Physics and Music

Like many musicians, I have an interest in the physics of sound, but not a formal background in the science. I recently came across this great YouTube video of Dr. Robert Astalos and Dr. Tracy Doyle giving a talk on physics and music at Adams State University (I taught there back in the early 2000s, although at the time it was Adams State College).

Dr. Robert Astalos, associate professor of physics, and Dr. Tracy Doyle, professor of music, provide a uniquely collaborative view into how music works via “mediums”, and why tones sound different on various instruments, utilizing the underlying principles of physics.

They go over a great discussion and demonstration of the harmonic series and how instruments, such as the euphonium, flute, and guitar, play over the harmonic series. There’s a discussion of tuning systems too. There’s a piano performance by Dr. Bill Lipke, who has been teaching at ASU since I was teaching there (it was sure cool to see a familiar face in this video).

While I didn’t learn anything that was completely new to me, the nuances discussed and the demonstrations were fascinating to me. I was particularly interested in the wave demonstrator that Astalos used to show how the standing wave gets subdivided to play over the harmonic series.

Brass Embouchure Aperture

The embouchure “aperture” is defined as the hole in which air passes through as the brass musician plays the instruments, but there is a degree of controversy over what the aperture is doing while sustaining a pitch. More specifically, a number of players and teachers claim that the aperture is always open while blowing. Here are just a few.

Technically, the aperture is always open while playing, otherwise air would not be moving through the lips. For our intents, think of the size of the aperture as being on a sliding scale that oscillates  between varying degrees of openness and closedness.

Open vs Closed Aperture

For years we have been told that our lips are supposed to be buzzing at all times when we play any notes. In fact, the lips must vibrate but NOT in the close configurations as when we do lip buzzing.

Four Fundamentals of Troubleshooting For Brass Players

We need to tighten our lips in order to play, but the lips themselves should always be squeezing against a lovely cushion of air, not squeezing against each other.

. . .

The smaller a gap is the quicker the air has to travel to get through it, but there must always be a gap.

The Aperture

As air is forced through the lips, the lips never touch each other. Instead, they oscillate because of the shifts in air pressure, turbulent eddies in the mouthpiece and elasticity of the skin.

Practical Brass Physics to Improve Your Teaching and Playing

Similarly, the aperture must remain open and oval in shape.

Common Problems Among Trumpet Players

To add to the confusion, many teachers and players also describe the embouchure aperture as needing to be “open” or “closed,” but appear to be talking about the general size or shape of the aperture overall, rather than keeping the lips completely in an open position while playing. I’ve also read some players describe an “open” aperture as one where the player begins the pitch with the lips in an open position and a “closed” aperture where the lips are touching and the aperture is blown apart to start.

The trouble with all the above is that it is speculation, largely based on playing sensations. Since a great deal of brass playing happens inside the mouthpiece at high speed, where we really can’t easily see what’s going on, we’re going to inherently rely on what we think is happening. However, there have been several observational studies which clearly show the brass embouchure functioning, so we don’t need to speculate. Look at the following videos and see whether the embouchure aperture remains open.

It’s quite clear from all this video footage that the embouchure aperture opens and closes rapidly during the production of a tone on a brass instrument. Further details show that the higher the pitch the smaller overall the aperture gets at it’s largest spot while lower notes have a larger opening at the most open end of the cycle. Likewise, louder notes end up with the aperture cycle being larger and softer notes have a smaller cycle. In spite of what the earlier players and teachers claim, it really doesn’t appear that brass musicians play with their aperture open at all times.

Why is this important? Well for one, I find it interesting and think describing the actual function of brass playing correctly to be more honest. There’s really nothing wrong with teaching and practicing with analogy or inaccurate playing sensations leading our technique – so long as those are understood to be analogies. But playing sensations are different from player to player. Leading a student to efficient playing technique may be effective by asking her to play with an “open aperture,” but if the student is too loose in the first place then this advice could lead to the a more extreme problem. Even if the analogy initially works, mistaking it for truth can lead to the student continuing to move towards that analogy and take it too far in the long term.

Facts do matter. If you’re going to teach by analogy just make a quick point to clarify that this is just “how you like to feel or think of it.” Teach the truth.

Artificial Lips For Acoustics Study (and fun)

I’ve been meaning to blog about this topic for a few months now, ever since I got an email from someone asking about whether I was aware of any acoustical research projects in brass instruments using artificial lips that take into account air stream direction. As far as I know, there haven’t been any. My recollection is that the emailer was a grad student conducting research, but I’ve lost the email and my reply. If that was you (or you are similarly conducting research using artificial lips to play brass instruments), please email me again or post a comment here and tell us what you found out.

Recently I came across a couple of videos from Youtube user iSax Laboratories. This first one is a description of how they built a robot to play trombone.

And in this one we get to see and hear it in action.

He agrees with some of the commenters that it’s not a very good sound. I have to give him a lot of credit for trying this out and even if it’s not going to replace human musicians just yet, it’s a neat proof-of-concept.

