I have been playing the flute for 2 years and I can't get my head around the concept of tone colors. I'm learning with Trevor Why books, which describe 3 beginner exercises with which to practice 2 colours:

  1. The Aquarium variation from Carnival of the Animals by Saint-Saens to practise a pure, hollow or yellow tone.
  2. A theme from Ravel's Introduction and Allegro for septet. This is to practise a dark, purple, rich tone.
  3. An exercise based on Debussy's Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune. This is for practice after working on the first two colours and is to help obtain a 'midway tone' - neither dark or light.

Let me explain what I think a dark or light tone color is first. When I play on a flute I try to feel the power in my playing, and play in a way that my whole flute starts resonate in my hand. I try not to waste any air while I'm playing. I like playing epic/important things. I enjoy playing Hatikvah. I would say that is my tone preference because it is dark and heavy.

I use a light tone when I want to play happy and upbeat songs, and in my mind I imagine that I try to describe happy boy jumping on grass field.

I'm confused because I feel like Aquarium is played with a very dark tone. If Aquarium would describing a story I would say the story would be about "some innocent girl entering an evil witch forest".

I'm quite confused about dark vs light tone color and I think I'm missing some important knowledge that would help me distinguish between light and dark tone.

How you guys distinguish between light vs dark tone/sound?

  • 4
    I'm not sure that you are going to find the answer you are looking for here. Note that dark and light tone distinctions are made on many (all?) other instruments. This idea that tones have different colors seems to be one of those ways musicians talk about personal experiences with sound that you can only gain insight into by paying attention to sounds that get labelled "dark" or "light" by musicians when using that language, and I think that these labels are not definitive.
    – user39614
    May 1, 2018 at 22:06
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    The whole notion of tone colors is entirely subjective. I don't see any tone colors at all, nor do I try, nor do I believe I am missing anything. Music to me is sound - music. Certain composers - particularly the French Impressionists, highly influenced by Impressionism in art - thought in those terms - but IMO it's a essentially a corruption. Music does not need colors. Why not just play the music and forget about colors? Colors are for your eyes; Music is for your ears.
    – Stinkfoot
    May 2, 2018 at 23:45
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    @Stinkfoot -- I really agree with you, but in the interest of balance (?) there are an awful lot of people who talk about one sound being darker or lighter (or brighter) than another. When this talk turns to purples and golds, we may have entered the realm of synesthesia. But I have often heard it said, for example, that maple tops are darker than spruce tops on archtop guitars. I don't think that there is consistency in this type of language, so at the end of the day it seems useful on a personal level, at best, and probably not likely to lead to a good answer. But, my ears are open ;)
    – user39614
    May 3, 2018 at 0:07
  • @DavidBowling - When this talk turns to purples and golds, we may have entered the realm of synesthesia - Yes. I understand "bright" and "dark" musical sounds metaphorically (although I usually don't use 'dark', but "smooth" or "rolled back" but that's mostly because of genres and the instrument I play - I do understand that sometimes Beethoven sounds Dark. But when you get into specific colors etc then I think we've crossed the line from musical to visual.
    – Stinkfoot
    May 3, 2018 at 18:57

3 Answers 3


Are you taking lessons with a teacher? Does your teacher have a problem with your tone and is guiding you through this book?

In my experience as a saxophonist, tone is a very personal product. It has to do with the core of your sound, which is a combination of your body (lungs, embouchure, posture, etc.), instrument, and unique style of playing (not related to genre of music.) Two people playing the same instrument will get a different tone, and players who have options will choose to play a brand/model that helps them reproduce the tone they are looking for. For this reason, a player's tone is "signature."

My son plays double bass. His tone is a combination of his instrument, his bow, and his personal technique. My daughter is a vocalist. Some singers have a light voice, some a heavy voice (according to her teacher.) This will determine which songs they will sound best singing. Various techniques might help them make their voices slightly lighter or heavier, but will not change the fundamental nature of their voice - it is a part of their body's make-up.

I do think that different styles of music have different "colors", but that is separate from the tone of an individual player. It is important to know how to play more lightly or more heavily, how to reproduce various articulations and dynamics, etc. that contribute to the mood of a piece. But that is not "tone."


(I think the answers will necessarily have a lot of subjectivity)

When I think in terms of dark and bright, I distinguish between:

  • inside a mode: when the grades tend to have more sharps is brighter, more flats is darker, for example: a lydian mode 1 2 3 #4 5 6 7 (c d e f# g a b), is brighter than an mixolydian mode 1 2 3 4 5 6 b7 (c d e f g a bb), and this in turn is brighter than a phrygian mode 1 b2 b3 4 5 b6 b7 (c db eb f g ab bb). This can also be applied to chords. A minor chord has more flats and is darker.

  • The physical sound: a sound is brighter when its higher harmonics are preponderant and darker when its lower harmonics are.

  • The range of the tones: treble are brighter than bass.


What you are asking is generally referred to as a Critical Listening skill. Also let me mention that tonal coloring is a very subjective topic. Since your instrument is not electronic in nature, but an acoustic instrument, one can only define the tonal coloring in a couple ways. 1) via using major keys to brighten the mood, or 2) via using minor keys to darken the mood. 3) Certain keys imply certain moods.

I have included a couple of website pages to further guide you down this rabbit hole! Have fun with it!



  • Hah, very interesting, I didn't know that certain notes have colours, I have imagine that only whole song has this properties. Thx
    – user50166
    May 3, 2018 at 18:04
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    Yes, but not notes in particular, but keys, scales, and chords together collectively can define mood.
    – DiggDugg
    May 4, 2018 at 21:28

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