The Three Things Vibration Frequencies Do in an Instrument

There are basically three ways vibration data acts in an acoustic instrument. 1.) It is absorbed / damped / killed within the instrument. 2.) It is maintained as it continues to travel within the instrument. 3.) It is externally damped by the air (i.e., becomes sound).

If the instrument encourages #3 too much, it will sound loud, crisp, and dry. If too much #2, the instrument may reverb or feedback if mic’ed, and will sound wet, glossy, and inarticulate (but smooth). If too much #1, it will be quiet and dead.

Where it really gets interesting, though, is that it’s not just about balancing 1, 2, and 3–it’s about **how** 1, 2, and 3 are balanced throughout the entire frequency range. For instance, an instrument where no vibrations become #1 will sound unfocused and awful because the instrument would be letting all frequencies dominate at once, instead of tastefully carving away unwanted frequencies so a King David can emerge from the marble. Past this, if certain frequencies remain #2 while others become #3, you can get any variety of complex evolutions of sound from initial attack to final decay.

Introduction: The Importance of Perspective

A difficult part of writing a first entry is that a reader who doesn’t already know me has no context for anything that is said. This is the beginning of that context.

One place to start is the name I chose for this blog. The direct Greek translation for sophist is “pursuer of wisdom,” which is an extrapolation of the Greek word sophos, meaning “wisdom.”  This root word also shows up in philosophy (“love of wisdom”), sophomore ( “half wise, half moron”), sophisticated (“able to interpret complex, or subtle ideas and information”).

Lady Wisdom, the Holy Spirit, Sophia–any of the above.

Ironically, sophist has also been known to mean “one who uses deceptive or specious reasoning.” Not a good connotation. Think of a lawyer who intentionally uses fallacious rhetoric to obtain a desired verdict from a jury. In Socrates’ day, “sophist” was a title used for experts in classical studies (such as rhetoric, mathematics, music, etc.) who only taught for money and, according to Socrates’ critique, hoarded knowledge for only those who could pay for it. Not the Wikipedia contributors of their day. Despite all this, I hope you can disregard the word’s troubled etymology and interpret it plainly–as a one who pursues wisdom.

“The Death of Socrates” depicts the man about to ingest hemlock for the offense of corrupting the youth. His life centered on the idea that knowledge should be free.

This is a music philosophy blog, not a typical music theory website. I may write about individual aspects of music such as recording, mixing, conducting, teaching, technique for any instrument, instrument making and setup, acoustics, advanced jazz harmony, polyrhythm, vocal production and physiology, arranging and composing (formerly Sibelius, now Finale), etc., but the emphasis will be on unlikely and beneath-the-surface connections between any and all of these subcategories of music.

It feels like everyone specializes too much to have an adequately holistic perspective of music to draw much needed insightful and overlooked connections between all of the different aspects of music. “But I write and record my own songs!” one might say. Do you repair instruments? “I am a master jazz, classical, or rock soloist!” How are your arranging chops? But don’t criticize yourself–we should all specialize and judiciously limit dabbling at the cost of proficiency in one area. But, having a wide perspective creates an interdisciplinary synergy that is normally inaccessible to those who specialize pointedly.

There are *6* dogs here. Minor*6* chords sound smoky and mysterious. If they catch the game, they might smoke it, or they may mysteriously not. Coincidence?

Example #1: The ideal sound tech is a musician first, and technician second. Every sound tech I’ve ever worked with that wasn’t also a skilled instrumentalist and overall strong musician, regardless of what certifications they held, even if they were paid professionals, sucked in comparison to those who were strong musicians. This is probably a confirmation bias of remembering only those who botched things up, but I would still pick a dabbling musician to do my sound over a non-musician professional. They may or may not get the house mix perfect, but they understand the aural feedback needs of musicians. In this scenario, at least the musicians will be able to play musically. Musician sound techs understand that it is impossible to play well with poor aural feedback, and that playing with poor aural feedback is a sadistic and  soul crushing experience. Many of you have been there.

What I felt like doing to my last sound tech’s head. (Not actually. My editor compelled me to clarify my lack of real hatred.)

Example #2: Currently, I teach middle school orchestra. The total time in which I’ve played a cello, viola, or violin (I specialize in bass), is probably significantly less than some of my more gifted students. However, I can demonstrate to them on their own instrument an intuitive fingering or bowing on their own instruments that they may not have the musical maturity to instinctively know to do. It takes me a very small fraction of the practice time it takes a student to learn a part–even when they are more comfortable on that instrument than I am. Interdisciplinary insights lead to efficient methods that specialists can miss.

Example #3: Any musician that has ever recorded themselves has a huge learning advantage over any musician that hasn’t. Time spent woodshedding is drastically reduced when you record and critique your playing, especially if you are aiming to get as cleanly perfect a take as possible. A day in the studio (home or pro) is worth a month of practicing.

All of this to say that the broadness of wide perspective is a type of depth. This anti-focus is not an excuse to ramble. Rather, perspective creates unique contexts with which to turn unlikely connections between ideas into useful insights.