Anatomy of a Sound – Hearing Timbre

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Anatomy of a Sound – Hearing Timbre (english version only)

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Course information

Course series

Fundamentals of acoustics for sound engineers and music producers


  undergraduate (Bachelor)




  February 2020

To cite this course

  Alexis Baskind, Anatomy of a Sound – Hearing Timbre, course material, license: Creative Commons BY-NC-SA.

PDF Version

  A PDF Version (without animations and sound examples) is available here.

Course content

1. What does “Timbre” mean ? (perception)

Definition of timbre, vocabulary to describe timbre

2. What is a musical sound made of ? (physics)

Onsets (transients, attacks), sustain part, spectrum, overtones and noisy part, resonance, ADSR model

3. Timbre allows to recognize a musical instrument

Instrumental sounds with same pitch and loudness can be distinguished thanks to their timbre. Timbre not only determined by the overtone spectrum

4. Overtone Spectrum

For sustained sounds, the relative amplitude of the overtones are specific to a given instrument. But the overtone spectrum may be not sufficient if it’s too poor in harmonics. Overtone spectrum consists in overtones shaped by the envelope (formants). Formants are an important feature of a given sound (example with voice). Reminder: overtones depends on dynamics

5. Roughness of complex tones

Definition of roughness, case of simple and complex sounds, examples

6. Phasiness

Definition of phasiness, examples

7. Onsets

Onsets may be essential for the identification of non-sustained sounds. Which information does the onset bring to the sound?

8. Release

Reminder: time evolution of overtones during the decay. Artificial releases

9. Noise component of a sound

Importance of the noisy part for the identification of some sounds

10. Frequency ranges and sound quality

Examples of correspondances between physical frequency ranges and timbral descriptions.