Breaking Glass With the Human Voice

No doubt you have at least heard of it. The opera singer belts out a note and, all of a sudden, people find their tuxedos and dresses soiled by the champagne that just spilled out of their broke glasses. Yes, it can be done. But the question is how. What elements is it in a human voice that is capable of accomplishing this feat?

Disclaimer: Although I am giving you information on how to break a wine glass with your voice, your safety is your responsibility. I take no responsibility for any damage you do to your property or yourself.

The Key is

Have you ever tried (and this you CAN try at home, in fact I encourage you to) wetting your finger and then running it over the rim of a wine glass to here the note it created? Kind of cool huh? This note is the key (no pun intended). As you probably know all sound consists of vibrations that hit our ears and are then interpreted by the brain as some sort noise. Well it also works in the opposite way. Just as something vibrating produces sound, sound hitting something produces vibrations.

Remember that note we produced from the wineglass? Well this is the point where that becomes important. The note that we produced is called a fundamental frequency. It is the frequency at which the wine glass most efficiently turns energy into sound. Naturally, there is a lot more going on (see this blog for information on that), but that is the basic idea. Now if an object is hit with sound waves at its fundamental frequency, it will begin to vibrate along with the sound.

As the note gets closer and closer to that frequency, the glass will vibrate more and more intensely. Increase in volume will also cause the glass to vibrate with more force. Eventually the glass will, quite literally, shake itself apart. Depending on the loudness and the accuracy of the voice, it may just crack, lose a chunk, or shatter. However it can quite awesome.

That being said the chances that you will go to a fancy concert and come back with a ruined suit or dress are rather minimal. This will only work under specific circumstances. First off, the singer has to be on exactly the right pitch for a relatively lengthy amount of time. Secondly, the singer has to have enough volume in order for a glass to break. The videos that I have linked to thus far have both been examples were the singers mouth was only inches away from the glass. By the time the voice of a singer gets to you, it wont be loud enough to cause problems.

So rest easy. But know that it can be done.

Can Anyone Dethrone King i?

Steve Jobs became an iCon (see what I did there?) of the 21st century

The i has been on top for quite a while now. There is no use in arguing that the products that have been introduced to the market by Apple Inc. particularly those by Steve Jobs (may he rest in peace) have changed the market as we know it. But they have been in control for quite a while now, and there are plenty of companies that would like a peace of that pie.

Here are a few stats to explain what I am saying.

  • The iTunes store launched in 2003 with some 200,000 songs available for purchase. Since then, the library has grown to 20 million songs.
  • Apple announced in February of 2010 that it had sold its 10 billionth song, a number which is, by now, no doubt much higher.
  • Over 300 million iPods have been sold worldwide since they were first released in 2001.
  • Over 140 million iPhones have been sold worldwide since the launch in 2007.
  • Over 40 million iPads have been sold.
  • Apple has a total revenue of over $100 billion per year. They have over $75 billion cash on hand, which is more then the federal government.
So now the question becomes: can anyone best the iPod and the iTunes store? Their dominance of the music market has been astounding, but with Apples future uncertain, the time to ask this question is now.

A Visionary

As you probably recall, Apple CEO Steve Jobs recently died from cancer. To the average consumer who knows very little about Apple corporate culture, this may seem like a trivial problem. One CEO dies, just put someone else in the spot right? Well it just so turns out that its not that simple. Back in the late 90s Apple was stuck in a rut. In fact they were on the verge of being bought out. The return of Steve Jobs (the saga of which is a whole other topic) brought Apple out of the mire and grew it to what it is today.
But Apple doesnt have Steve Jobs anymore. One might argue that Apple without Steve Jobs is nothing.  No doubt other companies have noticed this and are trying to take advantage. Although Im not at liberty to divulge the information of various companies (cause I know EVERYTHING about ALL of them) I can tell you for certain that this is the case.
OK, not really.
Where Apple will be in two or three years is not up for debate. They will no doubt be a highly successful company. The question is where they 5-10 years from know. Steve Jobs had (at least we think) several years worth of products planned out. Apple can continue with those products. What we dont know is if Apple can come up with new stuff for after those few years that will keep the customer base.

