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CHAPTER 3:
How Tones and Overtones REALLY
Work
  
3.1  Tones and Their Properties

   

All music—whether folk, pop, symphonic, modal, tonal, atonal, polytonal, microtonal, well-tempered, ill-tempered, music from the distant past or imminent future—all of it has a common origin in the universal phenomenon of the harmonic series.

—LEONARD BERNSTEIN

PAGE INDEX
  

3.1.1 “Anything You Can Do”

3.1.2 Pitch: “I Can Sing Anything Higher Than You”

3.1.3 Loudness: “I Can Sing Anything Softer Than You”

3.1.4 Duration: “I Can Hold Any Note Longer Than You”

3.1.5 Tone Color: “I Can Sing Anything Sweeter Than You”

 

~ • ~ • ~ • ~

 

3.1.1
“ANYTHING YOU CAN DO

 

As discussed in Chapter 1, humans use discrete pitches, or discrete tones, in both speech and music, unlike the sliding vocalizations of most primates.


     A music dictionary will tell you that a tone (or note) is a sound of a definite pitch. And a pitch? A tone.


     Not terribly helpful.


     The truth is, you can use words to describe a tractor or a tiger lily or a tuba. But not a tone. Like that other critical element of music, time, tone defies verbal description because it’s a phenomenon you perceive with one of your senses. You sense tone, just as you sense color, odour, taste, and touch.


     You have to actually hear a tone to understand what a tone is. Once you know what a tone is, you can get to know its properties.


 

Don’t Get Lost Between Tones

 

Potential Point of Confusion: The term tone has several different meanings in music. Here in Chapter 3, tone and overtone refer to the musical sound sensations your brain processes when a string or membrane (such as your vocal folds) or column of air vibrates.

 

When you get to Chapter 4, the term tone will refer to something completely different, namely, the pitch distance between two notes.

 

If you don’t understand the distinction, you will get lost. And then Marshal McDillon will have to organize a search party to fetch you back from the wilderness. Which he doesn’t want to have to do because the whole search party might get lost, and horses aren’t much good at getting their bearings straight. And, of course, as in any Classic Western, global positioning systems haven’t been invented yet.

 

 

 

    If you haven’t heard this excellent song, look up the details at www.GoldStandardSongList.com. Have a listen to it at one of the music download services such as iTunes or PureTracks.



3.1.2

PITCH: “I CAN SING ANYTHING HIGHER THAN YOU


Here’s the tone property pitch, as Annie and Frank explain it:


      Any note you can reach, I can go higher.

                   I can sing anything higher than you.

      (High) No you can’t.

                   (Higher) Yes I can.

(Higher) No you can’t.

(Higher) Yes I can (etc.)


     As creatures with keen visual imaginations, humans like to convert the properties of tones into visual metaphors, like this:


Pitch = “height” of sound


     We all use expressions such as “high pitched” and “low pitched.” A tune goes “up” and “down” as it steps from tone to tone.


 

Visual Metaphors: The Height, Depth, and Length of Sound

 

Sonic Height

So, if the sound equivalent of the visual perception of height is pitch, what’s the sound equivalent of depth? And what’s the sound equivalent of length?


Sonic Depth

The sound equivalent of the visual perception of depth is harmony, the subject of Chapter 6. A group of related tones played simultaneously—a chord, in other words—gives sound a 3-D depth-like quality. As you’ll see in Chapter 6, tones more related to each other provide a clearer sense of sonic depth than tones less related to each other. Completely unrelated tones blur off into noise, the sound of the wind in the poplars or Niagara Falls.


Sonic Length

The sound equivalent of the visual perception of length (or width, if you prefer) is beat or rhythm, the subject of Chapter 8. Beat measures time, the duration or length of a piece of music. Metaphorically, when you listen to a song, you go on a train trip. You go up and down hills (melody) and travel though a three-dimensional landscape (harmony). The “length” of the train trip depends on the total number of beats (the clickity-clack of the rails) and the speed of the train (tempo).

 

Everybody talks about the time dimension of music in terms of how “short” or “long” it is. Music notation visually captures the train trip as a one-way, left-to-right, measure-by-measure, ever-changing series of symbols embedded in five-rail train tracks called the staff.

 

 

     Some people have absolute pitch, informally called perfect pitch. A rare skill. If you have it, you can name a particular note without reference to any other sound.


     For example, if you had absolute pitch, someone could blindfold you, then play any single note on a piano or other instrument. You would be able to identify the exact note:


     “That’s F sharp, two and a half octaves above Middle C.”


     An extraordinary few with absolute pitch can even hum an exact note on demand, without even hearing it played:

 

“Hum E below Middle C.”

 

“Okay. Hmmmmmmmmmmmm.”

 

“Dang, you’re good!”


     To acquire absolute pitch, you need training as a young child, during a critical period of roughly 3 to 6 years. Also, it appears you need a particular gene variant. If you don’t have both—training during the critical period and the genetic endowment—you won’t acquire absolute pitch.


     Hardly anybody has absolute pitch, although many claim to, as if it confers musical superiority.


