Timbral Trivia

October 1999

 
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Accordion
Accordions and harmonicas  have free reeds. When blown by an air stream  these reeds vibrate without having a pipe.   In an accordion this is produced by pleated bellows.  In a mouth organ it is produced by ...
Acousmatic
A sound which no longer has any association with its source.
Air guitar
Air guitars have been tried by everybody and rely  solely on the imagination.  They radiate a brilliant  though  silent  sound and enable the performer play any song they wish. 
Arco 
Musical direction  for  String players -  Stop your  plucking!  Use your  bow

 

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Beats
The effect of combining two sound waves of the same loudness  but of slightly differing pitches. Piano tuners use beat frequency in their work. In an orchestra  the quality of the combined violins is usually affected by various small beat frequencies - because the accuracy of the tuning depends on each individual player's ear. Beat frequencies of 2 to 8 Hz are  pleasing.  A beat frequency of greater  than 15 to 20 Hz  produces a dissonant  effect. 
Bodhrán
The bodhrán is a small drum held on its side in one hand and played with the other hand or with a small stick.  The single head is made from goatskin. The  bodhrán has been popular in  Irish  traditional music since the late 1960s. 

 
 
 
 
 
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Cello
Check out this muted cello note in Cool Edit Pro.  Remove the attack portion and you've got a foghorn.
Complex tone
Tone made up of sine tones.
Cor Anglais
A low-pitched member of the oboe family with a soft, sad sound.  It is the French for 'English Horn' even though it is neither English nor a horn.  Has a velvety tone.  Its bell is shaped like the flowery part of a tulip
 
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Damper
In a Piano it  prevents the  strings from vibrating when a note is no longer pressed down.  Dampers are also used on drums.
Didgeridoo
Read about it, listen to it, see a picture of one, learn how to spell it.   Where?
Drums
The only drums that can be tuned to actual pitches are kettle drums or timpani.  They look like big cauldrons and there are usually two or three in an orchestra.  They can sound like thunder.
Drum kit 
A Hi-hat is a  pair of cymbals on a stand. A  pedal is used to close them with a short clash.  The upper cymbal can be made ring by striking it with a stick.
A Crash cymbal is suspended from an adjustable stand. It gives a resounding crash when struck with a stick.  It's free to swing and vibrate and is used for dramatic effect. A  Ride cymbal is  often played with a stick in a 'ride' rhythm.
A Snare drum  has a set of tight wires  stretched across its base, out of view.  Striking the drum causes these wires to vibrate against the lower skin and this adds a sharp crack to the sound of the drum. The Bass drum  lies on its side and is played with a pedal connected to a felt-covered beater.  It gives a short deep thud. Two Toms (or tom-toms) are mounted on the Bass drum.  They give high-pitched,  mellow notes.  They each have a single head, which may be damped.  The Floor Tom is a large tom-tom which gives a deep resonant note.  It is played by mallets or the palms of the hands. Drummers mainly use sticks, brushes or mallets to play the drums and cymbals.  Brushes give the quietest sound. 
 
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Ear
The human ear can hear sounds ranging from 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz.  Scientists  are still not sure how the ear is able to distinguish between different timbres
Electroacoustic
Electroacoustic describes music in which the use of an electronic component is vital to the piece.  Click here for more information and some soundbytes.
Envelope 
How a sound varies in time from initial attack to release.  The flute has a longer attack than any other orchestral instrument - the notes start with  high frequency resonances caused by the start of blowing.
Euphonium
Smaller than a  tuba. The adjective 'euphonious'  means mellow or tuneful or pleasant or harmonious or sweet.   Use this word  and see people's reactions.
 
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Fender
Leo Fender built the first solid-body electric guitar in 1944.   This is the semi-acoustic Thinline Telecaster (1973).  Favoured by Air guitarists everywhere.
Flute
The harmonic content in flute notes varies greatly with dynamics - very soft notes sound like pure sine tones while very loud notes contain numerous strong overtones.
Frequency
The number of vibrations  per second,  expressed in  Hertz,  which is not just a car-rental company. The more repetitions  per  second,  the higher the pitch

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Gong
Unlike a bell which produces the greatest vibrations when struck around the rim, the gong is suspended from its rim and struck at its centre. The sound then vibrates from the centre to the outer edges  resulting in an ominous booming sound - strangely enough, often inviting you in for dinner.
Guitar 
In many musical instruments, the driving system imposes its vibrations on another system which radiates the sound. This is why you get very little sound from an electric guitar  - unless it's connected to an amplifier - in comparison to the sound from an acoustic guitar. The sound you hear from an electric guitar is NOT coming directly from the string. The string is causing the air in the body of the guitar to vibrate and an acoustic guitar is designed to radiate this sound whereas the body of an electric guitar isn't. The electric guitar relies on electrical amplifiers

 
 



 
 

 

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Hammond organ
An additive synthesis instrument based on electromechanical tone-wheels.  Different mixtures of the various harmonics can be adjusted by pulling 'drawbars'  above the musical keys.
Harmonics
The other frequencies that are set off, in varying degrees of intensity, when a note is sounded.  They are whole-number multiples of the 'main note'.  The strength  of  individual  harmonics determine the timbre of a sound. 

