tim·​bre | \ ˈtam-bər How to pronounce timbre (audio) , ˈtim-; ˈtam(brᵊ)\
variants: or less commonly timber

Definition of timbre

: the quality given to a sound by its overtones: such as
a : the resonance by which the ear recognizes and identifies a voiced speech sound
b : the quality of tone distinctive of a particular singing voice or musical instrument

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Other Words from timbre

timbral \ ˈtam-​brəl How to pronounce timbral (audio) , ˈtim-​ \ adjective

Timber and Timbre

Timber and timbre are two similar-looking words that appear in very different contexts. At least most of the time.

Timber traces back to an Old English word initially meaning “house” or “building” that also came to mean “building material,” “wood,” and “trees” or “woods.” Timbers are large squared lengths of wood used for building a house or a boat. In British English, timber is also used as a synonym for lumber.

Metaphorical senses followed after centuries of the word’s use: the word used for building material became a word meaning “material” or “stuff” in general (“it’s best-seller timber”) and came also to refer to the qualities of character, experience, or intellect (“managerial timber”).

And, of course, there’s also the interjectional use of “timber!” as a cry to warn of a falling tree; the fact that most people know this despite few of them ever having deployed the word in such a situation is almost certainly due to cartoons.

Timbre is French in origin, which is apparent in its pronunciation: it is often pronounced \TAM-ber\ and, with a more French-influenced second syllable, \TAM-bruh\. The French ancestor of timbre was borrowed at three different times into English, each time with a different meaning, each time reflecting the evolution that the word had made in French.

The first two meanings timbre had in English (it referred to a kind of drum and to the crest on a coat of arms) are now too obscure for entry in this dictionary, but its third meaning survives. Timbre in modern English generally refers to the quality of a sound made by a particular voice or musical instrument; timbre is useful in being distinct from pitch, intensity, and loudness as a descriptor of sound.

But because English is rarely simple about such things, we have also these facts: timber is listed as a variant spelling of timbre. And timbre may also be correctly pronounced just like timber as \TIM-ber\. And the spelling of timber was unsettled for many years; it was sometimes spelled tymmer, tymber, and, yes, timbre. The messy overlapping of these similar words is coincidental: the consequence of the intersection of the different cultures and languages that left their traces on English.

Examples of timbre in a Sentence

the timbre of his voice

Recent Examples on the Web

The building blocks of Rufus du Sol’s sound are just like those of other electronic dance acts: hammering rhythms, roundabout riffs and synthetic or metallic timbres. Mark Jenkins, Washington Post, "Rufus du Sol’s electronic surges serve their direct pop songs well," 9 Aug. 2019 Alto saxophone is a bright instrument with a penetrating timbre. San Diego Union-Tribune, "Review: Carlsbad Music Festival brings diverse mix of unusual music," 4 Aug. 2019 Watching the creative process — helped along by the calming timbre of his voice — was hypnotic. Gieson Cacho, The Mercury News, "Preview: Painting happy little trees in ‘Concrete Genie’ reminds me of Bob Ross," 30 July 2019 The master contains the record’s details in their purest form: the grain of a singer’s voice, the timbres of instruments, the ambience of the studio. New York Times, "The Day the Music Burned," 11 June 2019 Perhaps Omni’s new model will introduce some neighbors to local shops, but the intermediation of an app might change the timbre of the relationship. Simone Stolzoff, SFChronicle.com, "Who needs neighbors when there’s an app for everything?," 21 June 2019 Yonally has a knack for nuanced tap choreography like no other — drawing emotion from the timbre and rhythms of each step, and traveling it up the body. Lauren Warnecke, chicagotribune.com, "Chicago Tap’s ambitious ‘Saving the World’ is a sassy step into politics," 9 June 2019 On each track, his expressive timbre captures that instant when a listener’s personal responsibility crystallizes — and shines. Armond White, National Review, "Morrissey’s California Son Makes Protest Music Personal," 5 June 2019 Johnsrud’s savvy lines and reedy timbre made a seemingly four-square song into something genuinely sophisticated. Howard Reich, chicagotribune.com, "Mister Rogers' music gets jazzed at Winter's Jazz Club," 23 Mar. 2018

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'timbre.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

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First Known Use of timbre

1845, in the meaning defined above

History and Etymology for timbre

French, from Middle French, bell struck by a hammer, from Old French, drum, from Middle Greek tymbanon kettledrum, from Greek tympanon — more at tympanum

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Dictionary Entries near timbre

timber yard






time's up

Statistics for timbre

Last Updated

15 Aug 2019

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Time Traveler for timbre

The first known use of timbre was in 1845

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More Definitions for timbre



English Language Learners Definition of timbre

: the quality of the sound made by a particular voice or musical instrument


variants: also timber \ ˈtam-​bər How to pronounce timber (audio) , ˈtim-​; ˈtam(brᵊ) How to pronounce timber (audio) \

Medical Definition of timbre

: the quality given to a sound by its overtones: as
a : the resonance by which the ear recognizes and identifies a voiced speech sound
b : the quality of tone distinctive of a particular singing voice or musical instrument

Other Words from timbre

timbral \ ˈtam-​brəl How to pronounce timbral (audio) , ˈtim-​ How to pronounce timbral (audio) \ adjective

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More from Merriam-Webster on timbre

Rhyming Dictionary: Words that rhyme with timbre

Spanish Central: Translation of timbre

Nglish: Translation of timbre for Spanish Speakers

Britannica English: Translation of timbre for Arabic Speakers

Britannica.com: Encyclopedia article about timbre

Comments on timbre

What made you want to look up timbre? Please tell us where you read or heard it (including the quote, if possible).


to shake or wave menacingly

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