Sound, Resonance, and Acoustics
” people don’t really like music, they just like the sound it makes” (Thomas Beecham – conductor)
“I don’t care much about music, what I like is sounds” (Dizzie Gillespie – jazz trumpeter)
These quotes are a good starting point for a discussion about the importance of sound in music. Music IS, of course, by definition, sound and only sound. ………….. but does that mean that all sounds are music ?
It is the quality of the sound that makes the difference between music and noise pollution. When a sound becomes beautiful it becomes human, vibrant, alive, liquid, emotionally resonant and can touch our soul. With all respect to percussionists and to the importance of rhythm in music, this is the definition of what “music” is in its more highly evolved forms. It is this beauty, this harmony of vibrations and colours, this warmth, that, in emotional terms, converts hard to soft …….. rigid to flowing ………. dry to luxuriant ……….. rough to smooth ………….. frozen to warm ……….. ugly to beautiful ………… science to song …….. a dictionary into poetry ….. technique into art …………desperation into hope …….. chaos into meaning ……….. anarchy into harmony ……. and ………… melts a block of ice into a flowing stream.
And all these miraculous effects arise from a simple vibration? This is even more magical than radio, microwaves, radar, mobile (cell) phones and WiFi !!
The ability of music to communicate so powerfully, and on such a profound level, comes perhaps from the fact that sound is “just” a vibration. The language of waves and vibrations is the most primal elementary language and is shared at the same time by both the physical universe and the sophisticated living world. In fact, you could almost say that music was a meeting place for these different worlds: where wave phenomena and emotions are just two sides of the same coin. It is not surprising that Pythagoras was both mathematician and musical theorist.
A beautiful sound has a profound effect on us. Somehow its perfection, balance, and harmony of vibrations, resonates within us, calms our nervous system, smooths and aligns our brainwaves. Perhaps this “classical perfection” of proportions and components that is necessary to make a beautiful sound, is at the origin of the term “classical music”. The absolute priority given to the quality of sound in classical music, distinguishes it from other types of music, which usually have other priorities (rock = energy, pop = easy listening, folk = friendly, jazz = flow ?). But even within the realm of “classical music” the importance of “a beautiful sound” differs according to the epochs, only reaching its climax in the Romantic period. In much of both Baroque and Contemporary Classical music, a gorgeous huge luxuriant sound is not a vital ingredient and is not absolutely necessary in order to transmit the music’s message.
In the case of Baroque music, we can play it thus with a more simple, pure, transparent sound (with less vibrato and less bow pressure) than for Romantic music. But much contemporary music raises other questions about sound such as:
- why is most contemporary classical music so deliberately and extraordinarily ugly, actually requiring the ugliest sounds ?
- can a beautiful sound convert the ugliest harmonic dissonances into music ?
- why is it called “classical” (or even “music”) ?
For music to transmit positive emotions, the sound needs to be beautiful. In fact, a beautiful sound IS music. Even the most simple progression of notes can be deeply moving if played beautifully enough and even the ugliest series of notes can be saved (almost/perhaps) by being played with the greatest beauty of sound. The music of the “Second Viennese School” (Webern, Berg, Schönberg etc) is a good example of this latter case. But sound quality is a double-edged sword. While almost any sequence of notes can be made to sound like music if played with a sufficiently beautiful sound, the reverse side to this is that even the most wonderful music, if played with a sufficiently ugly sound, will become horrible. After exceeding a certain (undefined) level of ugliness, a sound could be (should be ?) considered not to be music anymore. This, unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view) would reclassify much contemporary classical music into some other non-musical category: perhaps “experimental noise” ?
But an ugly sound can be very powerful for transmitting other types of emotion. Beauty can be just a glossy superficial veneer. When a singer’s voice breaks with emotion, when a musician’s sound cracks momentarily, this reflects deep, genuine passions. A rough sound can make up in sincerity for what it lacks in beauty. No doubt the distortion effects used so frequently in so much rock music come from this desire to contact with those brutally honest, intense, dark inner spaces. The obsessive use of “sul ponticello” by “modern” composers tries desperately to be sincere, powerful, and emotionally intense through the use of this distortion effect. This is in contrast to its use, to comic and dramatic effect, by the playful italians (Rossini, Paganini etc).