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Instrument ranges
The timbre of an instrument changes as it moves through its different registers.  Click on this stave to see and hear a few common ones.  The highest woodwind notes are produced by the piccolo. The deepest notes come from the tuba, double bass,  double bassoon.  Piano  has the widest range of all.
Intervals
Musical distance between notes eg third, octave.  Mention the tritone if you want to impress.  It is the interval of an augmented 4th eg C-F#.  Try it out.
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Jazz 
The double bass is plucked rather than bowed in jazz.  The cymbals are often tickled by brushes. Traditional jazz bands include  a trumpet and a trombone.  The brilliant tone of these brass instruments is due to the narrow metal tube, cylindrical bore and a wide flared bell.  Jazz trumpet players  use the extremes of register and timbre more than orchestral trumpet players. The 'instrument' you  hear at the start of this extract is the human voice - ever heard of 'scat'?
Jokes
Couldn't resist.  If you play the Viola  don't go there.  Go straight to K
 
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k = 1 Kilobyte = 1000 bytes = 8ooo bits...
Shows how big a file is.  Audio files are very big.  If you tried to download one minute of music at CD quality on a really fast modem, it could take an hour.  No joking.  That's why mp3s are used.  They reduce the amount of data - the stuff your ear cannot actually pick up - enabling a faster travelling rate.
Keyboard
Spinet,   Virginal, Harpsichord,  Clavichord,   Pianoforte,   Organ, Harmonium,  Synthesizer... all have keyboards but sound different due to how they are made - their  inner workings are not the same. Ask yourself if the string is being struck by a  hammer or plucked by a  plectrum.   Are there strings at all?  What about pipes?  Air columns?  Electrics?  Are there dynamics?  There are just too many questions... so move on quietly to...
 
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Loudness
Amplitude or Level  - although Acoustics experts will argue intensely over the details.  Just nod and agree with them...and hide the...
Loudspeaker
Three elements are required to make music louder: a microphone (or pick-up) converts sound waves into electrical signals.  These are then strengthened by an amplifier and passed to a loudspeaker ( - basically a glorified telephone earpiece - ) which changes the signals back into sound waves. 
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MIDI 
Musical Instrument Digital Interface.  Allows  computers,  synthesizers  and other instruments to communicate.  Contains information about the performance or state of the sound but does not contain any audio. The timbre of the 'instruments'  in these MIDI files depends on the quality of the soundcard in the computer you are using.  Do the strings sound realistic here?
Mutes
Mutes reduce the volume and affect the tonal quality.  They can add an air of mystery or menace to the music. In brass instruments a straight mute gives a thin,  piercing sound.  A harmon mute produces a buzzy sound.  Moving a mute in and out of the bell makes a 'wah-wah' sound - often heard in cartoons.  A horn player can alter the sound by placing a hand instead of a mute into the bell.  String players also have mutes which look like little 4-pronged combs and are placed over the bridge, lessening the vibrations of the strings. The musical direction for all of this is 'con sordino'. It cuts down on...
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Noise
Annoying if you have a headache but great if you want to use subtractive synthesis to come up with new sounds. Many percussion instruments produce sounds that have no definite pitch or note. Some musicians have to bang, shake or scrape their instrument and not just because they are angry.
No bass
The concertina is a free reed instrument used in traditional Irish music.  It has a hexagonal shape and sounds a bit like an accordion but it has no bass.  Both hands share the melody.
Notes
The difference between a musical note and any other sound is that musical notes occur at specific frequencies. Here are note and frequency ranges for four acoustic instruments: 
Grand piano = A1 - C8 which means 14Hz - 4186Hz;
Cello = C2 - G4 which means 65Hz - 392Hz;
Trumpet = E2 - Bb4 which means 82Hz - 466Hz;
Flute = C4 - C7 which means 261Hz - 2093Hz.
 
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Organs 
Have you ever heard a Church organ shuddering?  Certain organ stops such as the vox celeste have two pipes per notes, slightly mistuned, so that a beat frequency of a few Hertz is produced. This adds a pleasing undulating or wavy effect to the notes. 
Ondes Martenot
This is a keyboard which uses a ribbon and ring to change pitch. Ondes = Waves.  Martenot is the name of its inventor in the late 1920s. These are electrically produced sounds.
 
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Piston 
Combinations of three piston valves are used to create sounds on the trumpet and a player's lips can add a further twelve. Each valve diverts air into a side-section of tubing.  This lengthens the column of vibrating air in the instrument and lowers the note.
Plectrum 
Used not only by guitar players but also in the  older  keyboard  instruments mentioned above. It gives the sound a  fragile,  plinky timbre.
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Quartet 
A string quartet consists of 2 violins (playing different parts) a viola and a cello.  Listen to this extract to hear two members plucking and two bowing, sounding like a bigger group. A group of string instruments produces sounds of a different quality than each individual solo instrument due to the slightly differing tunings and starting times. These add an overall richness to the timbre.
Quality 
This is another word for the timbre   of an instrument. Also 'colour' and 'tone'.
 
