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Sound: Pitch, Dynamics, Tone Color and Duration

Sound begins with the vibration of an object, such as a drum that is pounded or a string that is plucked. The
vibrations are transmitted to our ears usually by air. As a result of the vibrations, our eardrums start vibrating too,
and signals are transmitted to the brain. There the impulses are selected, organized, and interpreted.
Music is part of this world of sound, an art based on the organization of sounds in time. We distinguish music from
other sounds by recognizing the four main properties of musical sounds: pitch, dynamics (loudness or softness), tone
color, and duration.

Pitch: Highness or Lowness of Sound

The pitch of a sound is determined by the frequency of its vibrations, which is measured in cycles per second. The
faster the vibrations, the higher the pitch; the slower the vibrations, the lower the pitch. Smaller objects vibrate
faster and have higher pitches; thus plucking a short string produces a higher pitch than plucking a long string.
In music, a sound that has a definite pitch is called a tone. It has a specific frequency, such as 440 cycles per second
= A. The vibrations of a tone are regular and reach the ear at equal time intervals. On the other hand, noise like
sounds (squeaking brakes or clashing cymbals) have an indefinite pitch because they are produced by irregular
The distance in pitch between any two tones is called an interval. When tones are separated by the interval called an
octave, they sound very much alike. A tone an octave lower would be half of 440, or 220 cycles per second (an
octave higher would be 880). When sounded at the same time, two tones an octave apart blend so well that they
almost seem to merge into one tone. The interval of an octave is important in music. It is the interval between the
first and last tones of a scale.
Seven different tones are produced by the white keys of the piano. As time passed, five pitches were added to the
original seven. These five are produced by the black keys of the keyboard. All twelve tones (making up the
chromatic scale), like the original seven, are duplicated in higher and lower octaves. (In nonwestern music, the
octave may be divided into a different number of tones.)
The distance between the lowest and highest tones that a voice or instrument can produce, is called its range. The
range of the average untrained voice is about 1 octaves, while a piano's range is over 7 octaves. Though most
music we know is based on definite pitches, indefinite pitches (such as those made by a bass drum or by cymbals)
are important as well. Some percussion instruments, such as gongs, cowbells, and woodblocks, come in different
sizes and therefore produce higher or lower indefinite pitches.

Degrees of loudness or softness in music are called dynamics. Loudness is related to the amplitude of the vibration
that produces the sound. The harder a guitar string is plucked, the louder its sound. When instruments are played
more loudly or more softly, or when there is a change in how many instruments are heard, a dynamic change results.
Such a change may be made either suddenly or gradually. A gradual increase in loudness often creates excitement,
particularly when the pitch rises, too. On the other hand, a gradual decrease in loudness can convey a sense of calm.
A performer can emphasize a tone by playing it more loudly than the tones around it. We call an emphasis of this
kind a dynamic accent (or just accent).
When notating music, composers have traditionally used Italian words, and their abbreviations, to indicate
dynamics. The most common terms are:

Abbreviation Meaning
very soft


mezzo forte

moderately soft




very loud

For extremes of softness and loudness, composers use




The following notations indicate gradual changes in dynamics:


decrescendo (decresc.) or diminuendo (dim.) gradually softer

crescendo (cresc.)

gradually louder

Like many elements of music, a dynamic indication is not absolutely precise. A tone has a dynamic level (is soft or
loud), in relation to other tones around it. The loudest sound of a single violin is tiny compared with the loudest
sound of an entire orchestra, and even tinier compared with an amplified rock group. But it can be considered
fortissimo (very loud) within its own context.

Tone Color
We can tell a trumpet from a trombone even when each of them is playing the same tone and at the same dynamic
level. The quality that distinguishes them is called tone color, or timbre (pronounced tam'-ber). Tone color is
described by words such as bright, dark, brilliant, mellow, and rich.
Changes in tone color create variety and contrast. The same melody will have different expressive effects when it is
played by one instrument and then another. It is easier to recognize the return of a melody when the same
instruments play it each time. A practically unlimited variety of tone colors are available. Instruments can be
combined in different ways (voicing across sections). Modern electronic techniques allow composers to invent
entirely new tone colors (in particular with todays synthesizers).

