tim·​bre ˈtam-bər How to pronounce timbre (audio)
variants or less commonly timber
: the quality given to a sound by its overtones: such as
: the resonance by which the ear recognizes and identifies a voiced speech sound
: the quality of tone distinctive of a particular singing voice or musical instrument
ˈtam-brəl How to pronounce timbre (audio)

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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 band’s various styles are linked by a common compositional approach, rooted in jam sessions and a reliance on electronic timbres and textures. Mark Jenkins, Washington Post, 20 Sep. 2023 The uncomfortably slow tempo was designed as an affront, and the way the timbres shift— glitching harmonics to baritone boom to vocal screaming—is meant to reflect how a memory can warp from different facets of perspective. Daniel Kohn, Spin, 1 Sep. 2023 Adès has a keen sense of timbre: the second movement’s elegiac and sunken chords sounded behind a stained curtain of piano resonance that was mystifying. Luke Schulze, San Diego Union-Tribune, 4 Aug. 2023 In an interview, Blanchard tipped his hat to an early teacher, the composer Roger Dickerson, who used timbres and modes from American jazz when writing classical works like the New Orleans Concerto. Seth Colter Walls, New York Times, 9 Apr. 2023 The part that is A.I. is taking the harmonics and the timbre of the vocal and moving them to be consistent with my voice, as opposed to the person’s original voice. Joe Coscarelli, New York Times, 24 May 2023 The new single also features the unmistakable, gravelly timbre of the inimitable Buju Banton. Shamira Ibrahim, Harper's BAZAAR, 18 Aug. 2023 The vocal sets the stage for the emotional timbre of the film. Odie Henderson, BostonGlobe.com, 17 Aug. 2023 There was the brassy timbre of his father’s trombone, whether playing onstage or along with concerts on television. Joshua Barone, New York Times, 16 Aug. 2023 See More

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'timbre.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History


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

First Known Use

1845, in the meaning defined above

Time Traveler
The first known use of timbre was in 1845

Dictionary Entries Near timbre

Cite this Entry

“Timbre.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/timbre. Accessed 28 Sep. 2023.

Kids Definition


tim·​bre ˈtam-bər How to pronounce timbre (audio) ˈtim- How to pronounce timbre (audio)
: the quality of a sound or musical tone determined by its overtones and different for each voice or instrument

Medical Definition


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

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