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Classical Music 101: A musical instrument's sound is greater than the sum of its parts

By John Terauds on January 8, 2013

tunerAn instrument’s materials, bore, length, string diameter, thickness of reed, quality of bow, not to mention steadiness of breath and sensitivity of fingers all work together to produce what we think of as its typical sound. Modify any one element and things change quickly.

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds

Change a modern violin’s metal strings for gut, and the quality of the tone changes. This is one of the (several) things that makes a period-instrument orchestra sound so different.

Tune the strings differently, and the resulting harmonics are different than the modified intervals between each string might suggest. Here is an explanation of this process, called scordatura, as it applies to Heinrich Bieber’s wonderful Mystery Sonatas:

Add a mute to a string instrument, and the dynamics change:

Stick a mute into the bell of a horn, and it sounds like a different instrument.

All of these modifications are used every day. But I’ve just seen something a lot less common.

Pianist John Kameel Farah this morning posted a video of him trying out an upright piano that has been tuned an octave down. You would think that everything would just sound an octave lower. But the complex mix of harmonics that we perceive as a, say, treble C, when the hammer strikes the three strings for that note changes so much that, even though the theoretical tuning of the note is middle C now, it doesn’t sound anything like it:

It has to do with the length of the strings and their diameter as well as the tension that each set is meant to be under from the tuning pin.

In this instance, the technician has changed the tension. But if we changed the string length or some other aspect of how the metal resonates, the results would also be crazy-sounding — as when a piano gets “prepared” with the insertion of objects that change the way strings vibrate.

With any musical instrument, no single element of its design exists in isolation.

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds
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