tim·bre | \ˈtam-bər, 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, 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

That shift has muted the music’s rhythmic attack and timbre, but the process has also imbued it with a new deep melancholy. Peter Margasak, Chicago Reader, "A Hawk and a Hacksaw embrace a darker, muted sound on their first new album in five years," 17 May 2018 Microtonal harmonies open doors of the tune and the timbres. Mark Swed, latimes.com, "A festival's final concert brings the microtonal outsiders in," 17 June 2018 Ponce’s Mary has an astonishingly bright timbre, the kind of tone that radiates goodness. Lily Janiak, San Francisco Chronicle, "‘Shesus’ lives — and rocks — in Ray of Light’s ‘Superstar’," 19 May 2018 Attired in white dresses, the singers proceeded in shifting formations from one end of the tunnel to the other, emitting ethereal timbres, playing chiming percussion, and scraping rocks against the walls. Alex Ross, The New Yorker, "The Sonic Fury of the Ojai Music Festival," 24 June 2018 The result is a riot of tactile bursts of timbre rarely heard since laptops became electronic music’s main instruments. Allan Kozinn, WSJ, "Romantic Lushness Meets Post-Tonal Grittiness," 30 May 2018 Here it was played on marimba, which of course eliminated both the harpsichord’s singular timbre and its historical associations, leaving a virtuosity that was not enough. Alan Artner, chicagotribune.com, "Ligeti series continues with a lark, a workout and a rare performance," 13 Feb. 2018 Cartelli put Levine's initial description of her voice to the test, bearing a notably similar timbre to the original artist, 42-year-old Sia. Abby Jones, Billboard, "'The Voice' Winner Brynn Cartelli's 6 Best Performances From Season 14: Watch," 23 May 2018 The two main elements the composers used were pitch and timbre. Kevin Davenport, idahostatesman, "Symphony of the salmon: How scientists are learning by putting fish migration to music," 9 July 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

Phrases Related to timbre

timber yard

Statistics for timbre

Last Updated

10 Oct 2018

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The first known use of timbre was in 1845

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English Language Learners Definition of timbre

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


variants: also timber \ˈtam-bər, ˈtim-; ˈtam(brᵊ) \

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, ˈtim- \ adjective

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Comments on timbre

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