Voices and Instruments

The singer becomes an instrument with a unique ability to fuse words and musical tones. For many reasons, it is
difficult to sing well. In singing we use wider ranges of pitch and volume than in speaking, we hold vowel sounds
longer and singing demands a greater supply and control of breath. The pitch of the tone varies with the tension of
the vocal cords (the tighter they are, the higher the pitch).
The range of a singer's voice depends both on training and on physical makeup. Professional singers can command 2
octaves or even more, whereas an untrained voice is usually limited to about 1 octaves. Men's vocal cords are
longer and thicker than women's, and this difference produces a lower range of pitches.

The classification of voice ranges for women and men are as follows (arranged from highest to lowest).
Women: soprano, mezzo-soprano, and alto
Men: tenor, baritone, and bass
Methods and styles of singing vary widely from culture to culture and even within a culture: for instance. In the
west, classical, popular, jazz, folk, and rock music are all sung differently. Throughout history, singing has been the
most widespread way of making music.

Musical Instruments
An instrument may be defined as any mechanism (other than the voice), that produces musical sounds. Western
musicians usually classify instruments in six broad categories: string (such as guitar and violin); woodwind (flute,
clarinet); brass (trumpet, trombone); percussion (snare drum, cymbals); keyboard (organ, piano); and electronic
An instrument is often made in different sizes that produce different ranges. For instance, the saxophone family
includes sopranino, soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, and bass saxophones. An instrument's tone color may vary with
the register (part of an instruments total range) in which it is played. A clarinet sounds dark and rich in its low
register, but its high register is brilliant and piercing. Most instruments have a wider range of pitches than the voice
does. While a trained singer's range is about 2 octaves, many instruments command 3 or 4 octaves, and some have 6
or 7. Also, instruments usually can produce tones more rapidly than the voice. When writing music for a specific
instrument, composers have to consider its range of pitches and dynamics and how fast it can produce tones.
Instruments' popularity rises and falls with changing musical tastes and requirements. Today only a fraction of all
known instruments are used. Rock composers have used nonwestern instruments such as the Indian sitar (a plucked
string instrument). Jazz musicians are turning to classical instruments such as the flute, while classical composers
are using instruments associated with jazz, such as the vibraphone and saxophone.
Compositions may be written for solo instruments, for small groups, and for orchestras with over 100 musicians.
Whatever the group, it may include instruments from only one category (like strings) or from several different
categories. Modern symphony orchestras contain string, woodwind, brass, and percussion instruments. Keyboard
instruments also find their way into the modern orchestra as needed. Bands consist mainly of brass, woodwind, and
percussion instruments, while rock bands are mostly electronic instruments.
Orchestras and bandsas well as chorusesare usually led by a conductor, who coordinates the performers and
shapes the interpretation of a musical composition. Many conductors hold a thin stick called a baton in one hand to
beat time and indicate pulse and tempo. With the other hand they control the balance among the instruments (or
voices), so that the most important musical ideas will be brought out.
[Please note how the numbering system works for the following listening examples, taken from the courses
contents pages, for each instrument. The first number is the exam number, the second is whether it is from part
1 or part 2, the third number (with a letter after it) is the item number and the letter represents how it is grouped
(a-e) in the exam. For example: 7-1_4d.]

String Instruments
The violin, viola, cello, and double bass (sometimes called simply a bass) form the orchestral string section. They
vary in tone color as well as in size and range. These string instruments are usually played with a bow (arco), a
slightly curved stick strung tightly with horsehair). This family of strings also may be plucked with the finger
(pizzicato). All other string instruments are exclusively played by plucking the string with the finger or pick.
The most frequently used techniques are listed here:
Pizzicato (plucked string): The musician plucks the string, usually with a finger of the right hand or a pick.

Arco (with bow): The musicians draws the bow over the string.
Double stop (two notes at once): By drawing the bow across two strings, a string player can sound two notes at
Tremolo: Rapidly repeating tones by quick, up-and-down strokes of the bow.
Harmonics: High-pitched tones that are produced when a string player lightly touches certain points on a string.
Vibrato: Small fluctuations of pitch that make the tone warmer, produced in string instruments by rocking the left
hand while it presses the string down.

