Tone color is the characteristic that allows us to distinguish the sound of one instrument from another. Every instrument produces its own tone color. For example, when you hear a clarinet and a guitar play the exact same pitch, the tone color of each instrument allows you to tell the difference between the sounds that you hear. Another name for tone color is timbre (pronounced tam-ber).
We often use terms like warm, dark, bright, or buzzy to describe tone color. The interactive box below gives several examples of different tone colors, as well as terms we might use to describe those sounds. (If you cannot view it, update your Adobe Flash Player.) The top row produces tones that have no definite pitch. They are all examples of percussion sounds. The bottom row consists of tones that do produce a definite pitch. All of the sounds in bottom row have the same pitch, but their individual tone colors allow us to distinguish between each one.