     Fortunately, absolute pitch has little practical value for musicians. If you don’t have it, you're in good company. Composers such as Tchaikovsky and Wagner did not have it, yet did pretty well.


     This is only a guess, but it’s unlikely Lou Reed has it, or Kris Kristofferson. Or William Hung.


 

The Lowest Note in the Universe

 

A huge pipe organ can produce infrasound. An infrasound frequency is so slow that it sounds like a gigantic cat purring. You feel the sound it more than you hear it. (When it stops purring, you worry.)

 

In nature, tornados and storms generate infrasound.

 

But if you want the most “infra” of infrasound, you have to listen to the stars. Some clever astronomers claim to have discovered the lowest note in the universe. It’s coming from a black hole in the Perseus galaxy cluster, roughly 250 million light years from earth.

 

And what is that note, exactly?

 

Why, it’s B♭, 57 octaves below the B♭ nearest Middle C on the piano.

 

If you wanted to duplicate that B♭ here on Earth, you’d have to build a gigantic piano. If you succeeded in building a big enough piano, and then you hit that low B♭, you’d have to wait 10 million years for the first sound wave to complete its cycle. And, of course, you wouldn’t be able to hear the sound because it would be about 53 octaves below the threshold of human hearing.

 

 

3.1.3
L
OUDNESS: “I CAN SAY ANYTHING SOFTER THAN YOU

Annie and Frank on the tone property loudness:

 

Anything you can say, I can say softer.

                   I can say anything softer than you.

      (Soft) No you can’t.

                   (Softer) Yes I can.

      (Softer) No you can’t.

                   (Softer) Yes I can (etc.).


     Like most people, you probably refer to loudness as volume. As in the “volume” control on your radio or remote. You experience loudness subjectively as sound intensity. The louder the sound, the more intense it seems.


     You may have a sound system with both a “volume” control and a “loudness” control. That loudness control does something quite different from the volume control. The loudness control compensates for a natural pitch bias that everyone has. As a human, your hearing system evolved to hear mid-pitched sounds—the pitches of human speech—as relatively louder than bass and treble pitches. In short, you’re born with a hearing mechanism that’s more sensitive to mid-pitched sounds. Especially at a relatively soft volume level, you don’t hear extremes of bass and treble nearly as well as you hear mid-pitched sounds. So, when you listen to music at soft volumes, the music seems to lack adequate bass and treble.


     To compensate for this, the loudness control boosts both bass and treble, but not the middle pitches. With the loudness control engaged, you can listen to music at a soft volume level, but still hear the bass and treble pitches at satisfactory levels. As you turn up the volume (increase overall sound intensity), your sensitivity to middle pitches lessens, relative to bass and treble. So you can cut back on the artificial boost of the loudness control—unless you happen to like bass-heavy and treble-heavy music.


     Loudness as a property of tone has no obvious visual analog, except, perhaps, the offensive, garish appearance of colorful, “loud” clothes. That metaphor doesn’t really apply to music, though. Loud music ain’t (necessarily) garish and offensive. You seldom hear anyone saying, “Turn it down, it’s as loud as a fluorescent Hawaiian shirt!”


     Like pitch and the other properties of a tone, loud sound and quiet sound elicit different kinds of emotions. More on this in a while.



3.1.4

DURATION: “I CAN HOLD ANY NOTE LONGER THAN YOU”


Annie and Frank:


      Any note you can hold, I can hold longer.

                   I can hold any note longer than you.

      No you c - a - a - n - ‘t.

                   Yes I c - a - a - a - a - a - n.

      No you c - a - a - a - a - a - a - a - a - n - ‘t.

                   Yes I c - a - a - a - a - a - a - a - a - a - n (etc.)


     Usually, duration refers to the length of time a single pitch sounds, as in a “short” note or a “long” note—the sound equivalent of visually-perceived length, as discussed above. But you can also perceive a unity of duration when you hear multiple pitches, as, for instance, when you hear a sung syllable that stays the same but varies in pitch:


“Oooo-oooo-oooo-oooo-oooo-ooooh, baybah”


where each group of “ooohs” represents a different pitch. The musical term for this is a melisma. You hear a lot of melismas (sometimes pluralized melismata) in highly expressive genres such as R & B, gospel, soul, and certain species of country music.



3.1.5
T
ONE COLOR: “I CAN SING ANYTHING SWEETER THAN YOU”


Annie and Frank demonstrate tone color like this:


      Anything you can sing, I can sing sweeter.

                   I can sing anything sweeter than you.

      (Sweetly) No you can’t.

                   (Sweeter) Yes I can.

      (Sweeter) No you can’t.

                   (Sugary) Yes I can (etc.).

 

 

What Did the Big Bang Sound Like?

 

As you know, the particular universe we allegedly live in (perhaps one of zillions of parallel universes) started with a big bang some 13.7 billion years ago. Roughly. If someone had thought to set up a microphone and maybe a cassette recorder (or whatever the prevailing recording technology was back those days) to tape the event, what would it have sounded like?