Regular readers of this blog will probably already know that human musicians don’t place the mouthpiece dead center on the lips. Some of that is certainly due to the “foundation” of the teeth and gums behind the lips. However, one lip or another must predominate inside the mouthpiece and we know that the embouchure will either function as a downstream or upstream embouchure. I asked iSax Laboratories about this on his YouTube comments section and he replied that he had tried some different positions and settled on the one in the above video, where it seemed to work best.

There have been some other similar attempts. Back around 2010 Toyota built robots that apparently really played brass instruments. It supposedly blows air into the instrument and has artificial lips to produce the sound. However, I’m skeptical that the artificial lips are similar to the above robot. There has been acoustic research that uses oscillators as “artificial lips,” but I’m not certain how these Toyota robots recreate the brass embouchure. Check out the following video and look to see if you can see any artificial lips on this robot.

If the artificial lips attempt to recreate a human musician’s lips I can’t spot them on this robot. It is somewhere inside the robot, since the robot’s “mouth” seems to be simply a round hole. At least that’s what it looks like to me in this video. The resolution isn’t high enough to see any better.

Back in 2018 Uri Shaked tried to build a robot to play trumpet. You can read more about his attempt, titled “We tried to build a Robot that plays the Trumpet and Happily Failed (Sometimes Failure is The Best Option).”

On our way to Geekcon, we stopped at a local grocery store and got a plastic jar for pasta storage. As soon as we arrived the hackathon, Avi hooked it up to some lips he improvised from water-filled latex gloves, drilled a small hole in the jar, and hooked the air pump output to it, and pressed the trumpet against the lips. After a few minutes of tinkering with the position of the lips and the pressure applied by his fingers — there it was: a pure trumpet sound!

Go to the link I posted above to see more videos of their experiments, including some with robotic fingers as well.

There have been several studies done that use artificial lips to study acoustics and instrument design. As best as I can tell, the first design of using tubes filled with water was done in 1997 by J. Gilbert and J.F. Pettiot for a paper published in Proc. Institute of Acoustics, titled “Brass instruments, some theoretical and experimental results.” I haven’t read this paper, just seen references to it, so I can’t comment on it. A number of papers I have refer to their design of artificial lips as the one used to conduct additional research.

J. Wolfe, A.Z. Tarnopolsky, N.H. Fletcher, L.C.L. Hollenberg, and J. Smith published a paper titled “Some Effects of the Player’s Vocal Track and Tongue On Wind Instrument Sound” in 2003. They used two different artificial players. One used fluid filled latex “lips” that appears to be similar in design to Gilbert’s and Pettiot’s one. The other they described as, “a simple cantilever spring. We call this version of the player Phyl, for ‘PHYsicist’s Lips’.” (Wolfe, et al)

In 2007 Seona Bromage’s thesis used artificial lips made of latex rubber tubes filled with water. Bromage’s paper includes this image, which suggests that the mouthpiece was centered on the artificial lips.

– Visualization of the Lip Motion of Brass Instrument Players, and Investigations of an Artificial Mouth as a Tool for Comparative Studies of Instruments, Seona Bromage, p. 11

Here’s a photograph of the actual “mouth.”

– Visualization of the Lip Motion of Brass Instrument Players, and Investigations of an Artificial Mouth as a Tool for Comparative Studies of Instruments, Seona Bromage, p. 22

Bromage also compared the artificial lips playing a trombone to actual musicians playing, using a transparent mouthpiece. I have to admit that the discussion of the physics involved went over my head, so I’m not sure what to think of the results of this paper.

In fact, I’m not sure what to make of any of these acoustics papers. I *think* that I’m following the general discussion, but an awful lot of the physics are beyond my understanding. Combine that with the use of terms that mean something different to me (for example, upstream and downstream are terms that I would use to describe the general direction the air is directed as it passes the lips into the mouthpiece, but in physics they mean something completely different).

Just as musicians like me are not usually well trained in physics, I doubt that the physicists studying the acoustics of brass instrument have a well informed understanding of brass embouchure mechanics. To be honest, I don’t find many brass musicians have an accurate understanding of embouchure mechanics either. For the purposes of their physics research I guess it doesn’t make that much difference, but I am curious if modeling the lips in a more realistic way would maybe provide some insights that we could use to advance our understanding of instrument construction or brass pedagogy.

Again, if you’re engaged in research like the above, please leave a comment or drop me a line. I’d like to hear more about this and see if I can wrap my head a little better around this topic.

Exciting Your Instrument Without Moving Air

Here’s an interesting video put together by Dr. Richard Smith, a scientist, musician, and instrument maker. In this video he demonstrates something that seems counterintuitive – you don’t have to blow air through the instrument in order for it to function normally.