The Competition

Everyone and there brother either has, used to have, or plans to have some sort of music service. Apple has iTunes, Google has Google Music, Microsoft has Zune. You have Amazons MP3 store, and Rhapsody. All of these services have high quality Mp3 downloads for similar prices, yet iTunes has risen to the top. Although why is for another place and time, the question of whether it will last or not still lingers.

Can They Hold On?

For all hopeful competitors out there, I have a sad little fact for you. iTunes will remain on top for a few years to come. But keep an eye on them. I will predict that Apple is going to hit a bit of a rough spot in 4-5 years. Whether they will pull through all right, I cant say for certain. But that may be just the right time to give them a nice broadside hit.

Why We Need Pop Stars like Gaga and Britney

People hate on pop music all the time. Like really really hate on it. They point to the rise of auto tune as proof that the worlds most popular singers can no longer sing. And they may be right in that respect. But the  world needs Lady Gaga and the Britney Spears. Heres why.

Its a Culture Thing

Culture is what defines a society, and society without a culture is dead. Maybe Lady Gaga cant sing without Autotune, but why does it matter? She has impacted the culture of our society in a huge way. So what if here vocals are modified in order to make them sound good? It doesnt matter. People like her music. They dance to it, sing with it, and scream and cheer for her and concerts. The same goes for Britney Spears, Owl City, and whoever else people have decided to hate on.

But Why do we Need Them?

So far I have only told you why it is O.K. for them to be part of culture, so now I need to give you why the are a necessary part of it. Think of were our world would be without the Autotuned masses of pop singers currently around? It would be somewhat boring. I dont see anyone doing what they are doing without Autotune, so why get mad at them for doing it with Autotune? It makes no sense.

They are necessary to our culture because they change the culture. A culture that does not evolve is a boring culture, and a society with a boring culture is a boring society. If we just stuck with The Beatles (dont get me wrong. GREAT band) where would we be? Things have to change or the world is a boring place.

So I say to you again. Who cares if they are Autotuned? People like, it. They are being entertained. And, by entertaining people, the pop stars are changing the culture in a dramatic way. This is why we need them. I dont care if the music is bad. Leave them alone. Dont insult their fans. And you dont even have to think of them.

The Circle of Fifths

For many people, key signatures can be a somewhat daunting prospect. You look at a piece of music with 5 flats on a page and you have no idea what to say. Maybe you have been playing this song by yourself and now you are playing it with a group. They ask you what key it is in, and you cant answer, you dont know.

The Circle of Fifths (click for full size)

Well I am here to tell you that there is a second way to do it besides the one mentioned in my previous post on the topic. In fact, Im surprised I did not mention it before. It is known as the circle of fifths. No, I would like to say that using this method in no way means you should not memorize your key signatures, being able to quickly recognize what key a piece is in can be very important. But it does allow you to figure out relatively quickly what key something is in. It is also a good aid for memorization.

The circle of fifths is built on intervals. Due to the way that. Going clockwise around the circle, every note is a perfect fifth above the previous one. C has no flats or sharps. G, on the other hand, has one sharp and is consequently a perfect fifth above C. To continue on, D is exactly a perfect fifth above G and has 2 sharps, and so on. This would continue on to D flat, which has 7 sharps and is a perfect fifth above F# (or G flat).

Now for the flats. The principle works the same way for flats, except in reverse. Instead of going a perfect fifth up, you go a perfect fifth down. An F is a perfect fifth below a C. Or, in other words. A C is a perfect fifth above an F. However, you should not that a perfect fifth down, is the same as a perfect fourth up. For this reason, the circle of fifths is sometimes called the circle of fifths and fourths.

The circle also works, naturally enough, for minor keys. If you know you are in a minor key, but are not sure which, simply start at A and work your way up or down. You will find the key you are looking for soon enough.

