Encyclopedia of Earth and Physical Sciences - Vol. 7

By Joyce Tavolacci | Go to book overview

MUSICAL ACOUSTICS
Musical acoustics is the science
of musical sound and musical
instruments

Music is a way of organizing sounds to make people feel different kinds of emotions, while acoustics is the science of how sounds are made and how they travel through the air. Musical acoustics, then, is the science of making music. It explains how musical instruments make sound and why one type of instrument sounds different from another. Although musical acoustics is part of the physics of sound, music really exists only in the mind of a listener, so some aspects of the subject are concerned as much with the physiology of the human ear and the psychology of human perception as with physical science (see SOUND).


THE THEORY OF MUSICAL SOUND

Sound is a type of energy that travels from something that makes a noise, such as a percussionist hanging a drum, to the ears of a listener. It moves in compression waves from the source of the sound to the lis tener by alternately squeezing the air (in places called compressions) and stretching the air (at points called rarefactions), a little like an accordion (see WAVE MECHANICS). Different types of sound produce waves of different size and shape, which human ears and brains detect as noises of different pitch and loudness. It the noises have a certain regularity to them and are played in a logical way that sounds pleasant, people may choose to hear them as music; other people, raised in different cultures, times, or parts of the world, may hear them only as noise. Although people generally agree on the difference between music and noise, the distinction between them is essentially a highly subjective one.


Vibration and resonance

Objects make sounds when they vibrate. If someone flicks a wine glass, his or her moving finger transfers some of its kinetic energy (energy of movement) to the glass (see ENERGY; THERMODYNAMICS). According to a basic principle of physics called the conservation of energy, that energy cannot simply disappear.

CORE FACTS
Musical sounds are produced when instruments vibrate
and resonate, changing kinetic energy into sound waves
of a particular pitch (frequency) and loudness (intensity).
String and pipe-based instruments make sounds by
creating standing waves inside them.
The sound produced by an instrument is a complex
mixture of a loud, basic frequency (the fundamental) and
quieter, higher frequencies (harmonics or overtones).
Instruments sound different from one another because
they produce a different mixture of harmonics and
because the amplitude of the sound they make changes
in different ways over time.

This cello produces a note when the bow makes a string
vibrate. When transmitted to the air inside the instrument’s
hollow body, this vibration produces a sound wave.

The glass has to absorb it somehow, and it does so by moving back and forth so quickly that movement cannot be seen. As the glass vibrates, it stretches and squeezes the air around it. The air starts vibrating too, carrying sound energy out from the glass to the ears, which hear a ringing noise. The energy that reaches the ears is some of the energy that originally came from the moving finger. Like most other musical instruments, the glass makes music by converting kinetic energy into sound energy.

CONNECTIONS
Most musical
instruments work by
converting kinetic
ENERGY into
SOUND energy.
The ACOUSTICS
of a room dramatically
alters the way people
hear musical sounds.

-1001-

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