The Heart of the Sound

Even if we were to talk in cold twenty first century materialistic terminology, we would have to agree that at the end of the day, the product that we as musicians are selling is sound.
Can you imagine a musician who has wonderful ideas, is considered a virtuoso and possesses a perfect intonation, and yet, has an ugly unpleasant sound? Nobody will buy that.

When I once gave this example a student asked me: “Do you mean that everything is just wrapped by the sound? Are you telling us that the sound is like beautiful cellophane?”

I was a little embarrassed because what I felt was quite the opposite.

I asked myself why it was so difficult to talk about sound. The first and most important reason is that sound is very personal; It is one of the deepest and most distinctive watermarks of a musician.
It is very much like we recognize people by their unique voices. The other thing was that you cannot measure sound: we can measure the duration of a note, we can measure its loudness and its frequency, but we cannot measure the timbre. There is simply no physical measurement unit for timbre.

Many times we discuss the technical elements of sound production but we can’t learn much from that since I usually teach twenty students at the same time, they all learn the same things, ( DriveADoubleBass video no 5- How Does it Sound YouTube ), but each one of them has a distinctively different sound.

Sometimes we talk about certain characteristics of the sound such as overtones. We try to produce more or less of them, making the sound more treble or more bass like. I refer to the same thing as center and envelope. Another aspect I love to talk about is resonance. Resonance signifies for me the freedom and well being of the instrument as well as the rapport with the room and the ambiance.
Sometimes we use metaphors: we “orchestrate” the piece assigning one phrase to the flute, the next one to a French horn, then the flute is back and then a violin. We then play and we try to make it sound that way. The metaphor for the sound that I am personally looking for is velvet; I imagine the sound like velvet: soft touch and brilliant shine at the same time and as you know velvet comes in many colors.

Next time I came to class I brought one of my favorite texts: it is from C.S.Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew. This entire section in chapter eight describes how Narnia was created from a single sound.

“… A voice had begun to sing… there were no words. There was hardly even a tune. But it was, beyond comparison, the most beautiful noise he had ever heard. It was so beautiful he (Digory) could hardly bear it.”

I asked my students what they thought this was about or why I brought this quote to class.

“It all starts with sound” said one student. “The beauty of the sound is stronger than the words or the tune” said another. Then came an interesting question: “Is there expression in the very sound?”

Many years ago I took some time off and went to Paris. As I walked down the street my ears were attracted to a very special sound. I followed the sound until I saw a man about my age playing a Chinese bowed string instrument that I have never heard before. I can’t remember the tune he played but the sound and its sad expression have become part of me ever since.

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1 Response to The Heart of the Sound

  1. Fascinating article!!! Thank you for reminding me about your “metaphorically orchestrating” idea. I think this one is so great because it has so many possibilities in it, and it might be easier to relate to as it comes from the world of musical timbre. Congratulations for your new blog!

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