This allows you to tell, from any instrument (but especially a piano) what key you are in just by looking at the notes on the instrument. It can be incredibly helpful.

Use this enough and I know that you will get this memorized. Then, before you know it, you will have to reference it less and less. It will start out slow. One or two sharps is easy enough to remember, and eventually more and more key signatures will be added on until you know it by heart.

An Explanation of Scientific Pitch Notation

Perhaps you are reading this and not even knowing what I am reffering to. Or maybe you are, but just dont know how its used. Whatever it is, I hope this post will help you learn it. As you will find out, it really isnt that difficult.

Scientific pitch notation is a way of writing out not just what note is being referred to, but the octave as well. Although far to cumbersome to be used in sheet music, it does to a good job of letting us know exactly what note we are talking about. It is, as is indicated by the name, the scientific way of reffering to a note.

Perhaps you have seen, for example, the note B3 mentioned somewhere. My goal is that, by the end of this post, you would be able to see where that note is on a piano.

It may seem obvious as to what part of the notation is indicating which note should be played. In B3 it is rather obvious that the note that we are referring to is the note B, but which B? The piano has eight of them!

The answer is quite simple. The B three octaves above B0. Of course, it might be good to explain which octave is considered octave zero.

C0 is the lowest note normally audible to the human ear and, as such, is is also the where everything is based from. A C0 is actually located off of the piano. The first C on a piano is C1, and is exactly one octave above C0. The lowest note on a piano, A0, is 9 notes (half steps) above C0.

Because the system starts at C, each subsequent C means a change in octave. The C above C0, as already mentioned, is C1, but the B directly below C1 is annotated B0. This continues all the way up the scale, with a number added ever C.

Uses

Scientific Pitch Notations is most frequently used to indicate the range of a particular instrument or singer. As mentioned in my recent post on musical terms, an alto clarinet has a range of G♭2 to B♭5. Using our new knowledge, we can know that the lowest note that the alto clarinet can sound (G♭2) is the second G lowest G on the keyboard (the lowest being G1). The highest that it can go (B♭5) is the B almost two octaves above middle C, or, on a keyboard, the sixth B on the keyboard.

This notation can also be used for notes higher or lower then is in the bounds of human hearing (B-5). However this is not nearly as common.

Hooray! You know understand (at least to some extent) scientific pitch notation! This should mean that you can see one of these notes and know just about where it is (or, if its really high or really low, isnt). Good for you! This is just one of the many useful things that you will learn in your musical career.

A Few Musical Terms you should know

Sometimes musicians can be confusing. We tend to talk in code so to speak. We say things like arpeggio and sostenuto In fact, it can even seem like we are speaking in a different language. Sheet music is particularly hard to understand. What is being said? In this post I would like to give you a few musical terms that you should know if you want to be (or, at least, seem to be) knowledgeable in this area.

Arpeggio (pronounced with a soft G sound) This is a word you may find popping up a lot in musical conversation. It is quite difficult word for a rather simple concept. It simply means broken up. A chord can be played to ways. Either all the notes can be played at once, or they can be played one after another. A chord where the notes are not played at the same time is said to be c.

Falsetto This term applies exclusively to vocal music. It means, essentially, to higher then ones range normally permits. Singers that use this technique sing using different parts of there throat and mouth then they normally would. Perhaps the most well-know falsetto performance is in the song The Lion Sleeps Tonight, which is sung exclusively using this technique.

Crescendo  I have touched on this in an earlier post, but felt it would be good to recount it here. This word applies to sheet music for all different types of music. In fact. It means to just get louder. Quite often, this will be accompanied by dynamic markings that let you know how loud you should get. The opposite of this, the decrescendo, means exactly the opposite, to get softer.

Range Although this one is rather self-explanatory, it is a good one to know. Range defines how high and how low a particular instrument or singer can play or sing. An alto clarinet, for example, has a range of approximately G♭2 to B♭5 (for more info on this type of notation, go to this post), a span of a little over three octaves.

