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Good Vibrations

The Physics of Music

Barry Parker

Publication Year: 2009

Why does a harpsichord sound different from a piano? For that matter, why does middle C on a piano differ from middle C on a tuning fork, a trombone, or a flute? Good Vibrations explains in clear, friendly language the out-of-sight physics responsible not only for these differences but also for the whole range of noises we call music. The physical properties and history of sound are fascinating to study. Barry Parker's tour of the physics of music details the science of how instruments, the acoustics of rooms, electronics, and humans create and alter the varied sounds we hear. Using physics as a base, Parker discusses the history of music, how sounds are made and perceived, and the various effects of acting on sounds. In the process, he demonstrates what acoustics can teach us about quantum theory and explains the relationship between harmonics and the theory of waves. Peppered throughout with anecdotes and examples illustrating key concepts, this invitingly written book provides a firm grounding in the actual and theoretical physics of music.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii

I am grateful to Trevor Lipscombe for his many suggestions and help in preparing this volume. I would like to thank Carolyn Moser for careful editing of the manuscript and the staff of the Johns Hopkins University Press for their assistance in bringing this project to completion. Thanks, too, to my artist, Lori Beer, for doing an excellent job on the drawings. Finally, I appreciate the assistance I received...

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pp. 1-10

Physics and music may seem light years apart to many people. But surprisingly, they are closely related. Of course, music is sound, and sound is a branch of physics, but they are also connected in another way. Both are highly creative endeavors. The major advances in physics had their origin in somebody’s mind. Einstein gave us...

I: Sound and Sound Waves

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1. Making Music: How Sound Is Made

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pp. 13-27

Music is sound, but it’s a very special kind of sound. I think everyone would agree with that. In this chapter we’ll be talking about how sound is produced and what properties it has to have to be music. Let’s begin by defining sound. Sound is a wave that is created by a...

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2. The Sound of Music: Perception

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pp. 28-40

Imagine that you are sitting in a concert hall waiting in anticipation for the concert to start. All at once the lights go down and colored lights start flashing across the stage. The musicians run out waving. A tingle of excitement surges through you as the first notes sound. You lean back in your seat as the musicians begin to play. The beat...

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3. Good Vibes: Waves in Motion

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pp. 41-58

I was once seated behind a large pillar at a concert. Needless to say, I was annoyed. The view of the performers was partially blocked, but what I was really worried about was the sound. Would it be distorted by the pillar? This is something we will look into in this chapter. In the previous two chapters we looked at many of the properties of sound and the music that arises from it. In particular, we saw that...

II: The Building Blocks of Music

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4. Making Music Beautiful: Complex Musical Tones

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pp. 61-76

Have you ever asked yourself while listening to a recording, or while at a concert, what it is that makes the music so appealing? There are, of course, many answers. The music may bring back memories, or make you feel warm all over, or let you drift off into space (at least it seems that way), or it may just be that it’s pleasing to your ear. Regardless of what...

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5. The Well-Tempered Scale

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pp. 77-92

In the first chapter we saw that Pythagoras used a monochord—a hollow sounding box with strings stretched across it—to set up a scale. On his box were movable bridge stops that allowed him to separate the string into smaller sections. He found that if he sounded a string of a certain length not stopped with a bridge and another one where a bridge was set one-third of the way along a string of the same...

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6. Down Melody Lane with Chords and Chord Sequences

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pp. 93-108

What would music be without harmony? Harmony, which comes from the playing or singing of several notes simultaneously, is one of the things that makes music beautiful. And for harmony we need chords. A chord is several notes—two, three, or more—played at once, and as we will see, chords play a major role in any type of music. Many musical instruments, such as trumpets and clarinets, play only...

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7. “You’ve Gotta Have Rhythm”: Rhythm and Types of Music

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pp. 109-128

Rhythm plays an important role in music. One person who had a lot was George Gershwin. “I’ve Got Rhythm” was one of his most popular songs. Belted out by Ethel Merman in the Broadway play Girl Crazy, it was the hit of the show and went on to become a popular standard. Rhythm is, indeed, one of the three major ingredients of any piece of music, along with melody and harmony. Rhythm...

III: Musical Instruments

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8. Why a Piano Is Not a Harpsichord

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pp. 131-145

Rubinstein lowers his hands as he finishes a Beethoven sonata. The audience breaks out in applause. As he rises from his bench and bows, the applause increases, then several people begin to cheer. He bows again and begins to leave the stage. The applause and cheering swell as he disappears behind the curtain. It continues for several seconds,...

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9. The Stringed Instruments: Making Music with the Violin and the Guitar

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pp. 146-164

Everyone over a certain age has heard of “Beatle-mania” or “Elvismania,” the frenzy among fans whenever the Beatles or Elvis Presley stepped onto a stage. And of course, since their time, many other musicians have had the same effect on audiences. It might seem that this is a relatively modern phenomenon, but it isn’t. More than 200...

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10. The Brass Instruments: Trumpet and Trombone

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pp. 165-178

It is no exaggeration to say that one of the greatest trumpeters of all time, Louis Armstrong (fig. 84), had a rocky start in life. Shortly after he was born in 1901 in New Orleans, his father left, and his mother sent him and his sister to live with their grandmother. With money always in short supply he had to go to work at an early age,...

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11. The Woodwinds: Clarinet and Saxophone

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pp. 179-188

When I was about ten, I would occasionally hear music coming from the shed of one of my neighbors. It sounded like he was playing a musical instrument, but I had no idea what kind of an instrument it was. Every time I heard him playing, I would lean over the fence and listen. Finally one day he spotted me through a window and...

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12. The Most Versatile Instrument: The Singing Voice

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pp. 189-208

On September 9, 1956, he stepped onto the stage of the Ed Sullivan Show in New York. Within minutes the young girls in the audience were screaming, and they continued screaming until he left. And with the largest TV audience up to that time—estimated to be over 60 million—there no doubt was some screaming in front of TV...

IV: New Technologies and Acoustics

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13. Electronic Music

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pp. 211-226

Imagine the following: Four guys decide to form a band. Every evening they practice in the garage of one of the members. Finally they are good enough to start playing at some of the local clubs. Then one day one of them says, “Let’s make a recording,” and they all agree that it is a good idea. They buy what they need, make a CD, and soon...

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14. Making a MIDI Recording

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pp. 227-243

MIDI has now been around for over 20 years and has become central to recording for both amateurs and professionals. We had a brief introduction to it in the last chapter and will look at it in much more detail in this chapter. The feature we usually associate with MIDI is recording, but there is actually much more to it. Another important...

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15. The Acoustics of Concert Halls and Studios

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pp. 244-258

In 1895 Harvard University opened a new lecture auditorium that was considered to be an architectural masterpiece, but it was soon discovered to have extremely poor acoustics. Very little was known about acoustics at the time, and the university wasn’t sure how to fix the problem. So Harvard asked Wallace Sabine, a young professor in...

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pp. 259-265

Well, we’ve come to the end of the book, so let’s look back over what we have learned. I trust, of course, that you have learned something. First of all, we’ve seen that there is, indeed, an intricate connection between physics and music, and it goes deeper than you might have thought. From a simple point of view, music is sound, and sound is...

Suggested Readings

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pp. 267-268


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pp. 269-274

E-ISBN-13: 9780801897078
E-ISBN-10: 0801897076
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801892646
Print-ISBN-10: 0801892643

Page Count: 288
Illustrations: 11 halftones, 156 line drawings
Publication Year: 2009