To be affected by music, it is not necessary to be an expert. Not only do we not need to “know” anything about music to enjoy and be moved by it, in fact, the more we “know” about music, the less likely we are to be moved by it. When the intellectual, thinking brain takes priority over the feeling brain, we no longer actually listen to the “sounds the music is making”. Beecham’s quote goes directly to the root of the contemporary music dilemma: it would appear that some modern composers only see the music on the page and no longer hear the (horrible) sounds it makes! (see Think-Feel)
Let’s finish this part with two more quotes, this time by the cellist Leonard Rose, well-known for his beautiful sound and deep humanity:
“Sound’ is terribly important. I must confess I’m a sucker for sound! I like to think of sound on an instrument, particularly a string instrument, in the same way that a marvellous painter thinks about colours. Not all his reds are the same, nor blues, nor greens. He is constantly making variations of colour/sound. For me, the really artistic players try to make differences:”
“I cannot feign interest in the ‘intriguing sounds’ or ‘exciting new aural parameters’ that some of today’s composers produce. I question whether these works will stand the test of time the way Beethoven or Brahms have.”
Our sound is influenced by several factors:
- our personality, our tension level, our mood, and our technique
- our equipment: instrument, bow, strings, and rosin
- the acoustics of where we are playing
- technological aids: microphones, amplifiers, speakers etc
Let’s look at these factors one by one:
OUR PERSONALITY, MOOD, TENSION LEVEL, AND TECHNIQUE
A cello’s sound comes much more from the personal attributes of the player than from the qualities of the instrument. A fine instrument played badly will sound awful in the same way that a bad instrument played well can still be made to sound reasonable. Our sound comes much more from inside us than from our instrument ! To say the same thing but in different words: when a string player tries out different instruments, we can usually hear the player’s individuality much more than the individuality of the different instruments.
This is not only a question of mastery of instrumental technique. A musician’s sound – like a human’s speaking voice, a writer’s choice of words, or an artist’s choice of colours/materials – shows a lot about who and how we are. Our sound is a profound reflection not just of our personality but also of our momentary state. If we are feeling awful, for whatever reason, it will be hard to find that beautiful sound. And if not enough nice things happened to us in childhood, we may have trouble ever finding a beautiful sound. We may even not want to find a beautiful sound, and prefer instead hard rock, punk ……….. or contemporary classical music !
Our sound at the instrument, like our voice, normally reflects fundamental aspects of our psyche. Combining the different left-hand (vibrato, finger contact) and bowing variables (speed, pressure, point of contact and hair angle) is a complex task that we do largely automatically, searching unconsciously for the sound that most resembles (pleases) us. In the same way that each individual has a unique voice, we each also have our own “sound personality” – our personal sound profile. This applies of course both to performers and to composers. Players imprint their sound on the music they play and composers do the same in the music they write: Brahms likes darkness and thick, dense textures (oil paints) whereas Mozart and Debussy are quite the contrary (watercolours and lightness).
So what style of painting do you most like or identify with: watercolours or oils? ……. how much paint do you like to put on your brush? …….. are you frugal or generous when you spread the jam, peanut butter, honey, hummus, butter, mayonnaise etc on your bread? ……. do you like your shower with lots of water pressure? …… do you prefer big strong animals or small delicate ones? ….. are you strong and determined, or more sensitive and thoughtful ….. ?????
Even though our personality is almost certainly better adapted to some musical styles than to others, we need to be able to play in all musical styles. Therefore we need to be able to work in an objective, scientific way on the technical factors that contribute to our sound in order to acquire the necessary skills, to be able to vary them from what comes naturally, and thus make ourselves sound like “someone else” when needed.
It is hard, however, to change our fundamental personality. Changing our momentary state is slightly easier. Meditation, yoga, rest, stretching, smooth physical exercise (to evacuate muscular tension) or any other enjoyable activity, can help us find the psychological and physical relaxation that is so necessary to give our sound the warmth, plasticity, and beauty that we (well, most of us) are looking for.
Leonard Rose was renowned for his beautiful sound. It would be easy to credit his marvellous Amati cello for this beautiful tone – and it certainly would have been a help – but he downplayed this. He felt that having a great instrument was only a small advantage, believing instead that one should first hear the sound one wants inside one’s head, and then try to re-create it with the instrument.