Legato Literally meaning tied-together in Italian. This word means to play notes in a smooth, graceful manner, with no pause in between.

Staccato This is almost the exact opposite of legato, but not quite. Staccato means to play the notes in a bouncy manner. This generally means to play the notes somewhat shorter then they are actually written in the music. For how this, and some of the other terms are marked in music, go read my Sheet Music 101 series.

Naturally there are many other musical terms out there, many of them far more complex. But this can get you started and give you some basic knowledge in how to understand the lingo. Hopefully you now can seem intelligent amongst a group of musicians.

Are there any musical terms that you are just dying to know the meaning of? Or is is there a word from this list that you still need help understanding? Leave a comment below and I will do my best to help you out!

Finding the Right Instrument for You

Suppose you want to learn to play an instrument. But the problem is you dont know which one! The choices are seemingly unlimited. How do you narrow it down? You cant play them all, in fact, to start, you probably cant play more then one. So which one to choose? Here are a series of questions that can help you decide which one is right for you.


This is a quick and easy way to narrow down your options. Do you want to play rock music? Then perhaps the Tuba is not the right choice. Do you want to play with an orchestra? Then maybe it is. You need to select something that you will enjoy playing. The best way to do this is to pick an instrument that is commonly used in the genre(s) of your choice. Do not let this be limiting, however. If you want to play Bohemian Rhapsody on a trumpet, then I say go for it.
1. What kind of music do you want to play?

2. How do you want to use your instrument?

Certain instruments are better for for certain things then others. Take portabilty as an example. If you want to be able to take your instrument to the park and play, then you should probably not select the piano as your instrument. The king of portability is the guitar. Yes there are smaller and lighter instruments, but the guitar allows, quite perhaps, the most expression of any instrument of its size.

3. Do you want to play with other people?

Another incredibly important question. If the answer to this question is yes, then you should consider picking an instrument that will go well with other instruments. Again, the guitar is an excellent choice if you want to do this. Chances are if you play guitar you will be able to find someone to play with. On the other hand, if you do want to play in, for example, a school band, then you have to choose accordingly.

4. What instruments do you like the most?

Of course, this is the most important question you could ask yourself. You should not play guitar because it is portable and good for playing with other people if you do not like the guitar. This completely defeats the point. The previous questions are only useful if you if you have several instruments you like, but arent sure which one to pick. Of those questions, the second most important one is the question of what type of music you want to play. But, as I said earlier, do not let that question be limiting to you. This one takes precedence.

Once you select you instrument, you are one step closer to getting good at it. Your next step is to either find a teacher or learn it on your own. May your days be filled with great fun and good music!

Do you think I left something out? Perhaps their are other ways of picking your perfect instrument. Or maybe you liked this guide and used it. I would love to hear from you. Leave me a comment below!

The 5 Step Guide to Learning Any Instrument Without a Teacher

Here, as promised yesterday, is the guide to learning an instrument without a teacher. The steps are remarkably similar to that of learning by using a teacher, but there are some distinct differences.

1. Decide which instrument you want to play

This is still number one on the list. You must know the instrument you want to play before you can get started. Look for a post soon on how to select the instrument thats right for you. Remember, you dont have to go for something mainstream, like piano, guitar, or violin. There are thousands to pick from.

2. Buy the instrument

When you work with a teacher, you have accountability, which is a great motivator. Without the teacher, motivation will be more tricky. By buying your instrument, you are making a big investment. You wont want to see your money go to waste. This will help you continue to work through the rough beginning.

3. Learn to read music

This is where the list begins to change. Many people are capable of learning to play an instrument by ear. This is fantastic. However, whether you are capable of this or not, the ability to read music will prove invaluable as you progress in your ability to play. I have a beginners guide that you can read, but this is only enough to get you started.

