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Sound and Music 1

September 1, 2016               Archives

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Music is an art form concerning the organization of sound. (The French composer Claude Debussy famously quipped that music is the silence between the notes.) To better understand music it would seem logical to have a basic understanding of sound.

Sound is an energy that is mechanically created. Three things are needed to generate sound: First, a producer of the sound - a tree falling, a musical instrument or voice or any other source of this mechanical energy. Second, a medium to conduct this produced energy, whether it is a gas such as air, a fluid such as water or some solid material such as wood. Finally, there has to be something, such as the human ear, to perceive the sound.

Sound and other forms of energy may be measured and modelled through what is called a frequency spectrum. This spectrum may , for a pure tone, be graphically represented by what is called a sine wave. I do not want to wax scientific, but a short explanation should help to grasp this idea.

Below is one complete cycle of a sine wave: the horizontal x axis represents some unit of time and the vertical y axis is the amount of energy, or loudness in the sound.

Sine wave 1 cycle

The human ear is generally able to hear sound from 16 of these sine wave patterns per second (a very low sound) up to 20,000 (a very high sound) of these cycles per second. This association with the sine wave pattern and the corresponding sound is called the sound's frequency. Cycles per second as a measurement of sound are referred to as hertz -abbreviated as Hz- in honor of the fellow who thought it up: the German physicist Heinrich Hertz. So 16 cycles per second would be 16Hz and 20,000 cycles per second would be 20,000 Hz, which is further abbreviated to 20kHz, where the k is understood to be kilo, or one thousand.

This idea of the sine wave is a basic to sound synthesis. There are a few other wave patterns that, in conjunction with the sine wave, help to generate all the cool synthesizer sounds prevalent in today's music. These various waveforms, from a pure form wave to richly mixed wave combinations, model the different tone colors (musically called timbre - pronounced "tamber"-) of the instruments we use for music making. I hope to cover at least the basics of this in future articles.

These next two examples will help you understand the sine wave better.

Cycles per second

In the above example a time of one second is marked on the x axis. There are five complete (and continuous) sine wave patterns, so this would be a frequency of 5Hz. On the y axis is a marking for the loudness of this frequency measured in units of decibels which is abbreviated as dB. The B is capitalized to honor the inventor of this idea, Alexander Graham Bell. The example below spans the same time unit of one second. If you count the number of complete sine wave cycles, you will see that this is a 10Hz frequency with a loudness of 50 dB.

Sine wave #3


Next: Fundamental musical tone and harmonics


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