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Fundamental music concept: Tone

There are two fundamental concepts you need to talk about music. One of the two is the idea of a TONE. You can make an infinite number of different sounds with your voice. Only a small number of sounds you can make are considered to be musical sounding. The sounds that sound musical to most people are those that you make by adjusting your vocal chords to have a certain fixed tension, which causes your vocal chords to vibrate at a fixed rate when you use your voice. If you vary the tension of your vocal chords wildly while you try to sing, listeners will accuse you of being unmusical or will say you are making noise. If you can sing making a fixed vibration with your voice, people will say that you are singing a musical TONE.

Since you can adjust your vocal chords to have many different tension settings by lengthening or shortening them by moving your larynx (or Adam's apple) in your throat, you can sing many different tones. You make your vocal chords have greater tension and vibrate faster by moving your larynx higher in your throat. The tones produced by moving the larynx higher in the throat are called HIGH tones. The tones produced by moving the larynx lower in the throat, causing the vocal chords to have a lower tension which causes them to vibrate slower, are called LOW tones.

Thousands of years ago, singers noticed that even though they could make a very large number of musical tones with their voices only a very few of them sounded good sung one after the other. They also noticed that when they tried to sing with someone else who was singing a tone, that only a very few of the tones they could sing would sound good with the other singer's tone.Tones that sound good when sung at the same time are said to be IN HARMONY with each other or are said to be HARMONIOUS. Tones that sound unpleasant when sung at the same time are called DISCORDANT.

Through a centuries long process of experimentation, musicians were able to find a large set of tones that sound harmonious with each other. Eventually many different kinds of instruments were created that are all able to produce these specific hamonious tones, that were first found by vocal experimentation. Modern pianos typically have 88 keys that cause 88 different tones to be produced. The left hand keys of a piano produce low tones. You would have to loosen and lengthen your vocal chords to match these tones with your voice. The right hand keys of a piano produce high tones. You would need to tighten and shorten your vocal chords in order to match these. The tones on a piano are arranged so that as you move from left to right you match each tone that you visit by increasing the tension on your vocal chords by a nearly identical amount.

About 150 years ago, scientists were finally able to explain why the tones that were picked for the piano and which are used in Western music sound good together. They were also able to explain why some combinations of notes on the piano sound better when played at the same time than others.

Any sound that can be recorded can be graphed to show how that sound would make your eardrum vibrate at any moment in time. The graphs that result from this exercise nearly always look like waves. When the graph of the sound moves above the x-axis, this means your eardrum would be pushed in a very small amount at that instant by the sound. When it moves below the axis, it means your eardrum would be pulled out a very small amount by the sound at that instant. (It's actually a great thing that sounds are usually waves. A graph that rose indefinitely would describe a sound that would push your eardrum in and puncture it. A graph that fell indefinitely would describe a sound that would suck your eardrum out and explode it.) Sounds that are quiet have waveforms with small wave peaks. Sounds that are loud have waveforms with large wave peaks. Sounds that have small distances between peaks are high sounds and sounds that have large distances between peaks are low sounds

Once musical sounds were graphed the investigators noticed that the graphs that were produced were simpler than those for other sounds. Musical sounds had wave graphs where the distance between individual wave peaks was regular. They called this distance between peaks the wavelength of the sound. By experimenting further, they discovered that two musical sounds sounded best together, when their waveforms were exactly the right length so that their wave cycles would line up and begin at exactly the same moment every few cycles for each wave. Sounds that sound unmusical together almost never fall to zero at the same time and fall to zero at the same moment at irregular intervals, if they ever do.

When two tones have exactly the same wavelength, listeners would say the pitch of the tones are the same, that they are in unison (uni means one and son stands for sound). When the wavelength of a tone is exactly half the size of another tone, two of the first tone's waves fit exactly into one of the second tone's waves. People's hear the first tone as being an octave higher than the second. On a piano, if you pick any white note, call that note one and then count white keys up the piano keyboard 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8, the note you count as 8 will sound like it has the same musical meaning as the lower note you strike but will sound higher. These notes that are an 8-count away via the white keys are said to be an octave apart because their distance apart on the piano via this path of white keys is 8.

If you count the number of white and black notes between these notes an octave apart you will find that you reach the octave when you count to 12. This tells you how to find the octave for any black note: name the black note 0, and count up to 12, visiting every black and white key in order. The note you name as the 12th in the sequence will be an octave above the note you numbered as 0.

If you look at a piano, you can see that notes that are a 12 count away from one another, an octave apart, must be very important. The black and white notes on the piano keyboard are organized in a pattern that repeats every 12 notes. What's so great about sounds an octave apart? If people sing songs together so that every tone they sing is a unison, or an octave above or below what everybody else is singing at that moment, everyone will say that they are singing the same song. This is important because women and small children with high voices cannot lengthen their vocal chords enough to match the sounds made by men with deep voices. The deep voiced men, almost always cannot tighten their vocal chords enough to match women's voices. Singers CAN almost always stretch or loosen their vocal chords to be able to make notes that are an octave away from what someone else is singing. People's brains are able to match up simultaneous melodies that are sung or played an octave apart so easily that to most people they would tell you that the melodies are the same.

Since toness that are an octave apart sound so similar to one another, they are given the same name. Mathematicians would say all of the tones an octave apart from one another are in the same equivalence class. The white notes in a melody are named by using the first seven letters of the alphabet, A,B,C, D, E, F, G. The lowest, leftmost note on the piano is named A, the next higher is B, the next higher is C, etc. repeating the letters seven times in a seven note cycle until the highest note, a C, is reached. Because a favorite sequence of tones of composers for centuries, the C major scale, is played by playing the white notes from any C up to the next C, tone names are usually listed in the following order from C to C: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. The black keys are named in a way that tells you that they are a half step above a particular white key (sharp, notated with # symbol) or a half step below a particular white key (flat, notated with a b symbol). The black keys can be given two different names depending on whether the tone is named using a sharp or a flat.

Last update: Wednesday, October 20, 2004 at 7:27 PM.