An important thing is to make sure that you understand how reading of music relates to your instrument. It does you no good to be able to look at a piece of music and tell me what notes are there, if you cannot play it on the instrument. You must learn how to play a particular note on your instrument when you need to. This can be accomplished many different ways. Books, internet lessons, or by simply experimenting.

4. Find some resources

Obviously you need something to play. Chances are your local music store(s) has beginner books for your instrument. This is the point in time where you need to swallow your pride and simply start small. If you begin by playing Mary Had a Little Lamb, dont feel stupid. It doesnt matter that its a childrens song. Its a start. When I started playing guitar, the first song I learned was simply the G string plucked over and over again to a backing track. Doesnt get more simple then that. If you stick with the instrument though, you will be playing more interesting stuff before to long.

5. Practice, practice, PRACTICE

This is still the most important part. It cannot be stressed enough. You will get better with practice. I promise you. One hour a day for a month, and you will make a huge amount of progress. Make yourself practice even if you dont want to. You will never get passed Mary Had a Little Lamb without it. If, after that month of practicing an hour a day, you have not improved significantly. You can come to me and I will refund the price of your instrument.

So, in short. You can learn an instrument without a teacher. You just have to want to bad enough.

What about you? Have you learned to play an instrument without the use of a teacher? I would love to hear about it. Leave me a comment below to tell me about your experiences

Alzheimers Disease and Music

[This is part of the Music and the Brain series]

 

The pathway to freedom?

Most people are familiar with the symptoms of dementia, particularly those of Alzheimers. Confusion, inability to know who you or the people around are, and a general decline in many of the mental faculties, as well as apathy. This is particularly hard on family. As the dementia progresses, the victim may forget who even his or her closest friends and family members are. I read a story once of a man who was woken up when his wife started screaming because she found a strange man in her bead (him). It is a tragic thing. The family longs for the lucid moment when the victims mental faculties are unshackled and, for however short a time, they are themselves. However they are somewhat few and far between.

But what if there was a way to negate this symptoms. Even if there was a way to have two lucid moments in a day instead of one, wouldnt that make all the difference? What if there was something that was immune to the effects of Alzheimers? It seems that there is.

Music

It interacts with our brain in the most incredible ways. Almost every part of our brain is activated by music. It effects our emotions and our ability to learn. I will cover this much more in the rest of this series, but for now, I will stick with Alzheimers.

In Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks writes of a man he once met who had been diagnosed with Alzheimers some 13 years previously. He remembered almost nothing. Not where he live, what he did for a living, or even how to dress and groom himself. He did, however, remember the baritone part of almost every song he had ever sung. Quite an accomplishment considering he had sung with an a capella male voice chorus for many many years. He even was able to open a concert, despite getting lost on the way to the stage.

But music can also improve the symptoms of dementia. Sacks also writes of a women with sever dementia. She literally lived on her couch morning, noon, and night, watching television for most of the time. One time, one of the caregivers had the bright idea of turning on the classical channel. Within the next 24 hours, marked changes began to take place. After living on the couch for so long, she asked to be brought to the table to eat with the family, and began communicating and taking more interest in her surroundings.

But why?

Ever had an experience where you a doing some simple task, and all of a sudden a memory jumps out of what seems to be nowhere. Frequently the memory shares some sort of similarity with what you are doing now. It is almost as if a certain task or experience comes with embedded memories. Music can work in much the same way, as two of the brain structures that respond strongly to music are the structures that deal with memory and emotion.. Songs from someones past, particularly songs one sang, can bring back all but inaccessible memories from ones past. As Oliver Sacks says in a video about the topic, the patient might remember when they first heard the song. Perhaps it was an outing, on Coney Island, the kids were there. etc. It all comes flooding back. Emotions show up to, and music can cause happiness that can last for hours after the music has stopped in even the most apathetic of patients

A patient doesnt even have to be musical to experience this. Music effects almost everyone (I said almost, will blog about that later) in a profound way. It continues to do so throughout dementia.