When these psychological and physical prerequisites are simultaneously met, then and only then, can we find intuitively that constantly changing, ever-so-delicate mix of left and right-hand factors (pressure, contact, speed, vibrato, positioning etc) necessary to make a beautiful sound. It has to be intuitive because there is just so much happening, so many tiny factors involved in making a good sound, and it is all changing so fast, that the conscious brain could never manage the task.
OUR TOOLS: CELLO, BOW, STRINGS, AND ROSIN
Instruments and bows are like people. In spite of us being all from the same recognisable species, there are enormous differences between us. A good instrument and bow will certainly make it much easier to find a beautiful sound. Fortunately, “good” doesn’t necessarily mean expensive. The sound of an instrument or bow is rarely the main factor in determining its price, for which its age and pedigree are usually the principal factors. See Instrument.
The only way to discover how much our equipment is helping or hindering us is to try other people’s. It can be an eye-opening experience, especially when we suddenly feel and sound quite different. Every teacher should be obliged to demonstrate on their student’s cello and bow, and every student should be allowed to try their teachers’, in order to understand the relative advantages and disadvantages given by the material. To see clearly what is causing the difference, it helps to vary only one thing at a time, either the cello or the bow. That means trying another cello but with our own bow, or trying another bow but on our own cello.
In the case of strings, it is more difficult to experiment as we can only really see the differences in sound between different types of strings by trying them on the same instrument. Unfortunately (or fortunately) there is such a huge variety of brands and tensions, and they’re so expensive, that it is impossible to try them all (unless you are a capricious millionaire). And even if we did try them all we’d end up so confused that we would have wasted our money. Try other cellist’s old discarded strings to have an idea what they sound like.
If we don’t think rosin-type makes any difference then we should try double-bass and violin rosins. Then we may see the interest in trying different cello rosins. If we haven’t done it for a while, cleaning the accumulated rosin dust off our strings in the “bowing zone” (with rubbing alcohol) can also make our cello sound several thousand € better ! And according to a carefully researched scientific study, reported in a “Strad” article in the 1980s, cleaning the bow hairs with alcohol can also give them a new grip on life (and on the strings) as it removes accumulated rosin that is clogging up the “teeth” in the bow hairs that are needed to grip the strings and set them into vibration.
ACOUSTICS AND RESONANCE
Acoustics is everything ! Playing in a beautifully resonant room we suddenly sound fantastic, with a huge, gorgeous, unforced sound, a beautiful legato, and an easy, relaxed technique. This easy relaxed technique is due principally to the fact that the resonance allows us to release both our left-hand finger pressure and our bow pressure sooner after each note has been started than when we are playing in a dry (dead) acoustic.
Then, the curtains are drawn, the carpet rolled out, the soft-furnishings brought in, and suddenly we sound awful: forcing desperately with both hands in every way possible to try and fill that deathly-dry room with a sound that doesn’t resemble a horror-movie soundtrack. We are the same cellist, with the same playing material, but everything has changed: we have gone from ecstasy to agony. That is the power of acoustics !! How can we overcome this acoustical tyranny ?? We have the following choices:
- mortgage our mother’s house – we will be in good company with Carter Brey, Stephen Isserlis, and many others – to buy a better (slightly?) instrument.
- make use of freely available modern technological aids (microphone, amplifier, speakers) which can, with the flick of a switch, make even the driest room sound and feel like a gorgeous Roman chapel (or American bathroom) and make even a solid lump of wood with four strings strung on it (the Yamaha Electric cello) sound like a beautiful old Italian instrument.
- play in a room with a great acoustic
But the concept of a great acoustic is not as simple as it sounds. A great acoustic for solo Bach is not the same as a great acoustic for other repertoire (romantic music with thick piano accompaniment for example). The Bach solo suites benefit enormously from a very resonant acoustic. This music was written to be played in churches (or bathrooms). These rooms are perfect for playing Bach because their highly resonant acoustic allows the notes to ring on, thus “filling out” the harmonies. Not only does our instrument sound like a fantastic amplified Stradivari, it is almost as though we are now being accompanied by our echo. The church (bathroom) resonance would make an unintelligible muddle of melodic writing but Bach’s writing in the Suites is so harmonic – so many of the notes we play are “broken double-stops” – that the echo effect actually helps the music to make sense. Also, the echo allows us to play the longer notes shorter – our bow starts the note but it is the room resonance that maintains it. This makes the music technically easier to play because it gives us more time to shift and/or change strings to find the next note.
