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CHAPTER 3:
How Tones and Overtones REALLY
Work
  
3.3  How Musical Instruments Work (Including the Voice)

 
PAGE INDEX
 

3.3.1 What’s A Musical Instrument, Anyway?

3.3.2 Setting Resonators in Motion, Directly and Indirectly

3.3.3 Categories of Musical Instruments

3.3.4 Idiophones: Percussion Instruments without a Membrane

3.3.5 Membranophones: Percussion Instruments with a Membrane

3.3.6 Aerophones: Wind Instruments, Including the Voice

3.3.7 Chordophones: Stringed Instruments

3.3.8 Electrophones: Instruments That Produce Sound Electronically

 

~ • ~ • ~ • ~


3.3.1

WHAT’S A MUSICAL INSTRUMENT, ANYWAY?


The voice was certainly the first musical instrument, followed by percussion instruments, then melodic instruments, then chordal instruments.


     Musical instruments are probably as old as modern humans. At least a couple of hundred thousand years old, in all likelihood. Possibly much older.


     So, what’s a musical instrument?


     All musical instruments are resonators, or resonating machines. A resonator is a contraption (in this case, all or part of a musical instrument) that vibrates in sympathy with (i.e., as a result of similar vibrations of) another nearby part of the instrument that you set in motion.


     So, with most musical instruments (not all, as you’ll see), two different things vibrate:

 

        The initial sound source that you, the musician, set in motion, and

 

        A resonating body connected to the first sound source.


     Any given resonator vibrates more readily or efficiently at certain characteristic frequencies, called resonant frequencies, than at other frequencies. Musical instrument designers shape instruments to resonate best at certain frequencies, and damp the others as much as possible. That’s why trumpets, French horns, and saxophones are shaped so differently.


     A few of the variables that determine the instrument’s resonant frequencies and, therefore, the instrument’s overall sound, include:

 

        Size of the instrument

 

        Shape of the instrument

 

        Material the instrument is made of

 

        Internal construction of the instrument


     Your brain responds best to the uncomplicated vibrations that simple shapes generate. Simply shaped soundmakers create tones that you can make sense of. If you strip away frets and valves and tuning mechanisms from musical instruments, you find that they have pretty simple shapes compared with other soundmakers in nature, such as your average poplar tree or Niagara falls, which generate noise instead of pure tones.

 


3.3.2

SETTING RESONATORS IN MOTION, DIRECTLY AND INDIRECTLY


You can get sound out of a musical instrument’s resonator in two ways.


 

1.  The Direct Way

 

     You can simply whack it. Clobber, shake, or otherwise beat the dang thing directly. For instance, when you hit a drumhead, causing it to vibrate, you also set the body of the drum (the resonator) vibrating, because it’s fixed securely to the drumhead.

 

        With some instruments, such as cymbals and gongs, you strike the resonator directly. The resonator is the instrument.

 

        With others, such as marimbas, you use mallets to hit tuned wood bars, causing the bars to vibrate. Underneath each wood bar, a resonator in the shape of a tube vibrates in sympathy, producing a dominant fundamental frequency that you recognize as a specific tone or note.


     Instruments such as these—the ones you hit directly—do not sustain sound for very long (except for tuned percussion instruments such as the xylophone family, kettledrums, and steel drums). So, if you want to create a continuous stream of sound, you have to keep delivering blows (e.g. a snare drum roll).



2.  The Indirect Way

 

     You can set into vibration a certain part of the instrument other than the resonator. The part that you set in motion connects to the resonator via an intermediary of some sort, which transmits the original vibrations to the resonator, which vibrates in sympathy.


     With a stringed or wind instrument, unlike most drums, you can sustain the sound pretty easily. The string or reed that you set in motion has much less mass than the resonator to which it is indirectly attached. So you don’t need to deliver too much energy to keep the string or reed or your lips vibrating, and thus the resonator vibrating in sympathy.


     (In the case of the flute family of instruments, you blow across a sharp edge. The resulting turbulence creates an air reed which sets the column of air inside the flute vibrating, which causes the body of the flute—the resonator—to vibrate in sympathy.)


In general ...

 

        A small resonator (e. g., hi-hat or flute) creates small, fast compressions and rarefactions that your brain perceives as high frequencies of sound—high pitch.