Although we may never know exactly why or how this happens, we do know this. Music is something so ingrained in us, that even the most sever of mentally degenerative illnesses cant eradicate it.

What about you? Have you ever seen someone with Alzheimers (or any form of dementia) respond in an incredible way to music? I would love to hear about it! Leave me a comment below!

[This is part of the Music and the Brain series]

Amusia: When Its All Just Pots and Pans

[This is part of the Music and the Brain series]

We tend to take for granted how our brain works. Particularly when it pertains to the senses. When you look at a field full of flowers, bees, and butterflies, you arent focusing on just one object (say, one bee, one flower, or one butterfly), but your brain has knit them all together into once complete scene. Similarly, when you are looking at one thing, the brain is identifying all of its parts and putting it together into a conclusive whole. Some people have defects or damage to the brain that prevents them from being able to do this. They can see something and describe it in great detail, but there brain makes no sense of it and cannot put it together into a conclusive whole. This is called Visual Agnosia. A similar condition can affect people in a musical sense. It is called Amusia.

Tone Deafness

This term is perhaps more familiar to most people. A tone-deaf person is one who does not recognize off-key singing himself or others. You no doubt have heard one. Most people who have been to a few church services have stood next to someone who cant carry a tune in a bucket. The sing way off and dont seem to care. They can even ruin the whole service for you.

Chances are that this person just cant hear themselves. Or, to put it more accurately, they can here themselves, but cant really distinguish one pitch from another, so they dont realize they arent singing what everyone else is. People like this can still enjoy music though, unlike people with Total Amusia. Oliver Sacks writes about how he once attended a chapel that employed a cantor that was incredibly tone-deaf, and would often sing a third of an octave away from where he was supposed to be singing. The cantor thought himself an excellent singer.

Rhythm Deafness

This is considerably less well-known then tone deafness. People that have this problem may have absolutely no sense of rhythm. They cant tap there foot to a song, and dancing is not exactly easy.

Che Guevara was famously rhythm deaf; he might be seen dancing a mambo, while the orchestra was playing a tango (he also had considerable tone deafness).

Oliver Sacks, Musicohilia

Total Amusia

The title of this post is slightly misleading. This is the true pots and pans. Total Amusia is easily the most debilitating of these three disorders. A person with this disorder fails to recognize notes as notes at all, and, as such, does not recognize music as music at all. It has been described by some as the sound of a screeching car. In Musicophilia, Sacks writes about a women he once met with this condition. When asked what she did hear when music was played, she would say, If you were in my kitchen and threw all the pots and pans on the floor, thats what I hear! She also said that high notes were particularly bad and an opera simply sounded like screaming.

But what causes this? How can something so basic to human culture be so radically messed with in this way? As you might expect, the answer lies in the brain. Interestingly enough, scientists have been able to link amusia to specific parts of the brain. Rhythm deafness, for example, generally occurs because of damage to the left hemisphere of the brain (the part of the brain that generally is considered the orderly mathematical one). Tone deafness on the other hand tends to arise from damages to the right hemisphere of the brain (the part that is considered more creative). Of course, not all people with amusia have brain damge, but a large percentage of them do.

Sacks also writes about a patient he once met who was very musical. She had perfect pitch, and was a gifted performer and composer. She, it could be said, had it all musically.

One day she was in a bad car accident, she was in a coma for several days, and in a state of being only half awake for several weeks after that. When she finally came to, she noticed that her perfect pitch was gone. The first song she listened to was a Beethoven string quartet. Something incredible had happened. Although the notes sounded like notes, and she could tell when they went up or down, they did not blend together. Each instrument part sounded like its own individual laser of sound. She was suffering from the musical form of Visual Agnosia.

Why things like this happen we unfortunately dont really know. It shows us how little we understand our brain, and how music interacts with it. However it is quite fascinating, and I am very thankful that I am not stuck with one of these issues.

Do you suffer from amusia? Know someone who does? I would love to hear about it! Leave me a comment below!

[This is part of the Music and the Brain series]