How Trombones Work

Please note, I do not play the trombone, and have never actually used one. All this is based on research I have done. If you find anything in here that is blatantly incorrect, please feel free to let me know in a comment and I will fix it ASAP.

Youve probably seen one of these things before. Perhaps in a band, when dozens of happy high school students in pressed uniforms march down a street playing the school anthem. Or maybe in a concert hall, or in a club. But this instrument, the trombone, is one whose workings are not particularly easy to see from the outside.

A trombone is constructed of four basic parts:

  • The mouthpiece – This is wear air enters the the trumpet
  • The tubing The curving tube the goes through to get to the amplifier
  • The slider Part of the tubing, used to change the overall length of the tubing, which changes the pitch.
  • The amplifier Used to make the sound loud enough to be worth the effort of making it.

A trombone, being a brass instrument, gets most of its sound from the buzzing of the trombonists lips.It does not work to simply blow into the mouth piece, the lips actually have to buzz. The first note that a new trombonist will play will, most likely, be what is called the fundamental note on the trumpet. This is the lowest you can go on the trumpet without using the slide.

A trombone has an overtone series. This is a series of notes that are higher then and in harmony with the fundamental note. By tightening his or her lips ever so slightly, the next overtone is produced, which happens to be an octave above the fundamental note. The next note is a major 5th above the previous note. This goes on, and, in a harmonic series, there are generally eight overtones.

This is all very nice, but if that was our only way to change pitch we would be relatively limited in the notes we could make. This is where the slide comes in. The slide is used to lower a pitch by changing the amount of tubing the air has to pass through before it reaches the amplifier (the end of the trombone, where the sound comes out). As we know, little wind and brass instruments, such as the piccolo, tend to maker higher sounds and larger instruments, such as the tuba tend to make a lower sound. In trombones, the slider moves around inside the other tubing to make the overall length longer or shorter. This allows a player to play all notes of the scale, instead of just the ones in the overtone series.

And then, lo and behold, the sound emerges in all of its glorious splendor into the melody (or cacophony) around you. If everything is done right, it will be a nice clear sound that will be pleasant to the ears, and (if you are in one) will contribute to the overall sound produced by the group.

And that, my friends, is the fundamentals of the trombone.

How Pianos Work

Pianos are quite possibly the most well know instrument in music. It seems that virtually everyone knows how to play at least Mary Had a Little Lamb. But very few people actually know how pianos work.

Pianos are an incredibly complicated instrument. If you have ever looked into a piano you have probably seen the hammers that hit the strings making sound. If you think that the hammer is simply attached to the key (as I once thought) you are wrong. There is a very complex mechanism that makes the whole thing work.

Please note that this article talks specifically about upright pianos. Although grand pianos are not exactly the same, they are quite similar. I would still suggest doing research on them if you want to know more.

Here are some of the most important parts of the piano:

  • Keys What is pressed by the pianist
  • Action The mechanism transfers the energy from the key to the hammer
  • Damper The thing that keeps the strings from producing sound when the player doesnt want them to.
  • Strings The thing that makes the sound
  • Hammer The thing that hits the strings to produce the sound
  • Soundboard The thing that amplifies the sound.

The most complicated of these is by far the action, and this is what I will be focusing on the most. The action is the mechanism by which energy is transfered from the key to the hammer and into the strings, which then vibrate. As I have said, it is very complicated. I am not a piano expert or technician, so I will not provide a provide a perfect explanation, but I will do my best to explain it.

The image to the right shows the (slightly simplified) action of an upright piano. As you can see, it is rather complicated.

When you press a key it rocks and lifts on the back, pushing on the sticker. The sticker pushes on the whippen which in turn presses on the jack. The jack preses on the butt of the hammer, which begins to pivot towards the string.

When the hammer is halfway to the string the damper spoon engages with the bottom of the damper, and pivots the entire damper away from the string.

When the hammer has almost reached the string, the end of the jack hits the set-off button (also called the regulating button), and the jack stops pushing on the hammer, but the whippen continues moving up. The jack pivots and slips out from under the hammer, which continues under its own inertia and strikes the string, immediately bouncing off. The balance hammer is caught by the back check, and held there as long as the key is being depressed.