 

John Cramer of the physics department at the University of Washington, has re-created the sound of the big bang, just for you. It’s not exactly a “bang”—it’s more a like the sound of a chorus line of 100,000 bass crickets in top hats. The sound gradually builds to a crescendo, then gradually fades away. If you listen closely, you can hear the faint tenor of a lone cricket, singing “When you wish upon a star ... ”

 

Here’s the big bang sound link: Sound of the Big Bang

 

     Why does a gruff voice sound different from a sweet voice? You can easily tell one from the other when each voice sings, in turn, the same pitch at the same loudness level for the same duration.


     Why does a guitar sound “different” from a piano, even when you play exactly the same note on each instrument?


     Before getting into the “why” of tone color, a little bit on the subject of acoustics . . .


~ • ~ • ~ • ~

 

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You are reading the FREE SAMPLE Chapters 1 through 6 of the acclaimed 12-Chapter book, How Music REALLY Works!, 2nd Edition. Here's what's in Chapters 7 through 12. 

 

To order the book, click here:

     
 

 

 

 TABLE OF
 CONTENTS

  

 PART I

 The Big Picture    Introduction

   1. W-5 of Music
  
2. Pop Music
   
    Industry

  
 PART II
 Essential
 Building Blocks
 of Music
   3.
Tones/Overtones
   4. Scales/Intervals
   5. Keys/Modes
 
 PART III
 How to Create
 Emotionally
 Powerful Music
 and Lyrics
   6.
Chords/
  
      Progressions

   7. Pulse/Meter/
  
      Tempo/Rhythm

   8. Phrase/Form
   9. Melody
 10. Lyrics
 11. Repertoire/
     
  Performance

  

 PART IV
 Making a
 Living In Music
 12.
Business of
   
     Music

 
 Appendixes

   

 Notes

   

 References

  

 Index
  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   Top

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

    

 TABLE OF
 CONTENTS

  

 PART I

 The Big Picture    Introduction

   1. W-5 of Music
  
2. Pop Music
   
    Industry

  
 PART II
 Essential
 Building Blocks
 of Music
   3.
Tones/Overtones
   4. Scales/Intervals
   5. Keys/Modes
 
 PART III
 How to Create
 Emotionally
 Powerful Music
 and Lyrics
   6.
Chords/
  
      Progressions

   7. Pulse/Meter/
  
      Tempo/Rhythm

   8. Phrase/Form
   9. Melody
 10. Lyrics
 11. Repertoire/
     
  Performance

  

 PART IV
 Making a
 Living In Music
 12.
Business of
   
     Music

 
 Appendixes

   

 Notes

   

 References

  

 Index
  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   Top

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

    

 TABLE OF
 CONTENTS

  

 PART I

 The Big Picture    Introduction

   1. W-5 of Music
  
2. Pop Music
   
    Industry

  
 PART II
 Essential
 Building Blocks
 of Music
   3.
Tones/Overtones
   4. Scales/Intervals
   5. Keys/Modes
 
 PART III
 How to Create
 Emotionally
 Powerful Music
 and Lyrics
   6.
Chords/
  
      Progressions

   7. Pulse/Meter/
  
      Tempo/Rhythm

   8. Phrase/Form
   9. Melody
 10. Lyrics
 11. Repertoire/
     
  Performance

  

 PART IV
 Making a
 Living In Music
 12.
Business of
   
     Music

 
 Appendixes

   

 Notes

   

 References

  

 Index
  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   Top

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

    

 TABLE OF
 CONTENTS

  

 PART I

 The Big Picture    Introduction

   1. W-5 of Music
  
2. Pop Music
   
    Industry

  
 PART II
 Essential
 Building Blocks
 of Music
   3.
Tones/Overtones
   4. Scales/Intervals
   5. Keys/Modes
 
 PART III
 How to Create
 Emotionally
 Powerful Music
 and Lyrics
   6.
Chords/
  
      Progressions

   7. Pulse/Meter/
  
      Tempo/Rhythm

   8. Phrase/Form
   9. Melody
 10. Lyrics
 11. Repertoire/
     
  Performance

  

 PART IV
 Making a
 Living In Music
 12.
Business of
   
     Music

 
 Appendixes

   

 Notes

   

 References

  

 Index
  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   Top

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

    

 TABLE OF
 CONTENTS

  

 PART I

 The Big Picture    Introduction

   1. W-5 of Music
  
2. Pop Music
   
    Industry

  
 PART II
 Essential
 Building Blocks
 of Music
   3.
Tones/Overtones
   4. Scales/Intervals
   5. Keys/Modes
 
 PART III
 How to Create
 Emotionally
 Powerful Music
 and Lyrics
   6.
Chords/
  
      Progressions

   7. Pulse/Meter/
  
      Tempo/Rhythm

   8. Phrase/Form
   9. Melody
 10. Lyrics
 11. Repertoire/
     
  Performance

  

 PART IV
 Making a
 Living In Music
 12.
Business of
   
     Music

 
 Appendixes

   

 Notes

   

 References

  

 Index
  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   Top

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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