.
  • For example, both a piano and a guitar may be playing the note C3, but because each instrument has its own unique timbre, the listener is able to identify that there are two different instruments playing.

2. Timbre Qualities & Music Arrangement

  • It is important to know what an instruments sounds like and to be able to describe it.
  • Once you know the timbre quality of an instrument, you can make informed decisions on how to use it in your arrangements.
  • For example, a violin may have a timbre quality of sounding delicate, high and penetrating when played at certain ranges. With that knowledge in hand, you might want to write a violin melody in that range, during a loud chorus to cut through your arrangement.
  • Similarly, electronic instruments have timbre qualities as well but with greater shaping possibilities.
  • When you built a sound from scratch, you are deciding the timbre qualities of your sound. The flexibility that synth sounds have over an acoustic instrument is that the timbre of your synth can change in any way you like and is not confined to the physicality of the instrument itself. It that sense, synths are very malleable.

3. Practical Applications


  • Keep a list of music / timbre descriptors when planning out your arrangement.
  • Some examples of descriptors are: gloomy, smooth, narrow, metallic, sharp, soft, delicate, bright, round, high, low, damped, sandy.
  • Tweaking the ADSR curve on your synth helps shape the timbre quality of an instrument.
  • When arranging, try to listen and isolate the different instruments you have. If you can do that, it means you have a well defined timbre structure. If not, try re-thinking the arrangement and evaluating your sounds based on the descriptors above.

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May 2, 2016

Reuben Raman Product Marketing Manager at Splice