Tone is more than a sound, there is a measurement of quality to a tone, a timbre. A pitch played on a trumpet will sound vastly different than that same pitch played on a piano, this is due to harmonic overtones from the instrument and the material it's constructed from. It should sound different, a piano creates notes by a hammer striking a string and a trumpet by air blown through a mouthpiece into a shaped brass tube. What we like about a tone is subjective, you may prefer the clear, delicate sounds of a nylon stringed guitar where I may enjoy the bluesy twang from a steel-string slide guitar.
We can become accustomed to hearing a player's tone and, like an audio fingerprint, use it to identify a particular player from surprisingly few notes. Guitar players often say tone begins in the fingertips, yet there are innumerable variables that shape tone and timbre. Here is a partial list of elements that shape a guitars tone:
- the material of the guitar
- the quality of the construction
- the type and gauge of the strings
- the placement and type of pickups
- the style of playing
- the use of picks or fingers
- how hard or soft a note is strummed
- the angle a note is struck from
- how much vibrato is applied
- the phrasing of played notes
- the types of amplification and electronics in the signal path
- the effects and filters applied to the signal
- the dimensions of the room the guitar is played in
- the size and types of materials in the room
The goal isn't to create an exhaustive list, it's to demonstrate the vastly different components that come together to create a tone.
Of course tone exists in far more than musical contexts. The way we speak, the sound of our voice, the cadence, our pronunciations, our inflections, and even the words we choice add to our individual tone. Just as guitar players may aim to emulate a tone of another, we do the same when we listen to others speak, incorporating bits of different styles into our own practice.
Finding our voice takes practice and an intention. This combination being something Malcolm Gladwell refers to as deliberate practice: the act of practicing a specific task numerous times until our skill has progressed enough to move on to the next task. Without intention our practice is wasted effort. Beginning musicians sometimes fall to the trap of practicing something they already do fairly well, unconsciously avoiding the tasks that pose more of a struggle. Yet harder tasks are where our opportunity for progress lies. Ironically, these same musicians tend to get frustrated with their slow progress of advancement, and may quit the instrument altogether.
Finding our voice, crafting a tone that conveys the meaning and intention behind our words, requires deliberate practice. Our speech carries weight, as anyone who has ever said the wrong thing can attest. While few of us will become orators, we all can be persuasive and at other times exclamatory, questioning, meek, or supportive based on the tone we use. We apply this tool, our voice, in innumerate settings, choosing when to participate and when to be part of the audience. When we want to use it to express our thoughts, share our values, or support others' ideas we ought to be able to apply it appropriately, leaving little doubt about what our message is and what it is we are conveying.
"The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place."
- George Bernard Shaw
Training our voice and fine-tuning our tone isn't just for those that do public speaking, although that too requires deliberate practice. We recognize that every interaction presents itself as a possible learning opportunity as long as we are open to asking for and listening to feedback. Projecting that we are receptive to hearing other's thoughts begins with the tone we use when we engage with others.
The Paradox Pairs series is an exploration of the contradictory forces that surround us. A deeper study finds that these forces often complement each other if we can learn to tap into the strength of each. See the entire series by using the Paradox Pairs Index.