A few years ago I had heard about this experiment and tried to recreate it. I drilled a hole through the cup of an old mouthpiece and tried setting up the membrane to block the air from going through. It didn’t work. Later I came across his technical paper on the topic and learned that I needed to set the membrane up before the shank of the mouthpiece. But it looks like what is really important was to set up a “shank” that directs the air out of the mouthpiece and instrument.

It was almost impossible to get the lips to vibrate under these conditions of using a small side hole. However, a solution was found by comparing this acoustical problem with the electrical analogy of a.c./d.c. decoupling – as used in most electronic circuits. This shows that a resistance is needed for the d.c. flow to occur. To provide this resistance acoustically, a narrow tube was placed in the side hole to give enough air resistance for the lips to vibrate against and to enable sustained vibration.

Maybe I will have to go back and find that old mouthpiece and see if I can set it up correctly and try it out. It would take more skill (and the proper tools) than I currently possess, but I have a couple of friends that would probably be interested enough in goofing around with it to give me a hand.


I came across this video on an online forum devoted to brass pedagogy. Some of the ensuing comments bugged me. Here are some actual quotes from that forum.

He is right. Air does not have to travel through the tube. Unfortunately we have a tough time wiggling our lips back and forth 200 and more times per second. I just tried it. Nope. Wait. About 6 per second just now.

While this is perhaps a legitimate consideration for the purpose of teaching brass technique, it’s really a straw man complaint. In his video Smith in fact goes out of his way to explicitly state that air is needed to set the lips to vibrate, but the point of his demonstration is the fact that once the air passes the lips there’s no physical law that the air needs to actually move through the instrument in order for it to work normally.

Just because you and I can’t think of an immediate pedagogical application of Smith’s demonstration doesn’t mean that there isn’t one.

What would be massively helpful is if he didn’t sound like trash doing it the way we all do it.

Again, the complaint here does have a bit of validity, but this too is irrelevant to the intention of Smith’s demonstration video. As best as I can tell, Smith’s background is mainly in acoustics and instrument design and construction. For all I know his main instrument may not be any of the instruments he is demonstrating in this video. He may be too busy building instruments and researching acoustics to do much practice these days. In no way does his ability to play a brass instrument negate the factual statements he makes.

Purely pointless IMHO.

Personally, I feel that being this dismissive is a shame coming from a teacher. Teachers are supposed to inspire curiosity and creative thinking. The point I made above about not passing judgement just because we don’t think of an immediate relevance to teaching brass applies here. But more importantly, discouraging students from exploring this video also dissuades students from learning about topics other than music. I’ve had and have students who have no intention of going into music as a career path, and some who have even been physics majors. I wonder how one of those students would feel to find me disparaging a factually correct demonstration of acoustics like this.

But if you need some practical applications, you don’t have to look very far. Simply pay close attention to what Smith says in his video. He mentions how without needing to blow air through the instrument you wouldn’t need a spit valve or need to clean the instrument out regularly. In the paper Smith recalls how research into the a.c./d.c. effect of brass acoustics has influenced the way in which instruments were tested for design and construction faults.

Pedagogical applications of this research are a little harder to think of, but not impossible. One could use the altered mouthpiece sort of like running with small weights strapped to your wrists and feet. Playing exercises or music would require more effort and could potentially be useful for advanced players to build playing endurance. Another thought I had was that if the mouthpiece could be tweaked enough so that it played similarly enough to playing the instrument normally one could design an almost perfectly silent practice mute. Practice mutes tend to be very stuffy and while that can be used in a manner similar to what I just mentioned, it makes relying on a practice mute for long term practice less ideal. Imagine a combination of a practice mute with this type of mouthpiece so that it would feel almost like playing with an open horn while being quiet enough to practice late at night in a hotel room.

Here’s an excerpt from a much longer response to Smith’s demonstration video.

Gotta love these quacks.

There are SO MANY OF THEM!!!

Whadda waste of time!!!

Whadda buncha MAROONS!!!



Tuvan Throat Singing and Harmonics

I’ve been fascinated by harmonic singing for a long time, ever since I first heard that it was possible for singers to produce more than one pitch at a time. There are different musical traditions that make use of harmonic singing, but to me the most interesting is the traditional music of Tuva. While I’m no expert, my curiosity led me to explore the techniques and taught myself the basics.

Mike Ruiz is a former colleague of mine. In addition to being a fine classical pianist, Mike is a physics professor at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, where I used to teach in the music department. I’ve enjoyed picking his brain in the past about acoustics and recently Mike asked me to assist him with some physics education articles and videos he was producing. He was interested in trombone multiphonics, but in the course of our conversation I mentioned the harmonic singing. The resulting article is called Tuvan Throat Singing and Harmonics. The abstract can be read here. Here’s the video abstract.

At the same time that I demonstrated the Tuvan throat singing technique for Mike I also demonstrated trombone multiphonics as well, including some techniques that incorporated the throat constriction used for harmonic singing. When I put together trombone multiphonics with harmonic singing I have been able to come up with some interesting sounds that are similar to what you might hear on a didgeridoo. If and when that paper gets published, I will post about it here too.