In the same way that playing Baroque music with a Baroque bow teaches us a lot about Baroque Style, playing unaccompanied Bach in a very resonant acoustic teaches us a lot about how Bach should (or could) be played. When we play it in a dry acoustic we are tempted to play it “long” and sostenuto simply to try to create the effect of harmonic resonance and richness that the acoustic is not giving us. This is not the best solution!! See also the article about “Sound”
TECHNOLOGICAL (ELECTRONIC) AIDS
Why do more people listen to rock bands than to string quartets when both have the same basic “chamber-music structure” of four people dividing up the roles of rhythm, harmony, and melody. Amplification is one of the reasons for this popularity.
Whereas the traditional string quartet is really only appropriate for a small intimate audience (because you can’t really hear them from a distance of more than 50m except in the very best acoustics), the rock band can play for tens of thousands of people at the same time and, thanks to amplification and a big screen, even from a great distance, the audience can hear (and see) them as if they were in the front row.
Amplification (and more recently, video and big-screen technology) is the most wonderful invention, but classical music rarely exploits the enormous possibilities it opens up for us. Perhaps it’s because our instruments have barely changed in 300 years that we also seem to be stuck in a museum where time stands still.
When playing in a “dead” (dry) acoustic or in a very large hall, so much of our effort goes into making a big sound. We even set our strings higher off the fingerboard (which makes everything much harder for the left hand) in order to be able to press harder with the bow to get more sound to try to fill the room with music. But this energy is misspent. Most concert halls have a speaker system, and this task of filling the hall with the music can nowadays be achieved with incomparably less effort by a microphone, amplifier, and speakers. As an alternative to forcing, light miking and amplification brings the music closer to the public, making it sound for them as though they were in the front row, with all its immediacy and intimacy.
In music, as in theatre, we need to be able to whisper on stage but at the same time be heard in the back row. Amplification lets us do that, allowing intimacy where beforehand there was only shouting. Schoolteachers and conductors would also benefit from a bit of miking ! Amplification allows everybody to relax! Look at videos of Stephane Grapelli playing at age 85: could he have continued playing so long and so well – with such ease and fluidity – if he hadn’t had the enormous help of that tiny little microphone ?!!
PROBLEMS WITH AMPLIFICATION
Unfortunately, for many people loudness equates with emotional power. According to this interpretation of loudness, if somebody screams at you they must be saying something important, and if you want somebody to give more attention to what you’re saying then you should turn the volume up. Loud music is thus automatically powerful music because it shakes your whole body and obliterates all the other senses: you can no longer talk or think.
Another problem with amplification is that you now give a huge artistic role to the electrical equipment and to the person who operates it. The player and audience are now at the mercy of both the quality of your electronic equipment and of the taste, hearing, and judgement of the sound technician.
If the sound technician is not also a classical recording technician it will often be better to have a musician friend helping to set the volume and balances.
The difference between a good and a bad microphone, speaker, amplifier, pre-amp, or technician is probably much more than the difference between a good and a not-so-good cello. And if the whole thing malfunctions completely ?? The aeroplane analogy is a good one: when it works, it’s fantastic but when it fails (falls) ………. you wish you had walked!
The Yamaha electric (silent) cello is an extraordinary piece of sound engineering despite being a simple solid lump of wood with four strings attached. Thanks to a sophisticated “chip” (which would correspond perhaps to a pre-amp) incorporated into the pickup (microphone), all the scratchy and ugly sounds are filtered out. The resulting sound is a gorgeous, luscious cello sound that comes closer to an ideal cello sound than most of the “real” cellos I’ve ever played on.
This shows the absolute importance of the quality of the electrical equipment in order to maintain a beautiful quality sound in spite of the amplification. It also shows the importance of a pre-amp which could, according to the Yamaha experience, make any instrument sound like an Italian master.