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What Is a Musical Tone?

Some people can spot tone and pitch naturally.
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  • Written By: A. Leverkuhn
  • Edited By: Andrew Jones
  • Last Modified Date: 31 July 2014
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A musical tone is a single sound played by an instrument or created by a voice or other means. The single musical tone has various criteria. These include pitch, intensity, and duration as well as timbre. Musicians are commonly familiar with varying tones in each of these four categories.

In terms of pitch, the variation of musical tone is what constitutes music theory in any given society. In Western societies, music theory uses a convention called an octave that is composed of twelve tones. These repeat into higher and lower registers, and control the output and coordination of music for any instrument, as well as for voice. Other societies tend to include more tonal pitches than the twelve tone octave, which is also known as the chromatic scale. Music experts often study the potential of adding more tones to music in order to get more complex sounds and more challenging compositions.

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Tones are also evaluated by their timbre, or by their quality. Timbre define the characteristics of a sound relative to its source; for instance, a tone played on a flute sounds very different from one played on a bassoon. This aspect of sound is an important part of making digital music, where musicians need to understand how digital output will affect the timbre of musical sounds. This means looking technically at the various measures of sound quality for a specific computer program, sound system or other device. In technical terms, the quality of a tone expressed in megahertz or sampling rate might relate to the resulting “timbre” of the tone, and any other sounds on a musical track.

Duration is another essential characteristic of a musical tone. Assessing tones by duration is what makes up the “timing” of music. Musicians use a system of symbols in sheet music to perform music in the correct timing, and to synchronize with one another. An essential part of musical tone timing is the inclusion of different held notes and rests, which help musicians trained in reading music to identify specific timing and rhythm.

Knowing more about how musical tones differ is one of the first things that is demanded of the beginning musician. The musical tone is a simple part of a challenging and complex system of music theory. Mastering these basics will help the individual to get a more informed view of music theory in general, a well as the specifics as they apply to a given instrument.

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