In the mean time, here’s an older post on trombone multiphonics.

The Influence of Tongue Position On Brass Playing

Back in 2003 some physicists from Australia (Wolfe, Tarnopolsky, Fletcher, Hollenberg, and Smith) presented at the Stockholm Music Acoustics Conference on research they conducted on the role of the tongue position on didjeridu and the trombone.

Many players of wind instruments talk of the perceived importance of the shape of the mouth on the sound. In the case of the didjeridu, the effect on the timbre is so clear as to be incontestable. Among scientists, however, there is considerable variation in opinion about the effect on pitch [1- 4]. In this paper we report experiments on well-characterised model systems: artificial wind instrument players. Using plausible values of the relevant parameters, these show that vocal tract shapes can have important effects on both pitch and timbre.

Many brass performers and teachers, including myself, have cited Bernoulli’s principle as assisting the air speed as it strikes the vibrating lips for the importance of tongue position while playing. I’ve asked some physics teachers and engineers about this and almost all of them, with some exceptions, have suggested that this might be true. That said, this presentation was focused on the vocal tract impedance (if I understand this correctly, that is how the shape of the vocal tract influence pitch and timbre of a particular pitch).

On the didjeridu the influence was quite strong, perhaps in part due to the larger bore size of the instrument and the much larger vibrating area (there are a lot more of the lips inside the “mouthpiece” of the didjeridu than inside a trombone mouthpiece). They did note that it was an influence on the trombone, however.

The shift in pitch, over the range studied, is typically 20cents: a musically important effect for intonation. Preliminary measurements on experienced brass players showed a comparable shift in pitch when they were asked to lower the tongue, keeping all else constant.

They also noted that a change in tongue position can “cause a transition between different playing register.” In other words, you can shift tongue position and change partials on a brass instrument.

This has some interesting implications for brass performers and teachers. Some folks swear that they keep their tongue position consistent, regardless of what register they play in. This view is in the minority and I suspect that players who claim this aren’t even aware of their shifting tongue position. That said, different people are going to have variations in the size and shape of their mouth and tongue and it would be interesting to compare those players. I’m also curious about the difference between different traditional brass instruments. Do trumpet players change the position of their tongue more or less than tuba players?

Regardless, I think that research like this suggests that tongue position is an important part of playing in tune and with a focused tone on a brass instrument. Players and teachers dealing with intonation issues or poor tone may want to investigate what is happening with the tongue position and work out practice approaches that can help a player learn how to achieve an optimal tongue position according to the register being played.

A 440 Tuning – Here Are Several Bad Reasons To Convert To Another Tuning Standard

Yesterday morning I was doing one of my rare scans through my Facebook feed and found a link to the article, Here’s Why You Should Consider Converting Your Music To A=432 Hz. I found it to be a word salad of staggeringly bad logic and motivated reasoning. As an exercise, I wanted to go through some of the claims by author Elina St-Onge and show how her ideas lack merit and in many cases contain outright lies.

First, a little background about A440. This term refers to the tuning standard currently favored in the United States and the United Kingdom, where A4 is tuned to 440 Hz. The precise tuning of this A is arbitrary, historically pitch standards varied widely over Europe (and this discussion ignores pitch systems used by musical styles from other cultures in Africa and India, for example, that don’t separate the octave into the same pitches European-influenced music does). The use of the A to tune is an artifact of the strings instruments. Orchestral string instruments tune the strings to different pitches, but all include an open string tuned to A, which make it a convenient note for the entire orchestra to tune to. Some instruments, such as my primary instrument of the trombone, are arguably tuned easier to pitches other than A.

St-Onge begins her article quoting scientists out of context and demonstrates that she is scientifically illiterate.

Tesla said it. Einstein Agreed (sic). Science proved it. It is a known fact that everything—including our own bodies—is made up of energy vibrating at different frequencies.

I won’t deconstruct her misuse of the idea that matter=energy, but instead refer you to an expert, particle physicist Matt Strassler. See his article for the layperson titled Matter and Energy: A False Dichotomy for the real story on this. For our purposes the following bits from Strassler’s summary are important.

Matter and Energy really aren’t in the same class and shouldn’t be paired in one’s mind.

Matter, in fact, is an ambiguous term; there are several different definitions used in both scientific literature and in public discourse. Each definition selects a certain subset of the particles of nature, for different reasons. Consumer beware! Matter is always some kind of stuff, but which stuff depends on context.

Energy is not ambiguous (not within physics, anyway). But energy is not itself stuff; it is something that all stuff has.

A good working definition of energy is “work potential.” Any time you read the term “energy” in St-Onge’s article replace it with “work potential” and see if the sentence makes sense.

Continuing, St-Onge writes:

The way frequencies affect the physical world has been demonstrated through various experiments such as the science of Cymatics and water memory.

