On Timbres

For Garcia, there were two: claire (clear) and sombre (dark).

Within each could be a limitless amount of timbres. The adjustments of the vocal tract are infinite – each adjustment giving unlimited color to lend expression to the voice.

How did Garcia define timbres?

Every sound of the voice may assume an infinite variety of shades apart from intensity. Each of these is a timbre.

Garcia separated the vowel (or what I personally call ‘resonance’ – because a vowel is a DOING, resonance is NOT) from the source of the sound, or the vocal folds. He understood that timbres are not allied with VOLUME of sound, but QUALITY of sound.

How were these timbres produced? Garcia attributes them to PHYSIOLOGY. Make special note of Garcia’s ORDER here. It is significant. 

They are due, first, to permanent causes that affect the voice of each individual, such as the constitution, age, health or disease of the vocal apparatus; secondly, to the action of the glottis; third, to the changes of form in the tube which the sounds traverse.

The first embraces a somatic ‘body-oriented’ view, the second (rightly) attributes them to the SOURCE of the sound, and lastly to the FILTER which merely reflects the sound source. I believe Garcia’s emphasis and specific order merit particular analysis and consideration.


Garcia goes on to state that the reflexive state of the throat can lend many different types of timbre to the sound. These limitless sounds could (and still do) mystify many teachers of singing today, some have even attempted in a futile manner to categorize these timbres, which only serves to LIMIT vocal expression, not free it.

To prevent confusion, Garcia limits these limitless sounds into two basic categories: the clear and dark/sombre timbres (timbre claire, timbre sombre). All timbres according to him could fit into these two types.

Garcia understood the intimate INTERRELATIONSHIP between a VOWEL and a particular TIMBRE:

We know that the changes of form in the vocal tube determine analogous changes in the timbre. Vowel-shades and timbres are but two different names to express the same modifications of sonority in the voice. The result of this mutual dependence between Pharynx, Timbres, and Vowels is that a change in one produces corresponding changes in both the others.

But the most important point that must be made in any of this discussion of timbres is the following:


Read that last sentence. Then read it again.

For Garcia, timbres (as expressed through laryngeal height) were to be used in the service of specific expressive needs that the singer might need to ‘color’ a text. They were TOOLS in the artist’s expressive toolbox to paint the expressive nature of the text.

Vowels will not preserve the same shade of sound in a phrase of tenderness as in mockery, in anger as in joy, in regret as in prayer, or in menace, etc. Let us take the air, “In native worth” (Creation), or “Endless pleasures” (Semele); the bright open timbre, which would give a brilliant effect to both, would sound vulgar in “Deeper and deeper still” (Jephthah), or in “Jerusalem” (St. Paul). As a further illustration, let us suppose the question “Are you coming?” to be put by an imperious master, or an entreating lover, or a threatening accomplice. In each case the same vowels would assume a different ring.

Interesting to note nowadays that many classical singers seem to be perpetually STUCK in sombre timbre, even in music that is bright, vivacious, and happy. I don’t think Garcia would have liked that very much (my $.02). The singers of the earlier recorded generations feature singing of a MUCH wider timbral palette. 

Let’s think about this in a broader sense as we LISTEN to particular vocal sounds.

Let’s look at POTENTIAL qualities that might be considered clear or claire:

POTENTIAL GOOD CLEAR QUALITIES:Bright, Buzz, Focused, Forward, Metallic (can go either way), Ringing, Shimmering, Spinning, Steely, Sweet, Thin, Tight, Vibrant.

POTENTIAL BAD CLEAR QUALITIES: Edgy (Style dependent), Forced, Harsh, Mouthy, Shrill, Spread, Strident, Thin, Tight, Twangy (style dependent), White.

Now let’s consider vocal qualities that might fall under a sombre timbre:

POTENTIAL GOOD SOMBRE QUALITIES: Covered (can go either way), Dark, Deep, Diffused, Full, Full-Throated, Mellow, Open-Throated, Opulent, Rich, Round, Sighed, Velvety, Warm.

POTENTIAL BAD SOMBRE QUALITIES: Choked, Closed, Diffused, Dull, Echoed, Fuzzy, Gutteual, Hoarse, Husky (style dependent), Swallowed, Throaty, Thick, Veiled, Wobbly.

Some of these qualities are DESIRED in some musical styles, some are not. Some qualities may be accentuated in one piece and and not another. Some qualities can be used for INTERPRETIVE effect, while others are less desirable. However, a teacher of voice should be able to make the distinction between basic healthy use of the voice, and what might be habitual or damaging.

Some vocal instruments ARE DARK BY NATURE, others bright. However, the question a teacher should always ask is, “Is this voice naturally this way, or is the singer using manipulative and constrictive means to create this sound in the pursuit of a preconceived tonal ideal?” This question should be ASSIDUOUSLY asked of every singer.

What good is a DARK voice that cannot express joy?

What good is a BRIGHT voice that cannot express pathos?

The tonal ideal forms to a very large extent how the singer transmits signals from the brain in the command to sing, and how they go about accomplishing that in MILLISECONDS before the singing act.

SIDEBAR: The pre-phonatory act contains an encyclopedia of knowledge into how the singer transmits signals from their brain to their body and throat. (IMHO it’s also one of the reasons every old treatise started with LONG TONES – you can clear up A LOT of pre-phonatory silliness with long tone exercises for performed easily and slowly for quite some time).

Timbres are INTERESTING. But they are expressive tools in the hands of a singer whose voice is already functioning well and at a high level. But they should not be considered a WAY of singing, lest the singer get trapped in the sombre or claire – and lose their ability to color text in an expressive and spontaneous way.

Again, look for the MIDDLE WAY in all aspects of singing.


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