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  Instrumental technique  MartinY at 08:24 on 07 December 2008

I was involved in a discussion about instrumental technique on string instruments a couple of months ago as a result of article published which mentioned natural harmonics at the octave but not artificial harmonics or higher partials. I was going to write a little about this, as I could not believe there were composers who did not know any more than that, but then I looked in Walter Piston's book on orchestration which I have read many times years ago and found it was all in there. It is clearly pointless saying anything much more other than read more than I have done recently.

It has prompted me to have a little look at more recent books on advanced string technique. (I live out in the countryside so library trips on such obscure subjects have to be well organised.) There is a book or two on multiphonics for woodwind and brass. I do not know if anyone is active using these. There are all kinds of problems of transportability between different instruments, uncontrollability etc. but it was a trendy area at one time. Any thoughts?

My first thoughts were, fine for soloists, but you would get a lot of hostility from the masses if you tried to put it into orchestral and chamber music.

  Re: Instrumental technique  Nicolas Tzortzis at 09:30 on 07 December 2008

If you are very precise and you know exactly what you want and how the musician should play it,there will not be much hostility I think.You just have to be 100% certain of what you're writing and also give the musician the fingering (for multiphonics),or the postition (for string instruments) etc.
It saves a big amount of time during rehearsals.And even if the multiphonic does not work on his instrument (not all of them sound the same at all the instruments),by writing all the notes and the fingering,the player will be able to find the solution,if of course he cares and has the necessary experience.
By now these sounds are more and more used also for orchestral writing.of course the better the orchestra,the more the chances that a musician will do a good job with them.
there are great books on all instruments,especially woodwinds:flute,oboe,clarinet,bass clarinet,bassoon,saxophone,you name it.Many come with a CD for the multiphonics and they are a big help,especially if your music likes to use these kind of sounds.

  Re: Instrumental technique  piargno at 10:36 on 07 December 2008

Nicolas is right. Just to name some of these books/sources:

In general - the Kurt Stone Notation book is INCREDIBLE, better than most popular orchestration books (like the Adler or the Blatter)

Harp - Salzedo is one of the best, including examples of his compositions with fingerings

Flute - This website basically explains EVERYTHING for flute multiphonics

Flute - If you scroll to the score of "Musica invisible para flauta", the first movement gives fingerings for quartertones that may prove quite useful (her scores contain other pretty amazing things as well! I highly recommend just exploring her scores and audio)

Oboe - Berio's Oboe Sequenza is a great score, but also check out Mario Lavista's Marsais, for oboe and crystal glasses. This has some great multiphonics in it.

This should be enough to waste at least 3 days ... if you need more, I'll post more!!

  Re: Instrumental technique  Nicolas Tzortzis at 11:19 on 07 December 2008

look up also Pierre-Yves Artaud's book on flute techniques
Peter Veale's book on the oboe
Philip Rehfeldt's book on the clarinet
Henri Bok's book on the bass clarinet
to name but a few

  Re: Instrumental technique  scott_good at 18:05 on 07 December 2008

"Hello! Mr Sax"(eng trans) by Jean-Marie Londeix

  Re: Instrumental technique  MartinY at 19:50 on 07 December 2008

Thanks to all for the prompt replies. It is really useful to me.

I was looking up something else without success and then half my wireless network has just gone kaput because of a software fault! The problem is I can't remember the name of the plucked instrument technique where you pluck right over the octave position. This creates a hollow sound where there is less of the 1st partial, in simple theory. The only thing I have found so far is that such vibrations 'violate the Young-Helmholtz Law' according to the American Physical Society's Phys. Rev.

I clearly need to investigate further. It seems to me that the traditional explanation might not be right but the answers to what you get where you pluck must be well known and written up somewhere.

I hope I am not the only person to find such things interesting. I have an old cooking guitar which I re-string for scordatura and mess about for various things. One day I will take it's frets out and glue shaved match-sticks in position for some microtonal experiments.