Cymatics is basically the study of how sound can be used to excite a physical medium, such as a metal plate, and create visual patterns of liquid, particles, or a paste on the medium. This is a legitimate scientific area, but the science in no way suggests that the specific tuning system used by musicians has any effect whatsoever on your sense of well being or enjoyment of the music. The idea that water has a memory is simply wrong. Brian Dunning has done a thorough deconstruction of the water “experiments” of Masaru Emoto if you want more information. Even if we charitably assume that this has some scientific merit, which it absolutely does not, it is quite a leap to presume it somehow supports the idea that tuning to A432 is somehow better.

Continuing with St-Onge:

We all hold a certain vibrational frequency…

She doesn’t cite a source for this factual statement. The only online sources I found are pseudoscientific and not trustworthy sources. There’s also a lot of discrepancy over what “vibrational frequency” human beings are supposed to have, and I didn’t see anything suggesting that A432 somehow relates.

With this concept in mind, let us bring our attention to the frequency of the music we listen to. Most music worldwide has been tuned to A=440 Hz since the International Standards Organization (ISO) promoted it in 1953. However, when looking at the vibratory nature of the universe, it’s possible that this pitch is disharmonious with the natural resonance of nature and may generate negative effects on human behaviour (sic) and consciousness.

Does the universe have a vibratory nature? All sorts of things vibrate at different frequencies. It’s how we have music made of different pitches. How can the vibration of things in the universe be disharmonious with the vibration of things in the universe? It’s like stating the color green isn’t in balance with the colors of the rainbow.

Some theories, although just theories, even suggest that the nazi (sic) regime has been in favor of adopting this pitch as standard after conducting scientific researches to determine which range of frequencies best induce fear and aggression.

I have three points to make here. First of all, Goodwin’s Law applies. Invoking Nazis to make your point about musical tuning automatically makes your point invalid. Secondly, St-Onge is misusing the term “theory” in the scientific context (gravity is a theory, it’s also a fact). Lastly, her statement here is a historical question that can be answered through actual evidence. In fact, the standardization of tuning to A440 was around well before the Nazi’s came to power. Even if it were true that 1930s Germany was somehow conspiratorially responsible for today’s tuning system, there is no credible evidence that it will “best induce fear and aggression.”

432 Hz is said to be mathematically consistent with the patterns of the universe. It is said that 432 Hz vibrates with the universe’s golden mean PHI and unifies the properties of light, time, space, matter, gravity and magnetism with biology, the DNA code and consciousness. When our atoms and DNA start to resonate in harmony with the spiraling pattern of nature, our sense of connection to nature is said to be magnified. The number 432 is also reflected in ratios of the Sun, Earth, and the moon as well as the precession of the equinoxes, the Great Pyramid of Egypt, Stonehenge, the Sri Yantra among many other sacred sites.

Wow. I suggest that if your references cite astrology and alchemy as corroboration, then your hypothesis needs an awful lot of revision. There is no credible evidence that anything in the above paragraph is true and should be taken seriously.

Another interesting factor to consider is that the A=432 Hz tuning correlates with the color spectrum and chakra system while the A=440 Hz isn’t aligned.

Chakras, chi, innate energy (whatever you want to call it) cannot be measured, has never been shown to have any effect on the physical world, and is, to put it mildly, baloney. How can you correlate something that cannot be observed or measured to a measurable vibrational frequency?

Now there are some evidence-based studies that look at color and pitch relationships. Folks with absolute pitch, for example, frequently have an association of color with a particular pitch. However, even if we charitably assume that A432 somehow is more aligned with the visible spectrum of color, this doesn’t say anything about whether it makes the music more meaningful.

Let’s explore the experiential difference between A=440 Hz and A=432 Hz. The noticeable difference music lovers and musicians have noticed with music tuned in A=432 Hz is that it is not only more beautiful and harmonious to the ears, but it also induces a more inward experience that is felt inside the body at the spine and heart. Music tuned in A=440 Hz was felt as a more outward and mental experience, and was felt at the side of the head which projected outwards. Audiophiles have also stated that A=432hz music seems to be non-local and can fill an entire room, whereas A=440hz can be perceived as directional or linear in sound propagation.

While you can find musicians and audiophiles who prefer one tuning system over another, there is again no credible evidence that it makes a noticeable difference in how harmonious it sounds or the experience of most listeners. Acoustician Trevor Cox wrote of an informal web experiment he put together to test this.

People may think that music sounds better at 432 Hz and therefore applying a pitch shifter to their favourite tunes will improve quality, but for people who took part in my experiment this wasn’t true. 432 Hz and 440Hz were rated with equal preference. This doesn’t surprise me, because when we hear a melody it is mostly about relative pitch.

Back to St-Onge:

I cannot state with complete certainty that every idea suggested in this article is 100% accurate…

Of course no one can state with complete certainty, but she is either being disingenuous here or covering outright lies. If you’re going to use the veneer of science to prop up your arguments you should do your homework and cite your sources. Don’t be wishy-washy at the end and cover your butt at the inevitable deconstruction of poor thinking.

