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Sound and music basics.

We get asked alot of great questions by learners of all ages. Below is a listing of some of the most frequent that we've already answered. Check these out before you submit a question because you just might find what you're looking for below.

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What is music?

There are many possible definitions for music and this is a very subjective matter. First we need to consider the difference between music and noise. Some people find the "noise" of the wind blowing through the leaves on trees or the sounds of the rain falling during a thunderstorm to be "music." Some find the sound of their child's cries to be "music to my ears."

Here's a definition: "Music is organized sound." But does music have to be organized by people? Can the forces of Nature "organize" events like rain and wind into sounds that we consider music? We think so, but the answer to this question, ultimately, is up to each of us.

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What is sound?

Sound is a perception created when our minds interpret nerve signals received from our ears and auditory pathways to our brains. Sound travels to our ears through the air in the form of sound waves, which are changes in air pressure. All sound is created by objects vibrating.

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What makes music?

People, animals, insects, in fact anything that moves makes sound and music. Some folks feel that sound and music are different. We don't see any difference, depending on your mood, any sound combination can create the most pleasant feeling and make your day a good one.

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What sounds do people organize into music?

There are thousands of different music cultures in the world. Each defines musical sound differently. One culture's pleasant musical sound may well be another culture's unpleasant sound. However, almost all cultures have one thing in common: musical sound is harmonic sound. That is they use sounds for music making that are primarily based on certain mathematical principles, principles that are not found in sounds we consider to be noise.

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What is "harmonic" sound?

Harmonic sound is derived from one of the most basic characteristics of vibration: the harmonic series. The harmonic series is a set of high pitches that occurs in any musical sound. That means that any musical sound is really made up of a group of simultaneously sounding frequencies. So when a flute plays a single note, say a middle C, there are really dozens of frequencies that our ear/brain blends together into what we perceive as a single pitch.

There are also certain mathematical principles that occur in harmonic sounds. The set of simultaneously sound pitches (harmonics or partials) have a unique relationship. They are based on whole number ratios. For example, one pitch might vibrate twice as fast as another. These two pitches can be said to have a two-to-one ratio (2:1). One might vibrate 200 times per second, the other 100 times per second.

Of course, it doesn't work out so perfectly in reality, it is more likely that the one pitch vibrates 202.4 times per second, so the second really vibrates 101.2 times per second. However, the relationship of two-to-one is maintained, that's the important thing to remember.

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What are the different ways people make musical sound?

There are several ways. The oldest is to use parts of the body clapping hands, snapping fingers, or singing. Next came the use of acoustic musical instruments; instruments that don't rely on electronic amplification to create a sound.

Most acoustic instruments have two major parts. The first is called the primary vibrator. The primary vibrator creates sound waves through friction (a violinist draws a bow across strings), plucking (a guitarist strums a guitar), or striking (a drummer beats a drum).

The second part of an acoustic instrument is called a resonator. The resonator takes the sound produced by the primary vibrator and makes it louder. The wooden body of a violin, for example, is its resonator.

Wind instruments, such as the clarinet or flute, and brass instruments, such as the trumpet, are special cases. They produce sound waves directly when air is blown through their mouth pieces. Since the sound waves produced have relatively loud volumes (amplitudes), wind and brass instruments don't need a resonator.

One wind instrument that does use resonance is the human voice. Skilled vocalists opera singers, in particular make remarkable use of the cavities in their heads (principally, the sinus cavities) and in their chests to make their voices as loud or louder than any other acoustic instrument. You can demonstrate this yourself by hearing how much louder and resonant your voice is when you yawn while singing a tone. Putting your throat in a yawning position activates the resonant cavities in your throat and chest.

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I am doing a paper for my college class on science and music. How has music affected science or the development of science?

There are many interdependent disciplines that use music and sound as a tool for research including:

Acoustics study of sound basics.
Psychoacoustics the study of sound and music perception.
Music Therapy the study of the effects of music on people's physical and mental health.
Computer Music the study of electronically produced and manipulated sound.

Check out these links to learn about the many different ways that music is used to pursue scientific research.

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What kinds of electronic instruments are there?

