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Consider two pieces of music: a string quartet, Beethoven Op. 135, and his Sextet Op. 71.

The string quartet, of course, is for two violins, a viola, and a cello. These instruments are quite homogeneous and have a similar sound texture. A phrase could pass from one to another and only a very keen ear would notice it.

On the other hand, the sextet is for two clarinets, two bassoons, and two horns. These instruments are quite heterogeneous and have very different sound textures. Most people could tell them apart even if they could not name the instruments.

Another example would be pieces for a string orchestra and a standard orchestra.

Is there a term to indicate these two relationships?

  • Instead of "texture", consider that the answer might have more to do with "timbre", or perhaps "tone". Maybe "multitimbral" or "heterotimbral", if such words exist? Versus something like "unitimbral" or "homotimbral" or "monotimbral" in the other case? Just guessing, clearly. – mlibby May 1 '17 at 15:33
  • Yes, timbre is probably better than texture. – badjohn May 1 '17 at 15:44
  • How instruments sound at the beginnings (attacks/onsets) of notes is also very important. I was in an experiment that compared recorded saxophone and trombone notes with onsets edited out. Hardly anyone could even tell which was a woodwind and which was a brass. With attacks intact, however, most people identified the exact instruments or came close. (Releases of notes are very characteristic as well, but hardly add any information that wasn't conveyed in onsets and sustains.) – lauir May 1 '17 at 16:48
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    Interesting. I have heard similar tests with other instruments. The balance of overtones is part of the characteristic sound but, as you say, the attack is maybe more important. Also important is the level of vibrato. Some instruments naturally have none, e.g. the piano, others will have some even if it is not deliberate. I remember hearing a badly stretched tape of piano music. It no longer sounded at all like a piano; it was more like a musical saw. – badjohn May 1 '17 at 16:55
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    However, these last few comments are not what I am after. I am concerned with instruments played normally and that some ensembles can produce a very homogeneous whereas others cannot. – badjohn May 1 '17 at 16:57
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They're kind of old-fashioned terms, but this is the distinction once made between a "whole" or "closed" consort and a "mixed" or "broken" consort of instruments. The paired terms were commonly used in 16th-17th ct. England. A whole consort would have been all viols, or all recorders; a mixed consort could include some of viols, recorders, and brass or reed instruments. A string quartet is clearly a closed consort of violas da braccia (due violini, viola, violoncello). The Beethoven Sextet, strangely enough, would probably have been classified as closed also, since all the instruments are woodwinds (the horn is a special kind of brass that is often classes with the winds); but maybe it would have been called a broken consort of winds. Certainly the modern orchestra is a massive broken consort of strings, winds, and brass.

  • Thanks. I have heard those terms before but I had completely forgotten them. They could be useful but I would like to be a bit stricter. A brass band would also qualify in my terms. Recently, I heard a clarinet quartet which actually was four clarinets: one bass, 3 Bb with one doubling on the Eb. A combination of double reed instruments e.g. oboe, cor anglais, and bassoon might also but I have never encountered that. – badjohn Jul 2 '17 at 7:59
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The term suite of instruments is more often used in the scientific world, but I've also seen it used to describe different instrumentations. For example:

"It was written for a full orchestra, but can easily be arranged for a string quartet, a wind ensemble, or any other suite of instruments."

I suppose you could call one a diverse suite of instruments and the other a homogeneous suite of instruments. I feel like there must be a better term for the latter, but the former sounds good.

You could also say a diverse ensemble vs a homogeneous ensemble, but for some reason those don't seem to indicate as much that you're talking about the qualities of the instruments.

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Sometimes the name of the ensemble gives an instrument family name in which case you would know it's a homogeneous group: string quartet, wind quartet, etc. But those are only conventional names. You would want to check the score to be sure of the instruments. In the case of octets - for example - there are many different ensembles. Calling something wind octet wouldn't really make clear the instrumentation. So I don't think there are the distinct terms you are looking for.

I seem to notice that when the ensemble is several of the same instrument the title tends to be something like "Sonata for three flutes" rather than "Sonata for flute trio." For three... versus trio, for four... versus quartet, etc. Perhaps that is a convention which indicates a homogeneous group.

  • I am not asking how to tell whether a particular piece has a heterogeneous combination of instruments or not. I am asking how to describe it when I see it. – badjohn May 1 '17 at 22:35
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Chamber (from italian "camera") ensemble is used for describing a smaller group of instruments, which may not otherwise be classified as belonging to a same subclass of instruments.

  • Thanks, I am familiar with that term bur I wanted one to distinguish homogeneous and heterogeneous ensembles. – badjohn May 5 '17 at 22:18
  • But that's what I meant by "same subclass of instruments". – Agnes K. Cathex May 7 '17 at 11:24
  • My first example was chamber music but my second was not. My question is not only about chamber music. "Belonging to the same subclass of instruments" is likely to imply the effect that I am asking about but I don't see it as a term for the effect. – badjohn May 7 '17 at 11:58
  • I understand. I was suggesting "Chamber ensemble" as the term for heterogeneous ensemble, e.g., a symphony could be played by a chamber ensemble, even though it is not chamber music. – Agnes K. Cathex Sep 21 '18 at 8:57
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I am now reading Orchestration by Walter Piston.

At the beginning of Chapter 1, Stringed Instruments, I find: "the tone color of the string group is fairly homogeneous from top to bottom, ...".

So, that is probably the best answer I will get.

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