In the orchestra, the violins are divided into first and second violins, with the first violins frequently playing the
main melody. In country music and bluegrass, the violin is often referred to as a fiddle.
7-1_4d. Mark OConnor (with the Boston Pops), Sweet Georgia Brown, Amazing Grace & Orange Blossom

The body of the viola is about two inches longer than that of the violin, and thus the viola's range is somewhat
lower. Its tone color is darker, thicker, and a little less brilliant than the violin's.
There is not a solo example of the viola in this course, but it is a middle voice in all symphonic string

The cello is the tenor voice of the string family and is played between the players legs in a sitting position.
12-1_8c. James Taylor, Fire and Rain

The double bass (or bass) has a very heavy tone and is less agile than other string instruments. It is generally
played with a bow in symphonic music; but in jazz and popular music it is commonly played by plucking the strings
5-1_9d. Miles Davis & John Coltrane, So What (opening melody and solo)

The bass guitar (sometimes called the Fender Bass) is favored in todays rock music. It can have 4, 5 or 6 strings.
It is generally plucked by a finger, but can also be slapped by the thumb. It can have frets (like a guitar) or it can be
fretless (like a violin).
5-2_4d. The Yellowjackets, Revelation

The guitar has six strings, which are plucked with the fingers or strummed with a plectrum, or pick. The frets on the
fingerboard mark the places where the strings must be pressed with the fingers of the other hand. The acoustic
(hollow body) guitar can have pick-ups installed to be amplified. The acoustic guitar is favored by classical, folk
and jazz players.
3-2_10e. B. B. King, Three OClock Blues

The solid body electric guitar is favored in most rock and pop music. It is usually heavily amplified and is capable
of distortion, feedback and can be hooked up to numerous devices to alter the sound.
9-1_4d. Jimi Hendrix, I Dont Live Today

The predecessor of the electric guitar (with its pick-ups) was the dobro, a guitar with a large metal resonating disk
beneath the strings.
3-2_3c. Son House Death Letter Blues

The banjo is a four, five or six-stringed instrument with a thin membrane stretched over a frame or cavity as a
resonator (much like a drum). The membrane is typically a piece of animal skin or plastic, and the frame is typically
circular. The banjo is frequently associated with country, folk, and bluegrass music.
7-1_3c. Bla Fleck, Hoedown

The mandolin usually has four courses of doubled strings. The two strings in each course are tuned in unison. The
courses are tuned in a succession of perfect fifths, and plucked with a pick. The mandolin is a featured instrument in
bluegrass music.
7-1_1a. Bill Monroe, Its Mighty Dark to Travel

The sitar is a plucked stringed instrument used mainly in Hindustani music and Indian classical music. It derives its
distinctive timbre and resonance from sympathetic strings, bridge design, a long hollow neck and a gourd resonating
chamber. Sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar (who recently pasted away) lived in Encinitas, CA.
8-2_6a. The Beatles, Norwegian Wood

Woodwind Instruments
The woodwind instruments are so named because they produce vibrations of air within a tube that traditionally was
made of wood. During the twentieth century, however, piccolos and flutes came to be made of metal. All the
woodwinds have little holes along their length that are opened and closed by the fingers or by pads controlled by a
key mechanism. By opening and closing these holes, the woodwind player changes the length of the vibrating air
column and so varies the pitch.
The woodwinds' unique tone colors result largely from the different ways in which vibrations are produced. Flute
and piccolo players blow across the edge of a mouth hole (players of the recorder, a relative of the flute, blow
through a whistle mouthpiece). The rest of the woodwind instruments rely on a vibrating reed. A reed is a very
thin piece of cane (used singly or in pairs), about 2 inches long, that is set into vibration by a stream of air.
In single-reed woodwinds, the reed is fastened over a hole in the mouthpiece and vibrates when the player blows
into the instrument. The clarinet and bass clarinet are single-reed woodwinds. The saxophone too, an instrument
used prominently in jazz and all sorts of popular music, also has a single reed. In double-reed woodwinds, two
narrow pieces of cane are held between the musician's lips. The oboe, English horn, bassoon, and contrabassoon are
double-reed woodwinds.
Tone colors differ greatly not only between single-reed and double-reed woodwinds, but also among the various
registers of each woodwind instrument. In general, low registers tend to be breathy and thick, and top registers are
more penetrating.