For this reason, I suggest that we each do our own research on the matter with an open yet discerning mind if we are looking for scientific validation. Perhaps more scientific validation could be done in the near future to explore this topic.

St-Onge again demonstrates scientific illiteracy here. Looking for “scientific validation” is what she did in her article. She searched for resources that supported her preconceived notions about what tuning standard she feels is better, and then ignored anything contrary. If you want to investigate this topic scientifically you should subject the ideas to a test that can actually disprove your hypothesis. If you can’t, then you may be on to something. But looking for validation is only going to reinforce your personal bias, not answer the real question.

I believe we all possess intuition and the ability to observe without judgment, which can be more useful than resorting to ridicule when exposed to information that has not yet been accepted by the scientific community.

It’s good to be nonjudgemental, but St-Onge needs to understand it’s not the information that is being ridiculed here, it’s her lack of critical thinking. At least she finally acknowledged that the evidence she used is unscientific.

Why gripe about this article? Because critical thinking is an important skill and is too neglected in music education. Motivated reasoning and illogic leads to incorrect conclusions and can even result in folks making poor choices when faced with a serious mental or physical illness. The bottom line is that if you enjoy music tuned down to A432 then that is reason enough to do it. There’s no magical reason why it’s better or worse than A440 and there’s more evidence that it makes no difference on your personal enjoyment of the music than that it does. And there is absolutely no credible evidence that it will have any effect on your mental or physical well being.

Aural Illusions

Many of us are familiar with visual illusions that trick your eyes (or rather, your brain) into thinking it’s seeing something different than what’s really there (for example, square A and square B are exactly the same color in the image to the right). But are you familiar with some of the aural illusions that have been discovered? Meara O’Reilly has a bunch up on her web site.

Meara O’Reilly is a sound artist and educator, in residence at the Exploratorium. Current ongoing projects include a curated collection of auditory illusions as found in indigenous folk music traditions, as well as adapting more scientifically established auditory illusions to be presented on homemade acoustic instruments.

The Shepard tone is one of the best known aural illusions. Because each pitch consists of multiple octaves when a continuous scale is played it creates the illusion that the scale isn’t going higher or lower.

The Wessel Illusion was a new one to me.

The Wessel Illusion demonstrates how timbre can determine the way in which we perceptually group notes in a melody.

Three notes, rising in pitch but alternating in timbre, are played slowly. When this sequence is played faster, it’s possible to hear the trajectory of the melody change.

There are a whole bunch of other aural illusions and other neat things to explore over at O’Reilly’s web site. Some neat musical examples as well as the basic illusions. Check them out further here.

“Associated Risks” of Trumpet Pedal Tones

Quite a bit ago now in the comments section of another post, Lyle (check out his Music Therapy blog) asked me about what I had referred to as the “associated risks” of practicing pedal tones. I have a number of times recommended here that trumpet players avoid practicing many pedal tones or even avoid them altogether. In my opinion, the benefits trumpet players get from pedal tones can be achieved by practicing other things. Furthermore, sometimes players on all brass play their extreme low range in a way that is fundamentally different from how they play the rest of the range. This encourages bad habits in the rest of the range, hence my comment about “associated risks.”

First, a definition of terms to help avoid confusion. Pedal tones on most brass instruments are usually defined as the fundamental pitch (“pedal” Bb on trombone, for example). The next partial up in the overtone series is an octave up, then the perfect 5th, etc. You will see in standard literature the occasional pedal tone called for tuba, and the rest of the low brass and horns see them fairly frequently in standard solo and orchestral repertoire.

Trumpets are a slightly different animal, though. First, the design of the trumpet has an acoustical impedance that makes their “pedal C” below the treble clef staff not quite function acoustically quite the same way it does on the other brass. Furthermore, trumpet players usually talk about the pitches between low F# and pedal C also as “pedal tones.” In contrast,  other brass players tend to call those “fake tones.” You essentially are bending the pitch lower than it wants to slot, there’s no partial there to actually play. All these “pedal tones” rarely show up in the standard trumpet literature and when they do, they usually used as a special effect.

So for the purpose of my discussion here, I’m mainly writing for trumpet players, not the other brass instrumentalists. The other brass instruments not only have to play pedal tones in musical situations much more, but also the construction of the instruments tend to make playing pedal tones properly much easier. That said, there are situations where I would instruct a student on any other brass to temporarily stop playing pedals (or even just below a certain low pitch) because the way he or she is playing them is similar to what’s happening with the trumpet pedal tones as I’ll be describing them.

The gist of my argument here, if you don’t care to read past for the details, is that many brass players will excessively practice playing their extreme low register in a way that works horribly for the rest of the range. Trumpet players in particular, due I believe in part to the construction of the instrument, are prone to developing playing issues from excessive pedal tone practice.

