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 Along with other novelists and poets of his generation, Oz revelled in the sense of possibility that modern Hebrew afforded, in the unique timbre of strings stretched between such temporally distant worlds. Gal Koplewitz, The New Yorker, "Amos Oz and the Politics of the Hebrew Language," 12 Nov. 2019 This song makes use of distorted ‘non-linear’ instrument timbres and effects, which humans are programmed to find distressing. Rosy Cordero, EW.com, "Nine Inch Nails, Pixies, Nirvana land on surprising top 10 scariest songs of all time list," 31 Oct. 2019 Voces Mundi is the newest ensemble at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist bringing a global sound and timbre to Mass. Membership is open to singers of all ages. Elaine Rewolinski, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Audition notices for Milwaukee area theater and music productions (Fall 2019 edition)," 30 Aug. 2019 As this passage makes clear, Miller has determined, in her characterization of this most powerful witch, to bring her as close as possible to the human — from the timbre of her voice to her intense maternal instincts. Claire Messud, New York Times, "Turning Circe Into a Good Witch," 28 May 2018 Bridgewater’s expressive pipes have graced multiple wonderful recordings for a significant chunk of time, and lately her timbre is as lush as ever. Bret Saunders, The Know, "Get a taste of New Orleans when Preservation Hall Jazz Band comes to Denver," 2 Nov. 2019 Korkejian’s songs are folk-inspired (the timbre of her voice can also evoke Brazilian bossa nova troubadours) and radiate a calming warmth that sends you closer toward bliss. Washington Post, "15 things to do in the D.C. area this weekend," 10 Oct. 2019 To do it right, Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamill, Heath Ledger and Jared Leto, along with several other actors, have had to develop timbres of pure evil and concoct different flavors of insane laughter. Steve Knopper, New York Times, "Getting the Joker’s Laugh Just Right," 4 Oct. 2019 Placed on the 230 strings inside the piano, these objects muffle or choke the timbre of the sound produced when a key on the keyboard is pressed. Rachel Hawley, Smithsonian, "How Composer John Cage Transformed the Piano—With the Help of Some Household Objects," 27 June 2017

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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Time Traveler for timbre

Time Traveler

The first known use of timbre was in 1845

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Statistics for timbre

Last Updated

14 Feb 2020

Cite this Entry

“Timbre.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/timbre. Accessed 26 Feb. 2020.

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More Definitions for timbre


How to pronounce timbre (audio)

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

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