Meanwhile, the vibration of the string is carried through the bridge (not pictured) and into the sound board, which amplifies the sound.

When the key is released, the whole thing resets. The damper again presses on the string, stopping the sound and the jack returns to its original position. The key is ready to be sounded again.

The damper pedal is sometimes used to allow the strings to continue producing sound even after the key is released. It simply removes all of the dampers from the strings.

I hope this has given you an idea of how the piano works. As I said, it is incredibly complicated and very few people fully understand it. It is not incredibly important to a piano player, but it is still quite interesting. You can find much more information by just typing how pianos work into Google.

How Electric Guitars Make Sound

Electric guitars are found in most modern music today. But may seem like a bit of a mystery. After all, they dont exactly make much sound. And why do they sound the way they do? Its a good question, and one that I would like to try to answer as best as I possibly can in this post.

 

The chain of sound in an electric guitar generally goes something like this: strings, pickup, amp, speaker. There are other little things along the way, such as effects peddles and stomp boxes, but in general thats what you will find.

Strings and Pickups

I suppose this is very basic but, at the start of the whole process, the guitarist plays a note. Now, you may think that there are microphones on a electric guitar but this is not the case. An electric guitar actually uses magnets to generate a signal that is sent to the amplifier. The pickups is actually a magnet (or in some cases multiple magnets) wrapped in a thin wire up to 7,000 times. When a string vibrates, it disrupts the magnetic field generated by the pickups. The disruption cause a weak single to be sent through the wire and to the amplifier. Most guitars will have multiple pickups at different spots on the guitar which generate different sounds.

Amplifier

Because most electric guitars are passive (i.e. consume no electricity) the signal coming out of the pickups is incredibly weak. It needs to be boosted to be loud enough to drive a speaker, this is where the amp comes in. A typical amp consists of a pre-amp and a power amp.

The role of the pre-amp is simply to boost the signal enough that it can be used by the power amp. During the pre-amp stage, effects such as reverb, delay, and distortion are also added to the signal to make the guitar sound the way that the musician wants it to.

Once I was playing my electric guitar for a few dozen people. During the time I was there, I had a young kid ask me why my guitar sounded weird. He said that he thought electric guitars sounded like this (and here he did a pretty classic electric guitar imitation). I had to explain to him that that is not actually what electric guitars sound like, but what many musicians made them sound like. In fact, an electric guitar actually sounds almost nothing like what comes out of the speaker. Its all about what you make of it in this pre-amp stage.

After the pre-amp stage the signal is sent to the power amplifier, where it is given its major sound boost before it is sent to the speaker and, in time, to you ears.

I hope this helped un-mystify the mystery around electric guitars. If you  have other questions, feel free to leave a comment bellow and I will do my best to answer it.

Timbre: What Makes the Tuba the Tuba and the Flute the Flute

I will start off by saying that you dont need to know any of this.

Now that I get that out of the way, I will say that this whole subject can be endlessly fascinating. If you like music and you like science, you will not be sorry you read this. The science behind sound is incredibly fascinating, the science behind music even more so.

Chances are, if you have done any sort of higher science (by which I mean high school or above), you have heard of hertz. The term is used to describe not only sound, but light and several other things as well. It can most easily be described as cycles per second, or, in other words, how many times an event takes place per second.

Note quite like this, but it makes for a pretty picture.

In sound, this event is vibrations. As an example. The A above middle C is at 440 Hz (abbreviation for Hertz). This means that whatever happens to be producing the sound is vibrating 440 times per second (approximately, were not perfect tuners). As you probably know as well, sound travels in waves. 440 hz also means the 440 will hit your ear every second. This 440 hz is called the fundamental frequencey of the pitch. This is the pitch that you perceive (for the most part, we will get into that later). But, if you think that is all it is (which I call, with all due respect, The Magic School bus interpretation) you are wrong. If this is all that notes are about, what makes a tuba sound like a tuba and a flute sound like a flute? We call this timbre.