  Re: Instrumental technique  IanTipping at 14:00 on 08 December 2008

Hi Martin

I've no idea what the technique you are describing is called (or if it has a definitive nomenclature at all!) but the 'hollow sound' you describe occurs as a result of effectively removing the even order harmonics from the sound. All the even order harmonics (which in musical terms sound at the octave, double octave, double octave plus a fifth, triple octave and on) produce a node at the mid point of the string. If you pluck the string there, you are stopping the node from forming, and consequently those elements of the harmonic series are supressed. However, the odd-order harmonics do not have a node at this position and therefore are produced very much as usual. The overall effect then is that there is less reinforcement of the fundamental frequency than usual due to the removal of the octave/double octave/triple octave components of the sound, and consequently the 'hollow' sound you refer to. It sometimes occurs to me how alike the sound of a harp this is - unsurprising really, as harpists usually pluck relatively close to the centre of the strings, causing a similar effect.

As to the Young-Helmholtz law, forgive me if this turns out to be wrong (it's a long time since I did my Chemical Physics degree) but I seem to remember that it can only really be called a 'law' when applied to electromagnetic waves, not waves in other media.

  Re: Instrumental technique  MartinY at 15:13 on 08 December 2008

The hollow harp plucking sound is indeed curious. I have at least 1 score where it is indicated by 0s over a sequence of notes. If I remember rightly it is in one of the guitar works of Manuel Ponce but I am still trying to find it.

The Young-Helmholz theory on a google search seems almost always to mean the 3 colour theory but if you look at the following link

it seems to apply to the resonance of membranes. I wonder if it refers to different work of Helmholz and the paper is published a long time ago in 1923.

I am showing my ignorance here but I suspect in a 'harmonic' as in harmonic oscillator, theory the overtones should die away with time independantly and not couple odd and even overtones, so the missing overtones should not appear as the note dies away. I wonder whether in reality things are different.

Going off at a tangent why did Harry Partch like percussion instruments which have very anharmonic overtones when so much of his work went towards getting pure intervals?

  Re: Instrumental technique  MartinY at 15:53 on 08 December 2008

I have just discovered that Google does not return the same search results on different days and as a result I have lost my Phys. Rev. reference. It looks as though you need to be a bit careful about taking notes as I thought that if I had the same search terms I would get back the same result. I feel a bit dumb but of course I can find it from the American Phys Soc. site.

I am going to do some thinking, not writing for a bit, so as not to clutter up the blogosphere too much.

One last thing about the laws, (can't resist it). It seems the researchers in the 1920s were intrested in Indian instruments where the resonator membranes were at right angles to the strings, a geometry I do not think we have and my first thoughts are there should be little coupling between them.

  Re: Instrumental technique  IanTipping at 11:15 on 09 December 2008

Hi Martin

Interesting stuff about the perpendicular membranes - I can remember thinking a lot about how string vibrations are transferred to the resonators a few years ago. Even in western instruments the transfer of the motion is not as obvious as you might think - the string vibrate (mostly) from side to side (or up and down in the case of the guitar) and the membrane resonates largely from front to back with respect to the instrument - another perpendicular transfer of energy, which simple physics tells you can't happen. There are many contributory factors in 'real' rather than 'theoretical' systems(elliptical vibrations of the strings and small transverse motion of the resonator for example) that allow the energy transfer to occur, and the resonator to vibrate. In the case of the fully perpendicular resonator though, I suspect the main mechanism is that as the string vibrates, the total length between its anchor points must become very slightly shorther due to the tranverse movement away from its resting position. As it reaches its peak amplitude, the string must transfer some of it's overall length to allow its vibrations in the perpendicular to occur. As a result, it will pull upwards on the resonator as it hits the maximum of its wave cycle and then release as it hits the mid point of the cycle, then pull up once again as it moves towards the minimum. This however does suggest that the membrane is actually vibrating at twice the frequency of the string - it hits a maximum amplitude as the string hits both its maximum and minimum. The mechanism is probably far more complex than I have described but it would be interesting to see whether these instruments do have a very pronounced first harmonic component in the sound. The only western instrument that has anything like this that arrangement I can think of is, once again, the harp (the resonator membrane is not exactly perpendicular in all planes, but it is in one of them), and I wonder if this aspect also contributes to its unique tonal character?

  Re: Instrumental technique  MartinY at 08:36 on 10 December 2008

I have had a look at some photographs of israjs and as suggested in the Phys Soc abstract the bridge is unusual and the tensioned strings go over the instrument end and are fixed by a metal tailpiece at right angles to the string so transmission of energy in all directions can occur by several of the mechanisms you suggested.