The flute and piccolo have a high range and are extremely agile, capable of producing rapid successions of notes.
Their tone is full and velvety in the low register and bright and sparkling at the top. It is also possible to sing a pitch
at the same time as playing the flute.
The piccolo is half the size of the flute and plays an octave higher. The piccolo's high register is shrill and whistlelike.
10-2_9d. Jethro Tull, Bouree

The oboe has a nasal, intense, expressive tone. Because the oboe's pitch is difficult to adjust, the entire orchestra is
tuned to its A (frequency of 440 cycles per second).

The English horn is neither English nor a horn, but simply a low, or alto oboe.
13-2_9d. The Paul Winter Consort, Icarus (both oboe and English horn)

The recorder, like the flute and piccolo, has no reed. The recorder's tone resembles a flute's but is softer and gentler.
It is commonly found in five sizes: sopranino, soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. Its tone is produced by blowing
through a whistle mouthpiece.
11-2_4d. Led Zeppelin, Stairway to Heaven

The tone of the bassoon is deeply nasal.

7-1_3c. Bla Fleck, Hoedown

The clarinet can produce tones very rapidly and has a wide range of dynamics and tone color. Very bright and
piercing in the high range and dark and mellow in the low range.
4-2_9d. Artie Shaw, Begin the Beguine

The saxophone has a single-reed mouthpiece, like a clarinet, but its tube is made of brass. Its tone is rich, husky,
and speech-like. Saxophone is the most used woodwind instrument in jazz and popular music.
5-1_8c. Stan Getz, Wave (tenor saxophone)

Brass Instruments
From high register to low, the main instruments of the brass section are the trumpet, French horn, trombone, and
tuba. Trumpets and trombones are often used in jazz and rock groups. Other instruments, such as the cornet,
baritone horn, and euphonium are used mainly in concert and marching bands.
The vibrations of brass instruments come from the musician's lips as he or she blows into a cup or funnel-shaped
mouthpiece. The vibrations are amplified and colored in a tube that is coiled (to make it easy to carry and play). The
tube is flared at the end to form a bell. The pitch of brass instruments is regulated both by varying lip tension and by
using slides and valves to change the length of the tube through which the air vibrates. The trombone uses a slide, a
U-shaped tube that fits into two parallel straight tubes. By pulling the slide in or pushing it out, the player changes
the length of tubing and makes it possible to play different pitches. The trumpet, French horn, and tuba use three or
four valves to divert air through various lengths of tubing. When valves came into use around 1850, these
instruments could produce many more tones and became much more flexible. Brass players can alter the tone color
of their instruments by inserting a mute into the bell. Mutes for brass instruments come in different shapes and sizes.
Mutes are hollow, funnel-shaped pieces of wood, plastic, or metal that brass players use to alter the tone of their
instruments. They are most common in jazz, where they create a variety of effects, including a buzzing sound, a
mellowing of the tone, and the comical wah-wah.
Brasses are powerful instruments, often used at climaxes and for bold, musical statements. They are capable of rapid
solo passages as well.

The French horn has a tone that is less brassy, more mellow, and more rounded than the trumpet's.
5-1_4d. Miles Davis, Summertime (prominent in backgrounds behind harmon-mute trumpet solo)

The trumpet sounds brilliant, brassy, and penetrating.