First, there are instruments such as the familiar electric guitar. They use electric amplification to increase their loudness and sometimes alter their tone color. Acoustic instruments become electric instruments when they are processed through the use of microphones, amplifiers, and loudspeakers.

Second, there are electronic musical instruments. These instruments use advanced, electronic technology to create sound directly without any of the technology of acoustic instruments. They do not use vibrators and resonators, and their sounds always come out of a loudspeaker. The newest and fastest-growing family of electronic musical instruments are called digital instruments. Digital instruments are based on computer technology.

For more information on the development of electronic musical instruments check out A Brief History of Electronic Instruments.

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How are computers used to make digital music?

Most of today's keyboards are really computers, they contain hardware circuitry to process and create musical information. They require electrical power to run, without it they can't make any sound at all! The computers that run them use binary numbers, 1's and 0's, to represent information about musical data. Because these musical data are expressed in numbers, we call this "digital music."

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Are there different kinds of digital musical instruments?

Yes, there are two basic catagories.

One is called sampling. A sample is a digital "snapshot," or recording, of an acoustic instrument's sound. The sample is stored digitally in computer memory, and is used as the "model" for recreating the instrument's sound.

Samplers like the Ensoniq EPS, ASR, EMU, Kurzweil 2500, etc. are among the most remarkable achievements of advanced computer technology. Samples contain an enormous amount of digitally encoded data about musical sound, and require large quantities of computer memory much more than is required for any other type of digital musical instrument. In order to be useful, samplers must be able to manipulate all of its data instantly in order to produce a note as soon as the musician strikes a key on the sampler.

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What are the other types of digital musical instruments?

Besides the sampler, the other type of digital musical instrument is the synthesizer. There are many different types, but all have one thing in common: unlike sampled sounds, synthesized sounds are built from scratch and shaped (or filtered) into the sound you hear.

A recent type of digital musical instrument is called the cross wave synthesizer. It combines the best features of sampling and synthesis. Another type is called a physical modeling synthesizer. It creates sounds based on the complex mathematical model of real acoustic sounds. The sounds it produces are incredibly realistic and dynamic. That is, they are able to electronically produce complex sounds that evolve in time, just like a real piano string or trumpet.

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What do computer-based musical instruments look like and how do you play them?

Today, most digital instruments are played with keyboards that look like pianos. Anyone who can play the piano can use a sampler and make music. However, if you can't play a keyboard if you're a guitarist or a saxophonist, for example then you can't play a keyboard synthesizer. To accommodate other musicians, recently engineers have been designing devices called "controllers" that are used to play digital instruments. Currently, these controllers resemble and are played using the same techniques as many different instruments that people use, including saxophones, guitars, drums, as well as piano-like keyboards.

However, some digital instrument designers believe there will eventually be controllers that are not based on the design of conventional acoustic instruments at all. Instead, controllers will be designed to make the best use of any and all physical resources that the human body has for controlling an instrument.

Most controllers and digital instruments being sold throughout the world are able to communicate with each other. That is, they're "compatible." This is because their data are all expressed in the same format, a computer language called MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface). Digital musical instruments probably have a higher degree of compatibility than any of the other electronic products now commonly used. Note, for example, that VHS video tape cannot be used on a Betamax system, nor can Apple software be used on an IBM PC. They're "incompatible." If music is our universal language, then MIDI is our universal computer music language.

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How will digital music technology affect the music of the future?

Digital instruments, because of their many advantages, are taking their place along side of acoustic instruments. Digital instruments are rapidly evolving along with the rest of computer technology and replacing each other, just as the piano replaced the harpsichord. However, since digital technology allows musicians access to the rich sounds of acoustic instruments, greater control of those sounds and the use of computer programs that aid in creating and arranging music, the future is bright for digital music technology. Much in the same way word-processing software aids writers in creating texts, digital technology helps to eliminate the drudgery and leave musicians and composers more time for the really important work: creativity.

Computer technology makes it easier for everyone to enjoy one of our greatest means for expressing feelings and ideas: music.

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"Music is the arithmetic of sounds
as optics is the geometry of light."

Claude Debussy


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