Donald Reinhardt, who was one of the primary sources for my dissertation, was quite adamant that he didn’t want his trumpet students practicing pedal tones.

Many years ago, back in Sousa’s time, a well-known cornet virtuoso accidentally discovered that by the daly practice of sustained, fortissimo, chromatically descending pedal tones (from the pedal “C” on down) with various modes of articulation, the extreme upper tones became playable, at least momentarily. After exhaustive experimentation, however, he found that his “falsetto-type high register” was extremely short-lived. After this time the register would return to less than normal.

One of my eighteen instructors related such a pedal tone case. This performer, however, had lasted for a year and a half before the register reduction became apparent. The pedal theory calls upon enormous amounts of embouchure vibrating area to respond in a very slow, relaxed fashion for the various pedal tones being played. The embouchure formation is then supposed to be capable of tremendous pinching or pucker power for the much tenser, more rapid vibrations of the extreme upper register of the cornet or trumpet. In some cases this immediate upper register response (directly following the pedal tone practice) did result in the playing of a few “falsetto” high tones; however, the results were nil after a few attempts.

Even now we have some of the pedal tone instructors, and each one claims to be the first. I might say this so-called method was in the books long before any of these gentlemen were born. It is true that they have added to the exercises in the pedal register and have systematized the procedure; however, I can assure that eventually the net result will be the same as when it was introduced over sixty years ago.

Donald Reinhardt, Encyclopedia of the Pivot System

According to a tape I have of Reinhardt giving a trumpet lesson in 1980 he stated that the cornet virtuoso from the quote above was Harold Stambaugh, who played with Sousa from 1920-1929. Reinhardt also elaborated in this lesson that while many pedal tone advocates have great range and sound, he found their staccato articulations weak. He found that trumpet players who practiced a great deal of pedal tones had a tendency to bring the embouchure characteristics that work fine for pedal tones into their normal playing range, limiting their abilities to articulate staccato passages cleanly.

The way that pedal tones can potentially mess with a brass musicians depends in part on the player’s embouchure type. Playing a lot of pedal tones on the trumpet tend to encourage the trumpet player to put a lot of upper lip inside the mouthpiece. Some method books even specifically instruct you to you place the mouthpiece like this to practice pedal tones. This is fine if you’re a “very high placement” embouchure type. If you’re a low placement type, however, you end up with a pedal tone embouchure (downstream, probably) and an embouchure for the rest of your range (upstream). There is a noticeable shift where this happens that you can usually both see and hear, if you’re paying attention for it. Here is an example I noticed on YouTube.

Notice how he has to set his mouthpiece placement very high on the lips to play the pedal, essentially playing with a “very high placement” embouchure type. In order to get up into his normal playing range, however, he is forced to physically pull the mouthpiece off his lips and slide it down to a “low placement” embouchure type, a shift you can both see and hear quite clearly in that example. This is one way practicing pedals for upstream trumpet players can be so destructive. You essentially encourage a mouthpiece placement that works exactly opposite of how you should be playing. Here’s an example I happened video myself.

[jwplayer mediaid=”4454″]

This particular musician is an excellent “low placement” embouchure type trumpet player demonstrating some Claude Gordon exercises for me. As he plays through them, notice how he resorts to puckering his lips forward and loosing the “legs” (the feeling of of the mouthpiece and lips together against his teeth and gums). Also consider how he has to slide his mouthpiece to a higher position on his lips when he goes into the pedal register, switching to a downstream embouchure. On those exercises where he starts in the pedal register you can see him suddenly slide his mouthpiece placement lower and switch back to his normal upstream embouchure as he gets into the normal range.

As an aside, this particular player told me he eventually abandoned the Gordon routines because he personally didn’t find them beneficial over the long term.

These embouchure characteristics, both changing to a different mouthpiece placement and loosing the embouchure “legs,” are two very common ways in which trumpet players (and sometimes other brass) disconnect the way they play extreme low range with the rest of their range. Another way some methods instruct trumpet players to play pedals is to intentionally roll the lips out and place the mouthpiece on the inner membrane of the lips, as in this photo here. This necessarily requires another embouchure shift to roll the lips back into their proper position to play out of this register, not to mention potential damage to the membrane of the inner lip. The end result isn’t too dissimilar from the two video examples above, where the players needed to slide the lips and mouthpiece to new positions in order to get out of that range.

At other times some players will incorporate an excessive jaw drop to descend. While this works to a degree and helps players get a bigger sound in the low register, there is a tendency for the jaw drop to pull the mouthpiece off its correct placement on the top lip. This doesn’t always happen, but it’s just another way in which many trumpet (and other brass) players approach pedal tones that contrast with the way they play (or want to be playing) the rest of their range.

You can argue that as long as a player doesn’t actually use the pedal tone embouchure in their normal playing range, what’s the harm? As long as you really don’t obsessively practice pedal tones you’re probably not going to really hurt your playing, but the difficulties trumpet players usually have playing pedals in a way that is consistent with their normal range, coupled with the risks of bringing that pedal tone embouchure up, are enough for me to suggest that trumpet players simply avoid practice them and find other exercises to relax the lips, open the sound, and build range.