I touched on this in a previous post, but did not elaborate much. Timbre, also called tone color, is the quality that makes a sound seem to have come from a particular source, such as a voice or a violin or a piano. But what makes up timbre exactly?

Overtones
A musical note is comprised of not one, but many frequencies. In most musical instruments, the overtones of musical instruments are generally multiples of the fundamental pitch. So, to go back to our example the A at 440 Hz, we would find overtones at or around 880 Hz, 1320 HZ, 1760 Hz and so on. These types of overtones are called harmonics. How loud or soft these overtones are are a big part of how we perceive the sound. There are other types of overtones as well. These are called partials and are not at any particular interval above the fundamental pitch. For a good note, there has to be little or no partials. The more chaotic the sound (i.e. the less harmonics and more partials in the sound), the less and less it sounds like a note and the more it begins to sound like noise.

Attack
The attack can be simply defined as how the note is started. There is a distinct difference, for example, between the sound of a piano and that of a trumpet. But, if you remove the attack from a recording of a note, it become much more difficult to tell the difference.

Decay Time
For the most part, the attack produces a loud burst of sound. The decay time is the amount of time it takes for the volume of the sound to be reduced down to how it will be for the majority of the note.

Sustain
This is the main part of the note. As the name suggest, it is the part where the note is being sustained. It can be by the continued pressing of the piano key, or simply allowing the note on, say, a guitar, to continue to ring. How quickly the note reduces in volume is also taken into account.

Release
This is like the attack, except at the end. It is the manner in which the musician releases the note. If you listen, you will notice that are distinct sounds associated with various instruments. It also includes what you might call the residual noise. Once a note is released, it doesnt stop instantly. The noise that hangs in the air is also included in timbre.

Transients
These are the slight changes in pitch that occur in the middle of the notes. This is different for each instrument. Although you may not pick up on it consciously, it is there none the less, and your brain picks up on it.

All things things are added together in your brain to let you know what instrument is playing. Remove one and it will make it harder to tell. Remove two and you may not be able to tell. Remove three and you have no way of telling.

This is really incredible. It is amazing to me that the brain picks up on so much, both consciously and unconsciously, to give us a more complete picture of the world around us. This is true not only in music, but in every aspect of life.  I hope you have found this article informative. If you found it uninformative, well, thats to bad.

4 Strange Musical Instruments You Didnt Know Existed

Chances are you know what a piano is. But have you ever heard of a Bazantar? In this post, I will show you some of the strangest instruments currently in use around the globe. If you dont know them, dont feel bad. If you do know them, well, I would like you to come guest post for me some time.

Please note, these are not in any particular order, I just picked out a few that I found interesting.

The Great Stalacpipe Organ

Located in the Luray Caverns of Virginia, this instrument is currently considered the largest in the entire world, covering over 3 1/2 acres of space. It was created in 1958 by Leland W. Sprinkle, and electrical scientist from the pentagon. Although not truly an organ, this instrument is definitively incredible. It functions using dozens and dozens of rubber mallets located throughout the 3 1/2 acres. Leland was careful to select stalactites that would resonate at the correct frequency so, when a key is pressed, the corresponding note is played. Although it only takes up three and a half acres, it can be heard throughout the 64-acre cavern.

The Bazantar

Although this may look like a cello at first, it is much more then that. Mark Deutsch invented this over the course of 6 years. It is a five string double bass with 29 sympathetic strings. The sympathetic strings are not bowed or plucked, but simply resonate with the other strings, producing a haunting, and beautiful, sound.

The Hurdy-Gurdy

This one sounds something like a  cross between a fiddle and bagpipes. It has a crank at one end that is turned to draw a bow across the string. A keyboard is used to allow the player to change the pitch of the strings through use of what are called tangents. The hurdy-gurdy has drone strings that produce a constant pitch, which is what make it sound similar to bagpipes.

The Glass Armonica

If you watch the video, you will notice that this version of The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy sounds strikingly like what you would hear at a performance. Tchaikovsky originally called for this instrument, but changed it in favor of another the celesta. Invented by Benjamin Franklin, this instrument uses the same concept as rubbing a wet finger over a wine glass to produce sound. The music produced is so eerie, that it is claimed that it has caused performers and listeners to go mad.

