Archive for March 23, 2013

Musicians: The Authors of Mystery

Posted: March 23, 2013 in Piano
Vibrating string: fundamental vibration (top),...

Vibrating string: fundamental vibration (top), fundamental + 1 st harmonic (middle), fundamental + 1 st and 2 nd harmonics (bottom), the amplitude of an harmonic is half the preceeding harmonic; made with Scilab and Jasc Animation Shop 2.02 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Musicians are nearer to God, it is often said.

Let me entertain you for a moment with an awesome and mysterious thought about the angelic voices of a choir.

A piano wire, or guitar string, will easily enable you to produce the harmonics of a sound. This much you probably already know.  Lightly touch the midpoint of the string as you strike it and you will hear the first harmonic of the fundamental.  The fundamental will not sound because your touch interrupted the vibration across the entire length of the string. What you are hearing is the sound made by half the string, vibrating at twice the rate of the fundamental.

If you touch the string at other intervals, you will only hear the harmonic that corresponds with that length of vibrating string.

Okay. Go to your piano. Hold down C3 without striking the wire with the hammer. Then strike a staccato C4. You will hear the fundamental of C4, but it will be produced by C3. Let go of C3 now and you will hear that the C4 pitch stops ringing. It was the harmonic that was playing on C3. C4 triggered that part of sound wave through a transfer of air movement.

Next. Let’s find the fifth. Hold down C3 again without striking the wire. Now strike a staccato G4. You should hear G4 as it is sounded by C3. Try C5 and G5. Try C6, E6, G6 and B6.

You should be able to hear all those harmonics in the untriggered C3.


Next, you will need four singers for this next part. Go to a large church with a cathedral ceiling. (You might have to use your imagination on this step.)

Have your singers sing an open-voiced fortissimo C chord, closed on the octave. Direct them to stop at the same time. (Good luck with that!)

As the fundamental pitches echo in the cathedral diminish in volume, you will hear “other” pitches bounding off the walls. Those pitches are the complementary harmonics that NO ONE IS SINGING.

Those are the “angelic voices”. They are voices that are produced by the harmonics of the fundamentals that are being sung. No voice sings those frequencies, and yet they are heard.

The quality of an instrument is found in its ability to replicate exact harmonics. The physical attributes that permit this are called the “scale” of an instrument. But when an untrained ear hears those extra voices: those “other worldly” voices, it seems reasonable to attribute them to other worldly beings – angels, singing with the voice of God.

Musicians are often the authors of mystery.

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