Timbre is a musical term. It has interesting connotations to communication. I teach at Sheridan College, and have learned more from my students than they have learned from me, but that is a little secret I share with you and not my Dean. I worry that information would significantly change my salary compensation, so let’s just keep this to ourselves. Now if the Dean is reading this blog, which is highly unlikely since he is more interested in academia than unintelligent drivel I will divert. My name is Bubba Cooper and I teach at Mississippi State University. I am also the defensive coordinator for their football team, and deflate the balls when we are losing games.

Many know that oral communication involves three critical components, the words, the tone and the body language. Now studies dispute the importance of each of these but most agree words are the least important part of communicating. Your tone and your body language give much more information to the receiver. A sarcastic “Ya right” barely needs the words, as we use a particular tone and look that expresses our thoughts to communicate that we do not believe your New Year’s resolution of becoming a better listener, will succeed.

Speaking of resolutions, each year my family and friends create a list of 10 things I need to improve, if I expect them to show up for my funeral. This list is dynamic and evolves every year, as they review my arrest records, countries that have banned my passport acceptance and my choice of laundry detergent. Regardless of my tenuous status each year, improving my ability to explain things rises to the top of the list every year. I will use “timbre” as my attempt to do exactly that.

Timbre is simply the unique sound every noise-making vehicle produces.

When you play a middle C on a piano it sounds like a piano. When you play that same middle C on a saxophone, the note is the same but the timbre is different. If you happen to have a bassoon in your closet that you only take out when guests arrive, the same principle will apply with that middle C note. Now it may take a little while to explain to your friends why you have a bassoon in your closet, but I can help you with that explanation as I address my New Year’s resolution.

If this attempt to clarify is a little confusing, let me try again as I work on my resolution hoping attendance at my funeral is not just the front rows.

When you hear Celine Dionne sing a high C, and then you hear Janis Joplin sing that exact same note, you will notice that there is a rather significant difference in the timbre of their voices. Daily use of heroin will slightly alter your timbre.

Now many of you are saying “stop using music analogies, as I was forced to take piano lessons as a child, and now I hate music, except for Abba’s greatest hits!” Okay in my desire to explain things better, I will try a different approach.

When you were a young child, your mother would stand on the porch and yell “Supper’s ready”. Because you feared your mother’s mood if she had to yell that twice, you ran home and hoped she hadn’t made cabbage rolls. When your neighbour’s mother yelled “Supper’s ready!” because she smoked two packs of Camel unfiltered cigarettes a day, the timbre of her voice was little different.

As I tip toe into the sin of over explaining things, lets consider taking a Go Train to work in the morning. Now those outside of the Toronto, any train will work with this upcoming beautiful explanation. Right before your train departs, you will hear a computer-generated voice, over a bad intercom announce “Stand clear of the doors! All Aboard!”. That recorded message has not been edited for a decade so that voice is the same on every train. This does not help in my explanation of timbre, however it is a reminder that taking public transit is an environmentally responsible thing to do, if your basic hygiene is up to cultural standards.

I am getting the feeling my funeral is going to need a bigger church!

Explaining things in a better way may be on the top of my “to do” list this year, but in a close second place is “When you tell a long boring story, try to have a point!” Let me address that one too.

Beyond words, tone, and body language, I believe the timbre of our voices dramatically effect the way we receive communication. For example when a high-pitched screeching voice asks you to pass the salt, you tend to look over to see if someone had let a black crow into the restaurant. Conversely when my dulcet, sexy, Barry White-like voice, asks to pass the salt, people will pass me the salt. Of course I always thank them and say “I can’t get enough of your salt babe.” This makes other customers at McDonalds a little uncomfortable.

Once again I have fallen into the trap of making a music analogy to make my point. Let me put down my bassoon and try one last time to make sense of this.

We judge other’s communication by the tone of their voice, the speed of their voice, the timbre of their voice and sadly the accent of their voice. If we elevate our own awareness of defaulting opinions, on what and how we hear things there is a strong possibility that we could improve not only our ability to speak in better terms, but more importantly hear the beauty of other’s voices and words. People cannot change their instruments, but we can change our ability to appreciate every voice in the choir.

To badly mix a metaphor, hearing the forest through the trees is difficult, but it does lead me to my one exception to timbre.

On those weekends where you are out with your lumberjack buddies, lumberjacking in the forest with other lumberjacks, it is important to remind you of this. First, since they are lumberjacks, they’re okay cause they sleep all night and they work all day.

Second, when one of those plaid coat-wearing lumberjacks, has pretty well finished chopping a tree with his monogrammed axe, he will responsibly attempt to let you know of a falling tree. When he yells “Timber”, regardless of the timbre of his voice, run like hell, as a tree falling on your head is never a good way to end your weekend of boisterous lumberjacking.

Cue the Blong: I will work on the timbre of my voice…

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