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Making Sounds with Musical Instruments

by Ron Kurtus (revised 8 January 2008)


The regular vibration of common materials results in sound waves. Musical instruments create
sounds that can be varied in pitch and volume. Some give off relatively pure tones, while others
consist of a pleasing mix of frequencies.
Questions you may have include:

What are the different ways musical sounds can be made?

How are musical sounds amplified?

What makes musical sounds pleasing?

This lesson will answer those questions. There is a mini-quiz near the end of the lesson.
Useful tools: Metric-English Conversion | Scientific Calculator.

Making music
The vibration of some device, such as a wire, drum, or reed, creates musical sounds. Sometimes
moving air can be made to vibrate at certain frequencies.

Vibrating wire
If you tie a string or wire tightly between two posts, you can start it vibrating by plucking or
tapping it. The vibration creates compression waves in the air, resulting in sound, according to
the frequency of the waves.
Musical instruments that use vibrating wire to produce sound include the guitar, violin, piano and
harp.
Factors determining pitch
The frequency, wavelength or pitch of the sound depends on what the string or wire is made of,
its thickness, its length, and how tight it is strung between the posts. Material, length and
thickness are usually combined and indicated as the mass of the string in the String Frequency
Equation. (See Equation for Sound from a String for more information.)
Tuning a string instrument

The frequency from a vibrating wire is relative pure. In other words, it primarily consists of one
frequency. This fact is used in tuning the musical instrument. By adjusting the tension of the
wire, the frequency can be changed slightly until it is exactly at some set pitch.
Although some experts can tell that it is at the correct pitch with their ears, a more accurate way
is to use a tuning fork that is calibrated at the desired frequency. When two sounds are almost at
the same frequency, a throbbing sound is heard. It is also called the beat frequency.
This frequency gets slower and slower as the string reaches the same frequency of the tuning
fork. When the beat frequency disappears, the string is tuned to the exact pitch of the tuning fork.

Drums
A drum is made by stretching some material over a container. Striking the head of the drum
causes it to vibrate and make a sound. In reality, the head of a drum is like a string in twodimensions.
Being in two-dimensions, the vibration of the drum head can be fairly complex. An interesting
experiment is to sprinkle some powder on the hear of a drum and then strike it gently. The
vibration of the drumhead will create a pattern in the powder.

Reeds
A relatively small, thin piece of material, held in place, can be made to vibrate and make sounds.
A simple example is putting a blade of grass between your thumbs and blowing on it. Another
example of a reed is wrapping some wax paper around a comb, putting it to your mouth and
blowing on it to make a sound like a kazoo.
The clarinet and harmonica are musical instruments that use reeds to make their sound. Your
vocal cords are also a set of reed-like materials.

Blowing
The act of blowing through or across a chamber of air can create sound vibrations. The best
example of this is whistling. By changing the position of your tongue, you can change the note of
your whistling.
If you blow across the mouth of a bottle, you can also make a sound. By putting different levels
of water in the bottle, you can adjust the pitch.
Typical musical instruments using this technique for creating sound are the trumpet, flute and
organ.

Amplifying music

Sounds can be amplified by trying harder, resonance, and electronically.

Try harder
One way to make the sound louder in a musical instrument is to try harder. You can hit the piano
keys harder, strum the guitar harder, or blow harder on the trumpet.

Resonance
Another method is through using resonance. The reason a bottle makes sound when you blow
across the top is that the air bounces back and forth inside, amplifying the sound wave that is the
length of the depth of the bottle.
This principle is used in many musical instruments, no matter how the sound in created. For
example, a guitar string plucked by itself makes a weak sound. But when added to the hollow
body of the acoustic guitar, the sounds resonate and are amplified. The body of a clarinet
amplifies the sound of the reed.

Electronic
Electronic amplifiers use microphones and similar devices to pick up the sound and increase the
volume. The electronics can also create special effects, like echoes and frequency changes.
It is difficult, though, for electronic amplification to reproduce the "character" of some resonance
amplifications.

Aesthetics
What makes a sound pleasing to the ear? A tuning fork has a pure sound of one frequency, but
that is not necessarily pleasing or music. Early synthetic or electronic sound was able to create
and vary many pure frequencies, but again, it wasn't too pleasing to the ear.

Harmonics
One factor in musical sounds is harmonics, or multiples of the pure tone. These harmonics can
add fullness and character to make the tone sound better.

Combinations of notes
Certain combinations of frequencies or pitches are more pleasing to the ear than others that may
sound "sour" or off-tune. Some of this is also cultural, because some foreign instruments can
sound out-of-tune to someone not brought up with that type of music.

Summary

Musical sounds are created by strings, drums, reeds, and blowing. They can be amplified by
trying harder, resonance or electronics. Harmonics, combinations of frequencies, and culture play
a role in what makes music and is pleasing to the ear.