What You Need To Know About Musical Tone and Sound

Music is one of the forms of sound and tone. Musical sound and tone results when a vibrating string, reed, or vocal cord set air molecules or particles in motion, the molecules bump or lap one another and each setting the next in motion. The chain reaction continues until it strikes the eardrum, where the nervous system picks up the impulses and transmits them to the brain.

What mark the difference between musical sound and noise is their wave pattern. The musical sound waves are regular in patterns and have established pitch. On the other hand, the wave’s pattern of noise is not regular and unpitched. This irregular wave pattern generates unwanted sound for auditory experience and classified as noise in the musical world, though this claim is subjective. However, the musical sound is known to be pleasant and have a good aural experience, this makes it to be acceptable to both performers and listeners.

ALSO READ: The Musical Clef

Music is one of the glories of sound. Any sound becomes music when it is artistically arranged so as to make it pleasant to the listener. Otherwise, it becomes a noise. Note that all unpitched sounds are classified as noise. But when they are well arranged and sound at regular intervals, they will sound musical. This really says a lot about percussion instruments and their sounds.

Drums conceptual image. Drums and drumsticks lying on snare drum. Retro vintage Instagram picture.

People compose music using sounds of different pitch. When sounds are timely arranged linearly in a sequence we have a melody. Likewise, two or more sounds of different pitch are horizontally put together to form a harmony.

ALSO READ: Musical Notation

Also, we can form scale out of the musical sounds by simply arranged them in relation to their rank in pitch. That is from a lower pitch to a higher pitch and vice versa.


This is the physical property of all musical sounds. It is a sound produced by the regular vibration of air. The sound produced by whistling, humming, plucking a tant string, or blowing into a brass or reed instrument is classified as tones because their vibration is regular. A tone with only one frequency or a single pitch is known as a simple tone. Although this type of note may have a varied intensity. On the other hand, a tone that comprises of two or more simple tones or overtone is a complex tone. The intensity of a complex tone is the total sum of every single pitch it contains.

The musical tone with the lowest frequency and usually the most audible is called the fundamental tone (or note). In addition, musical instruments sound at several frequencies known as harmonics in relation to one another, and the one with the highest harmonics is called overtones. And because a combination of harmonic tones is pleasant to hear we called it a musical tone. The tone is a concept peculiar to music and it’s important to producing variation and quality in music.

Properties of a Tone or Sound

A musical tone is characterized by its properties and four basic properties of musical tone or sound are:
i. Duration
ii. Pitch,
iii. Intensity/Volume, and
iv. Timbre

(I) Duration

This is referring to the length of time a tone is sounded. It is how long or short the sound lasts before it stops sounding. All musical tones are subjected to variability in duration; that is a tone may be sustained for varying length of time.  

ALSO READ: What is Legato ?

Certainly, duration let us acknowledge a tone as being either long or short, based on the context. This property of tone becomes one of the basses of rhythm. In fact, several durations that occur one after another is the aspect of music that create the rhythm of a piece.

(II) Pitch

This is the height or depth of a time as related to other tones in the scale. The pitch also is known as the high or low aspect of a tone is created by any vibrating bodies and is directly a product of the vibrational frequency of that body. The number of vibrations per second generated by a specific sound is used to determine the accurate pitch. And the faster the rate of vibration, the higher the pitch of a tone.

Pitch of musical tone and sound

All other things being equal, a shorter string produces higher tones than a longer one. Also, the same is applicable to a column of air in wind instruments. This explains why the tones of the violin are higher than those of a cello and why the tones of piccolo are higher than those of a flute.

The sound that has a definite pitch is referred to as a musical note. For example, when we pluck the string of a guitar, strike the key of a piano, or blow wind in a flute, a sound that has a definite pitch is produced (a musical note is produced). There are certain sounds or tones that have no definite pitch e.g. the clapping of the hand, the sound of a rattle, of a cymbal, and that of a certain drum.

(III) Intensity or Volume

Intensity is also known as Dynamics. This is referring to loudness, the volume of a tonal sound, or the fullness of a tone. The intensity of a sound is independent of its pitch. The amplitude of a tone determines its intensity or loudness. Amplitude is the extent to which the vibration occurs or the rate at which the air particles are displaced in a vibrating body.

Volume of musical-tone-and-sound
The Volume knob

Note that a tone with a higher pitch can be loud or soft and also a tone with a lower pitch. The intensity of any note depends solely on the amplitude or strength of the vibrations producing the sound.

ALSO READ: Cadence in Music

For example, a piano string will vibrate gently and produce a soft sound if its key is struck softly. However, with the greater striking force on the keys, you hear a louder sound. In short, the greater the force, the larger the amplitude, and the louder the sound. It is fundamental to musical rhythm (as an accent).

(IV) Timbre

This is also known as tone colour and is the quality of a tone that allows us to identify or recognize a specific instrument or voice. In timber or colour, no two musical instruments are equal. This is so because each instrument has different timber. In fact, this results in different ways we perceive note of the same pitch when produced by different instruments. Therefore, middle C produced by a violin will not be perceived the same way when produced by a trumpet or flute.

Timbre of musical-tone-and-sound

The violin and clarinet tones are dissimilar because their articulatory “buzz” is absolutely different. Also, their overtone contents are not the same, even when they play a note of the same pitch and interval.

The timbres of music enjoy an even less accurate and established ranking; other than the ambiguous classifications like shrill, mellow, full, and so on. In fact, there is no standard or actual nomenclature for this tone quality. Most often, musicians used colour or texture analogy to describe the timbre of a sound. For example, bright tone, dark sound, rough tone, smooth sound, and so on. In other words, the cello is said to have a darker, richer timbre than that of the violin.

ALSO READ: The Musical Staff

Above all, the timber of tone, even the same instruments, differs according to their size, shape, and quality of materials. Although, the skill of the performer or great artistry is required to bring out the true timbre of a fine instrument.


One thought on “What You Need To Know About Musical Tone and Sound

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    Thank you for this post… I find it very useful.


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