5-1_10e. Herbie Hancock, Cantaloupe Island (Freddie Hubbard, trumpet)

The thick, heavy tone of the tuba is used to add weight to the lowest register of an orchestra, band or brass quintet.
5-1_3c. Bill Yeager (original arrangement), Round Midnight (Tuba plays melody first chorus)

The trombone has a tone that combines the brilliance of a trumpet with the mellowness of a French horn. Its unique
slide substitutes for the valves of the other brass instruments. This is the instrument your Professor plays.
2-2_10e. Bill Yeager (trombone solo), Angel Eyes

Percussion Instruments
Most percussion instruments are struck by hand, with sticks, or with hammers. Some are shaken or rubbed.
Percussion instruments are subdivided into instruments of definite and indefinite pitch, depending on whether they
produce a tone or a noise-like sound. Here are a few examples:
Definite Pitch: vibraphone, marimba, xylophone, timpani, etc.
Indefinite Pitch: snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, gong, triangle, tabla, congas, shakers, tambourine, etc.
The vibrations of percussion instruments are set up by stretched membranes, like the calfskin of the timpani, or by
plates or bars made of metal, wood, or other sonorous materials. Extremely loud sounds may be drawn from
percussion instruments (like the bass drum or cymbals).
Percussion instruments have long been used to emphasize rhythm and to heighten climaxes. Jazz and rock musicians
of have made good use of percussion instruments. Western musicians barely approach the incredibly varied use of
percussion found in Africa and Asia, where subtle changes of rhythm, tone color, and dynamics are used with great

Most popular music incorporates the use of the drum set (also called a kit or traps). About 90% of the music
studied in this course uses the drum set. Can be played with sticks or brushes.
5-1_7b. Art Blakey, A Night in Tunisia

Timbales are used in all sorts of Latin music. They are shallow single-headed drums with metal casing, invented in
Cuba. They are shallower than single-headed tom-toms, and usually tuned much higher. Most timbales will also
have a woodblock, cowbell and often a ride and/or crash cymbal.
5-2_9d. Tito Puente, Ran Kan Kan

The conga is a tall, narrow, single-headed African drum. Congas are very common in Latin music, including salsa,
rhumba, samba, merengue, and reggae, as well as many other forms of popular music.
5-2_9d. Tito Puente, Ran Kan Kan

Bongos are an Afro-Cuban percussion instrument consisting of a pair of small open bottomed drums of different
5-2_9d. Tito Puente, Ran Kan Kan

The tambourine consists of a frame, often of wood or plastic, with pairs of small metal jingles, called "zils".
Usually the term tambourine denotes an instrument with a drumhead, though some variants may not have a head at
all. The tambourine is often used to create a Spanish or Italian effect. The player shakes it or strikes it with the
7-2_8c. Bo Diddley, Bo Diddley

The vibraphone (also known as the vibraharp or simply the vibes) is similar in appearance to the xylophone and
marimba. Each bar is paired with a resonator tube having a motor-driven butterfly valve at its upper end, mounted
on a common shaft, which produces a tremolo or vibrato effect while spinning. The vibraphone also has a sustain
pedal similar to that used on a piano; when the pedal is up, the bars are all damped and the sound of each bar is
shortened; with the pedal down, they will sound for several seconds.

The timpani are the only orchestral drums of definite pitch. A calfskin head is stretched over a hemispherical copper
shell. Varying the tension of the head using adjustable screws around the head, or a pedal, changes the pitch of the

Traditional West African Drum Ensemble

3-1_4d. Traditional West African Music, Hunters Dance

A drum machine is an electronic musical instrument designed to imitate the sound of drums or other percussion
instruments. They are most commonly associated with electronic music, but are also used in many other genres.
Most modern drum machines are sequencers with a sample playback (rompler) or synthesizer component that
specializes in the reproduction of drum timbres.
14-1_4d. Nine Inch Nails, Terrible Lie

Keyboard Instruments
The piano, organ, electric piano, clavinet, mellotron and synthesizer are the best-known keyboard instruments in
popular music. Although they are quite different from each other, each has a keyboard that permits the performer to
play several tones at the same time easily and rapidly.