 

        A large, heavy resonator (e. g., bass drum or acoustic bass), moves big masses of air, creating big, slow compressions and rarefactions of air molecules which stimulate your ears and finally your brain, which perceives low frequencies of sound—low pitch.



3.3.3

CATEGORIES OF MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS


When most musicians think of categories of acoustic musical instruments, three come immediately to mind: strings, winds, and percussion.


     That’s pretty close to the formal system developed by Erich von Hornbostel and Curt Sachs, which has served as the classification standard since 1914. Their system divides acoustic instruments into four categories:

 

        Idiophones: percussion instruments without a membrane

 

        Membranophones: percussion instruments with a membrane

 

        Aerophones: wind instruments, including the human voice

 

        Chordophones: stringed instruments


     An additional category is now generally recognized:

 

        Electrophones: instruments that produce sound electronically



3.3.4

IDIOPHONES: PERCUSSION INSTRUMENTS WITHOUT A MEMBRANE


All cultures have idiophones. But not all cultures have membranophones. Australian aboriginal percussion instruments, for example, consist of idiophones but not membranophones.


     It’s likely idiophones were the first non-vocal musical instruments. Probably rocks (the first rock music). But knocking two rocks together doesn’t make much sound because rocks have too much mass to vibrate and resonate much.


     Pieces of wood work better. Bones work even better, especially hollow bones. Hollow leg bones. And skulls. Human skulls.


     You can make numerous other nifty idiophones from various bones. For instance, you can fashion a rattle using spine bones and a cord.


     Idiophones include:

 

        Rattles

 

        Cymbals

 

        Bells

 

        Xylophones

 

        Steel drums (they do not have membranes, like other drums)

 

        Musical saws

 

        Gongs

 

        Washboards (yeee-ha!)


 

Playing the Musical Saw: Why and How

 

A few years ago, in an interview with an admiring reporter from the Dodge City Musical Saw Weekly, Marshal McDillon explained how and why he plays the musical saw.

 

“So you’ve been riding the trail all day, and you finally set up camp and take care of the horses and eat some beans and roast some squirrels. And later on, everybody’s sitting around, poking at the fire with willow switches, and somebody pulls out a mouth organ. Or, if nobody has one, then mouth organ music just comes out of thin air and everybody looks at each other, puzzled-like. It’s a cliche of every Classic Western, the mouth organ music coming out of thin air around the campfire. You’re supposed to act like you don’t even hear that mouth organ music.

 

“Anyhow, when this happens, I just head on over to the chuck wagon and find a hand saw and a fiddle bow.

 

“I sit down on a log and clamp the handle of the saw between my knees so that the saw points straight up and the teeth face towards me.

 

“Next, I grab the top of the saw with my left hand and bend it to my left into a ‘C’ shape, then slightly back at the top so that it makes a slight ‘S’ shape.

 

“Then I pick up the bow with my right hand and let ‘er rip. When I bow the bent saw, it makes a howling sound. Like a coyote. Or a theremin. No discrete pitches like you get with a piano.

 

“It’s hard to play it good enough so that it doesn’t sound like a heartbreakingly lonesome wild animal.

 

“But I’d recommend to everybody that, before you try this out on the trail, you may wish to practice in the privacy of a dark windowless cellar. Give yourself some time to get the hang of it. Say, four or five years.”



3.3.5

MEMBRANOPHONES: PERCUSSION INSTRUMENTS WITH A MEMBRANE


The first membranophone was probably a drum fashioned from an animal skin stretched over something conveniently hollow. Maybe the skull of somebody the drummer didn’t particularly like. (If your band has a drummer, watch out.)


     Membranophones include:

 

        Nearly all drums

 

        Marimbas

 

        Kazoos, including the venerable comb and tissue paper. New York’s Julliard School offers a four-year comb and tissue paper (CATP) degree program with a classical music emphasis. San Francisco’s UC Berkeley has a six-year CATP program that focuses on jazz.



3.3.6

AEROPHONES: WIND INSTRUMENTS, INCLUDING THE VOICE


Here’s how aerophones work:

 

        You blow into the instrument, setting a reed (or reeds) vibrating (woodwinds, saxes, harmonicas).


OR

 

You blow into the instrument while buzzing your lips (brass instruments).