Our mental models of vibrations come from the solutions of the highly symmetrical model systems in one and two dimensions. Also we, (or rather I), use the standing wave solutions, not regarding the impulse events which make the beginning of the plucked note or the decay processes which make the end. This is not considering the continous input of bowed instruments. I know an awful lot of research has already been done so I really ought to read it if I really want to understand these things. The one thing I do know from theory is that vibrations which give a 'real' frequency have to be orthogonal functions, hence all the complex node infested shapes, but in a real system they can be orthogonal in unexpected ways.

Thanks Ian for your interesting comments.

  Re: Instrumental technique  MartinY at 10:45 on 02 March 2009

Back to the hollow sound on plucked instruments. A correspondent elsewhere has suggested these have been called sub-harmonics but I see from the performance of Mari Kimura (several references on the web) that this refers to a different unexplained acoustic phenomenon. There is an acoustic research group looking at this. I suppose it is the question of whether it is a difference tone like phenomenon, where there is actually no energy at the frequency which you hear or some kind of strange vibration where there is an antinode created at the bridge and / or bow. (Could you use two bows to create an antinode at both ends.... Don't think about it.) I am sure a proper acoustic research group will sort all this out fairly quickly.

However what prompted to make me think about this again is that I was playing my string quartet on the computer and getting dressed in a different room and the bit of the quartet where there is sustained notes in the lower two parts and pizzicato chords in the violins sounded like a dog barking, which it never did when listening in the same room. Two days later when I got out of the bath with the computer playing the dog barked again..... This got me thinking about the phantom notes which you get emerging from chords sometimes. I gather one often comes out in a 6/4 chord in Strauss's Til Eulenspiegel and has lead to conductors accusing a non-existent viola of playing an unscored wrong note in the chord. Anyway it is not that useful but I will try and found a chord on the computer which produces some interesting non-notes. Maybe I have to play it back in a glass building because I know an ordinary trio sonata played in a conservatory on recorders produces incredible difference and combination tones. One of the arguments for using meantone is that it makes the difference tones in tune. I think they come out pretty sharp on modern instruments but I try not to play in the greenhouse. (I have heard a reviewer say that a CD sounds like it has been recorded in a greenhouse. I will file that one away for future use.)

Anyway I will keep an eye on the subharmonics on strings phenomenon as I do not think any research has been announced yet. I do not think it will catch on in a big way but it is interesting.

  Re: Instrumental technique  Misuc at 15:44 on 04 March 2009

Playing in meantone makes SOME difference tones in tune - and others even more excruciatingly out of tune. These are piercingly horrifically apparent when playing two or more recorders in ensemble. The answer is surely to adopt no consistent temperament, but continuously to make adjustments so you get pure 3rds and also 5ths etc. wherever you can, albeit at the expense of the 'horizontal'/melodic coherence of pitch-relationships.

By the way, I find all this multiphonics quite fun. So is fooling around making funny noises with toddlers and with baby-instruments. I say this quite seriously. It is fun. And some of the music can be really exciting from the sheer amount of things that are going on - even within a 'single''note'. But none of these note variations can have any significance -(unless artificially imposed - i.e. any structural implications i.e. intrinsic significance.) How insensitive all this is compared to the concern that earlier composers showed for intonations - e.g. Bach's famous illustration of the different characteristics of each key - using perhaps one of the Weckmeister tunings? - according to the relative pungency, sharpness, sweetness etc. of the unequal intervals. No play-room effects can effect the musical outcome so much - or 'say' so much to below the surface feelings.....

  Re: Instrumental technique  MartinY at 09:41 on 08 March 2009

Thanks Misuc for your comments about meantone. As we have said earlier you cannot really win in the sense of solving everything with pure intervals, you just have to be pragmatic and practical.

I have created some work for myself by thinking about the violin G-string. I have to go and look up: how can a bass singer sing an 8-foot C two ledger lines below the bass clef when there is not a resonator / vibrator anywhere near 8-foot long in the human body?

  Re: Instrumental technique  MartinY at 09:04 on 11 March 2009

Someone has pointed out to me that how a human can sing a bottom C is a silly question but still did not give a proper explanation! Though the human voice sounds a bit like bowed strings or organ pipes it uses a different mechanism. Vocal folds are more like a concertina reeds or a speaker, though much more complex, so I had in miond the wrong model for sound creation.

A small speaker can be so versatile because the electromagnetic controls are on a timescale thousands of times faster than the 100s of Hz that we listen at. It is still interesting that the high instruments small / bass instruments large does not universally apply.

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