Players on other brass instruments may also want to avoid practicing extreme low registers in a manner that doesn’t match their normal playing embouchure as well, as in the photo to the left. However, since the rest of the brass instruments use pedal tones in standard literature and they are acoustically more resonant notes than on trumpet, eventually these players will want to learn how to descend to pedals without resorting to collapsing the embouchure formation or an embouchure shift.

Can trumpet players play pedal tones in a way that connects seamlessly with the rest of their range? Sure, but it takes a lot of practice and is easier for players of certain embouchure types than others. Are the benefits of practicing pedal tones worth spending that time? Considering that there are other things that I think do just as well for the player (although this is personal to the individual player and his or her embouchure type) that don’t have the associated risks, I personally prefer to recommend trumpet players avoid pedal tone practice. Will the occasional pedal tones really mess up a player? Probably not, but excessive daily pedal tone practice can.

There are, of course, many very fine trumpet players who swear by pedal tone practice. There are also many who never do it. While a great deal of this is personal and unique to the individual player’s anatomy, I would challenge trumpet players to try avoiding pedal tones for a month or three and spend your time practicing other things. Come on back afterwards and let us know how things go in the comments here.

K.O. Skinsnes Discusses the Buzzing Lips

Here’s an interesting video where mouthpiece manufacturer K.O. Skinsnes of Stormvi describes his understanding of how the lips buzz inside the mouthpiece. Take a look and see if you agree with everything he says.

Getting into the acoustics of brass instruments can be tricky and there is a certain degree of controversy that goes on. A lot of the disagreements can be chalked up to how often brass players rely on what we think we’re doing as opposed to objective observation. But in general, I found Skinsnes basic description to match my current understanding. There are a handful of things I’d like to comment on, however.

Early in the video he mentions some players’ opinion that the lips start open. Personally, I think it’s best to start the blowing with the lips in a closed position (breathing through the mouth corners with the lips inside the mouthpiece just touching), but some players do prefer to begin with the lips open. Where some confusion arises comes from the claims by some players that the lips remain open the whole time. This simply isn’t true, the lips open and close very rapidly during their buzz cycle, although Skinsnes isn’t commenting on this misunderstanding in his discussion, it’s common enough and frequently gets confused in the discussion of how the lips buzz on a brass instrument.

One area where I have some disagreement with Skinsnes is how to describe the muscular contraction that keep the lips more closed. First, notice that he labels this as “clamping” the lips together and “tension in the throat.” I prefer to describe this as “muscular contraction,” as we have a tendency to equate “clamping” and “tension” as bad things that we must avoid. Skinsnes claims that all we need to do is get the lips to buzz, but glosses over how the muscular contraction of the embouchure and breathing combine to change pitch and dynamics. In order to play louder there must be more air blown past the lips and in order to play higher the lips must be drawn back more firmly against the teeth and gums so the cycle of the buzz is faster, in spite of how Skinsnes explaining this.

Skinsnes’s description of the standing wave is spot on, but where I feel he goes wrong is he over-simplifies the role that embouchure strength and control has in playing in the upper register. According to Skinsnes, all that needs to happen is the lip buzz needs to be timed in with the cycle of the standing wave to make playing in the upper register easy. This dismisses the importance of focusing your muscular effort in the correct way in order to time your buzz efficiently. When a player has good embouchure strength and control it feels easy, just as a weight lifter who has built up upper body strength will find bench pressing 150 pounds to feel easy compared to someone who is out of shape. I don’t mean to completely dismiss the role that timing in the buzz has, but I feel Skinsnes misses the importance of good embouchure strength and form in coordinating the timing.

Just to offer another contrasting description, check out what Lloyd Leno has to say in his film, Lip Vibration of Trombone Embouchures on the topic of controlling the lip buzz for the upper register. Skip to about 4:37 into the video for the relevant quote.

Notice that as the pitch ascends the horizontal width of the aperture narrows. But also notice that at the same time the lips are turned in and brought closer to the teeth so that the amount of lip vertically decreases. We all know that a small mass can be made to vibrate rapidly more easily than a large mass. When players realize how to control this mass they can develop their upper range more easily.

Skinsnes and Leno describe the function of the lip buzz a bit differently here. Where Skinsnes feels that the upper register is played best through simple timing the opening and closing aperture with the reflection of the standing wave, Leno notes that this timing is made by the playing positioning the lips in such a way that the amount of mass and shape of the lip that vibrates.

There’s more I can write on the perceived dichotomy between muscular effort and relaxed coordination to play loudly or in the upper register, but that will have to wait for later. Until then, let me know what you think. Do you feel that playing in the upper register is primarily a matter of strength building, coordination, or some combination of both? If the later, how much do you feel is strength and how much is coordination?