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Resonance
The resonant frequencies of air columns depend upon the speed of sound in air as well as the length and geometry of the air column.  Stringed instruments have sound boxes that increase the sound of each vibrating string by resonance.  The  sound box resonates to a wide range of notes, amplifying them all equally.   Listen to this cello piece.  Don't confuse resonance with...
Reverberation
Reverberation and echo are the effects caused when sound bounces off walls, floors , ceilings, chairs, people... The difference is the time between reflections. With an interval of greater than one tenth of a  second the reflections become distinct as separate repeats. This is an echo. With a shorter repeat, the repeats become indistinct and a kind of  'hollow'  sound is produced. This is reverberation.  Try it in Cool Edit Pro on any of the wav files.

 

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Sax 
Created in 1846 by a Belgian, Adolphe Sax.  A saxophone combines a clarinet  mouthpiece with oboe  keywork, a conical  brass tube and a slightly  flared bell. The wide conical  bore of the tube gives the sax a big sound. 
Steady-state
The portion of an instrumental tone  without  the  attack. Not as useful for the identification of the instrument as the attack portion where the frequency-mixture is changing within milliseconds.  You need steady nerves and hands to play a ....
 
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Theremin
This is a space-controlled instrument invented by a Russian,  Leon Theremin  around 1920. The player determines the pitch and loudness  by moving both hands in the space around the instrument, without ever touching it - the pitch and loudness  respond to every movement of the performer's body, so it is expressive and very difficult to play.  It is an electronic instrument with two antennae and has the sound of an emotional violinist or of a singer who has a very powerful  hum. Check out the story of Leon Theremin.  High drama.
Typewriter
Musique Concrète takes real world sounds and modifies them electronically.  The end result often seems to have no  relationship with the originally recorded material.  Below you will hear a tiny extract of a piece by Roger Doyle where  a typewriter is used to  accompany  unaltered uilleann pipes. 
 
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Uilleann pipes
Irish pipes are played indoors, sitting down and are not blown into like the Scottish bagpipes which are associated with the outdoors  and  standing.   Uilleann = elbow. It's another  reed  instrument. Plaintive timbre.
Ukelele
According to one of the 9950 websites dedicated to the ukelele, this tiny Hawaiin 4-stringed guitar is a symbol of 'innocent merriment'.   Listen out for it in old American films and make your own observations about its banjo-like timbre. Its name  means  'jumping flea'  ...probably because the string vibrations are short...and fleas have great...

 

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Velocity
The velocity or speed of sound in air is around 330 - 340 metres per second.  In
MIDI language, velocity = how hard you strike a note = the volume.
Vibrato 
A variation in the frequency or pitch of a tone by 3 to 8 Hz at constant loudness, whereas tremolo is a variation in the loudness of a tone by 3 to 8 Hz, at constant frequency. The average human ear is unable to distinguish between true tremolo and true vibrato. Both are often present together. The dynamic characteristics of the sound such as vibrato and the attack-decay envelope of the sound are main elements in helping to determine the timbre, along with the harmonic content of the sound.  Check it out in any...

 

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Wav 
Audio file, mainly for PCs. If you are using a Mac, you probably use aif files.  All these may be reduced to mp3 format to take up less space.
Whistle
The timbre of the Irish tin whistle is more piercing than the Irish flute  (which is mellow in comparison to an orchestral flute).  In this extract, the Irish (wooden) flute is accompanied by a bodhrán and later by the tin whistle.  Compare the timbre of the three sounds.
 
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Xenakis (pronounce the X like a Z)
A French composer of electroacoustic music. In this extract, there are glissandos  on strings, polyphonic  brass,  percussion as well as a Japanese lute.  These sounds have been converted electronically.  The piece was first performed  through 800 speakers. Space is important in this music. Do you feel that he's 'transcended pain' here? That was his intention. Notice how the overall tonal quality no longer resembles a conventional 'classical' sound.  It is  scratchy,  in extreme registers... What else?
Xylophone
Its  'notes'  or  bars  are made from wood.  It is played with mallets.  A xylophone sounds like rattly  bones whereas a glockenspiel sounds quite bell-like and tinkly. 

 

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Yamaha
The Japanese company that patented FM - John Chowning's method of synthesisng sounds.  I975 and 1983 are the two big years in the history of FM.
Yo-Yo Ma
One of the top cellists in the world.  A great name to mention if you want to show off. People will think you've made it up.  You haven't.
 
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Zero pressure
The node in a standing wave has the least amount of movement  and  the antinode has the most movement. One of the points of zero displacement  in this closed pipe is on the right side, at the closed end of the pipe. There are two others - can you spot them?  There are three antinodes here too.  This may stop moving for a while after you've played music.
ZZZZzz ...Zee end...
Well done for getting this far.  Truth.  Did you skip much?