You may have thought these were strange, and you would be right. But there are hundreds more awesome instruments waiting to be discovered. Just Google it!

The 4 Step Guide to Learning Any Instrument

Picture this: you have finally decided that you are going to learn an instrument, perhaps you have even decided which instrument you wish to learn. But you are not exactly sure how to go about it. Perhaps you know that you need to find a teacher, but your not sure what you should be looking for. Luckily for you, Im here to help. This four step guide will set you on the path to make that desire become a reality.

 

Make no mistake, learning to play any instrument well is no easy task. Whether it be something as simple as bass guitar, with its 4 strings, or as complex as an organ, with its different keyboards, foot pedals, and dozens of stops. Its a long road to become really good at it. But it is a road you have to want if you want to be successful in the field of music.

1. Decide which instrument you want to play

This is perhaps the most important part. There is no one in this world that does not have an instrument they would find difficult to learn to play, no matter how musical they are. You need to find the instrument that is right for you. This step is absolutely crucial. You may think that you arent musical. But I personally guarantee that there is an instrument out there that is right for you. But you are the one who has to find it. Do you have an excellent sense of rhythm? Perhaps percussion is your field Its up to you.

When people think of learning an instrument, people will generally think of some of the more mainstream instruments. Guitar, piano, drums, violin and the like. Although there is absolutely nothing wrong with learning these instruments (in fact Piano is an excellent beginner instrument), perhaps you want to learn the harp, saxophone, or french horn. The choices is yours, and trust me, there are a lot to pick from. And yes, voice does count as an instrument.

2. Buy the instrument

If you want to learn to play an instrument the very best investment you can make is to buy that instrument. Although you can rent an instrument, I will guess that you will not feel nearly as motivated to learn it. Its not yours. Its someone elses that you are using. Its easy to put it down and be done with it. But if you own it, its yours! You cant put it down, youve invested in it. It doesnt have to be a particularly expensive or fancy instrument, but I would not suggest a low quality one from stores like Target or K-Mart. Go to your local music store and see what they have to offer. You will not regret it I guarantee you.

Perhaps you cant afford a brand new instrument. No worries, you have good options. Sites like eBay and Craigslist will have good quality instruments for low prices. Im sure you can find the instrument that you are looking for for a low price somewhere.

3. Find the right teacher

If you are an amazing prodigy or highly motivated and can teach yourself to play an instrument well, then you may skip this step. But, if you are like the rest of us, Then a teacher can be incredibly beneficial. The internet these days has become a great source of information. But it will never be the same as a flesh and blood teacher. Perhaps you can learn from someone over the internet, but it will not be the same. If you play something obscure, perhaps this will be your only option. But, in most cases, you should be able to find a local teacher. Even if it is only 30 minutes a week, it will be worth it.

But you cant just pick any teacher. There are some excellent musicians out there who are not good teachers. And there are some excellent teachers who were not meant to be musicians. You have to find the intermediary. Someone who knows the instrument and music well, but also knows who to come to your level and show you how its done. The ideal teacher will be different for everyone but, in general, a teacher should:

  • Know the instrument well
  • Be friendly and want to help you
  • Enjoy a style of music that you enjoy
  • Not just tell you, but have you figure it out sometimes

4. Practice

Although it is a cliche, it bears repeating: Practice makes perfect. You absolutely cannot learn to play an instrument without putting time and energy in outside lessons. I do not care if you are just a average guy off the street or August Rush. You will need practice. An instrument is a wonderful thing, it craves your attention. You just have to decided to give it what it needs every once and a while.

If you are playing an stringed instrument, play until your fingers hurt (trust me, calluses will grow). If you play a wind or brass instrument, play until you cant blow any longer. If you play percussion, play until the people in your house are driven crazy. Perhaps not every day, but occasionally this is a good thing to do. Try to give it 5-6 hours a week, it is amazing what you can accomplish.

I guarantee that, when you start, you wont be very good. But perseverance is the key. You think The Edge started off playing the way he does. Well guess what? If you do, you are wrong.

I hope this helps you out, let me know how it worked for you. Leave a comment below sometime in the future.