The piano produces sound through vibrating strings held under tension by an iron frame: striking a key causes a feltcovered hammer to hit a string (the harder the pianist strikes the key, the louder the sound); releasing the key causes
a felt damper to come down on the string and end the tone. Pianos have two or three pedals: the damper pedal lets
the pianist sustain a tone after releasing the key; the una corda pedal (soft pedal) veils the sound; the sostenuto pedal
(which not all pianos have) sustains some tones but not others.
The piano is exceptionally versatile. A pianist can play many notes at once, including both a melody and its
accompaniment. Its eighty-eight keys span more than seven octaves. The dynamic range is broad, from a faint
whisper to a powerful fortissimo. Today it is among the most popular instruments and is used for solos, for
accompaniments, and in combination with one other instrument or many other instruments.
5-1_2b. Thelonious Monk, Round Midnight

The organ is a keyboard instrument of one or more divisions, each played with its own keyboard, played either with
the hands or with the feet. Pictured is the Hammond B3, the most successful organ in popular music history. It has
two divisions of keyboards and foot pedals. Next to it is the Leslie speaker, which gave this organ its unique sound.
10-2_7b. Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, Karn Evil 9: 1st Impression, Parts 1 & 2 (Part 2 starts at 8:45)

The electric piano generates sound using keys and hammers in the same manner as an acoustic piano, but the
hammers strike thin metal rods of varied length, connected to tone--bars, which are then amplified via an
electromagnetic pickup. Pictured is the Fender Rhodes electric piano, the most successful electric piano in popular
music (especially in the 1970s).
9-2_3c. Ray Charles, Whatd I Say (Part 1&2)

The Mellotron is an electro-mechanical, polyphonic tape replay keyboard. The instrument works by pulling a
section of magnetic tape across a head. Different portions of the tape can be played to access different sounds.
12-2_1a. David Bowie, Space Oddity

The Clavinet is an electronically amplified mechanical instrument. The sound is produced by a harp of 60 tensioned
steel strings oriented diagonally below the key surface. An electro-magnetic pickup turns the string vibration into an
electric current. Its distinctive bright staccato sound has appeared particularly in funk, disco, rock, and reggae
10-1_10e. Stevie Wonder, Superstition

Synthesizers are systems of electronic components that generate, modify, and control sound. Synthesizers may
either imitate other instruments or generate new timbres. They are usually played by means of a keyboard and allow
the composer complete control over pitch, tone color, dynamics, and duration. The can generate a huge variety of
musical sounds and noises. Synthesizers generate electric signals (waveforms), which can be converted to sound
through loudspeakers or headphones.
14-1_4d. Nine Inch Nails, Terrible Lie

Modern Electronic Music Studios

Starting in the 1950s, the main tool of composers of electronic music was the tape studio. Today's electronic music
studios create a wide range of sounds with the use of computers, synthesizers, digital recorders, and a variety of
electronic effects and filters.
Analog synthesis - Like all analog technology, it is based on representing data in terms of measurable physical
quantities (in this case sound waves). The earliest of the synthesizer technologies, which predominated until about
1980, uses a mixture of complex sounds that are shaped by filtering.
Digital frequency modulation - Like all digital technology, it is based on representing physical quantities as
Effects devices, (which include reverb, echo devices, and stereo splitters), are often integrated into synthesizers and
the synthesis process. They are used in almost all recorded music (especially popular music) and in some live music.
Sampling is placing brief digital recordings of live sounds under the control of a synthesizer keyboard. The sounds
can be modified during playback. Sampling can be seen as an advanced form of composing by tape splicing. It is
one of the most important aspects of today's electronic music making.
MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) is a standard adopted by manufacturers for interfacing synthesizer
equipment. Control signals can be fed to and from a MIDI instrument into and out of a personal computer, and users
can store and edit music and convert to and from musical notation.
Computers are used as a means of producing sounds on audiotape. They were developed for this purpose after the
tape studio and synthesizers. Computers are used both as control devices to drive MIDI equipment and for direct
digital synthesis.
The 1970s and 1980s saw the development of small computers with which composers could instantly hear the music
they programmed. Computers are used for music synthesis (sounds not otherwise obtainable), to help composers
write scores, to store samples and to control synthesizing mechanisms
All this equipment enables the composer to exploit the entire spectrum of sound as never before, but the quality of
the music produced still depends on the imagination and organizing power of the human mind.