 

        A column of air (the intermediary) inside the instrument transmits the vibrations of the reed(s) or your lips to the resonator, such as the body of a saxophone or trumpet.

 

        The resonator, being much more massive than the reed(s) or your lips, amplifies the vibration of the reed(s) or your lips.


     Aerophones include:

 

        Brass instruments

 

        Woodwinds

 

        Flutes, recorders, penny whistles

 

        Harmonicas (the harmonica is easily the best instrument to play at night around the campfire, to drown out the sound of the musical saw)

 

        Reed pipes

 

        Accordions, concertinas, etc.

 

        The voice


     As for your voice, air pressure serves as the power supply, the same as in other aerophones:

 

        You take a breath and, as you let it out, the air pressure sets your vocal folds (also called vocal cords) vibrating.

 

        A column of air (the intermediary) inside your respiratory tract, elevated in pressure, transmits the vibrations of your vocal folds to several resonators: the hard cartilage of the trachea (windpipe) and bronchial tubes in your chest, the bones of your rib cage, your pharynx (throat), and the various bones in your head.

 

        These resonators, being much more massive than your vocal folds, amplify the vibrations of your vocal folds.


     (The above is a rough description. There’s no unanimous agreement on precisely how everything happens in the production of human vocal sound.)


     The consonants and other sounds you require for speech and singing depend on how you position your tongue and shape your oral cavity.

 

Evolution of String Players and Brass Players

 

Why can’t they get along?

 

According to a survey of Glasgow-based symphony orchestra musicians, here’s how string players view brass players:

 

   Slightly oafish and uncouth

   Heavy boozers

   Empty vessels 

   Like to be in the limelight 

   Loud-mouthed and coarse

   Don’t practise

 

And here’s how brass players view string players:

 

   Like a flock of bloody sheep

   Precious

   Overly sensitive and touchy 

   Humourless

   Think they’re God’s gift to music 

   A bunch of weaklings

 

As if that weren’t bad enough, in 2004, the string section of the Beethoven Orchestra of Germany went to court to get more money than the brass players. The string players argued they deserved higher pay because they play more notes than the brass players.

 

Perhaps a Ph. D. candidate in search of an interesting research project could devise a method for testing the implied hypotheses of the Glasgow musicians: that brass players evolved from drunken oafs, and string players evolved from humourless sheep.



3.3.7

CHORDOPHONES: STRINGED INSTRUMENTS


Chordophones include all stringed instruments, not just instruments that you can play chords on.


     Chordophones work like this:

 

        You pluck, bow, or hammer the string(s), setting the string in motion.

 

        A bridge (the intermediary) transmits the vibration of the string to the resonator, such as the body of a guitar or fiddle, or the soundboard inside a piano.

 

        The resonator, being much more massive than the string, amplifies the vibration of the string(s).


     Some important chordophones are:

 

        Guitars, banjos and other lute-type instruments

 

        Harps (Celtic, concert, etc.)

 

        String section instruments: violin, viola, cello, double bass

 

        Pianos (the piano is often mistakenly thought to be a percussion instrument because hammers hit strings)

 

        Zithers



3.3.8

ELECTROPHONES: INSTRUMENTS THAT PRODUCE SOUND ELECTRONICALLY


If a musical instrument does not require electricity to produce its sound, you can almost always classify it as an idiophone, membranophone, aerophone, or chordophone.


     After that, it gets tricky.


     Keyboard instruments in which sounds are produced wholly by electronic oscillators are practically always considered electrophones.


     Nailing down what other kinds of instruments constitute electrophones poses all sorts of problems:

 

        An electric guitar is usually considered a chordophone. But whether that would apply to purely digital electric guitars is contentious.

 

        Same applies to other instruments that look like acoustic instruments, or something like acoustic instruments, but produce sound by digital means, and may or may not mimic the sounds of acoustic instruments.

 

        Technically, samplers and turntables would be considered electrophones, even though much of the “sound of origin” is acoustic.

 

        Electronic devices used for sound generation, sound processing, and sound playback are widely “played” live by musicians, and would never previously have even been considered musical instruments—mixers and computers, for example. Here, the line between musical instruments and electronic sound shapers or processors gets infinitely fuzzy.

 

~ • ~ • ~ • ~

 

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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. 

 

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 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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

    

 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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