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Acoustics for Music Theory

Module by: Catherine Schmidt-Jones. E-mail the author

Summary: For adults, a short review of the physics underlying music theory.

Note: You are viewing an old version of this document. The latest version is available here.

Music is Organized Sound Waves

Music is sound that's organized by people on purpose, to dance to, to tell a story, to make other people feel a certain way, or just to sound pretty or be entertaining. Music is organized on many different levels. Sounds can be arranged into notes, rhythms, textures and phrases. Melodies can be organized into anything from a simple song to a complex symphony. Beats, measures, cadences, and form all help to keep the music organized and understandable. But the most basic way that music is organized is by arranging the actual sound waves themselves so that the sounds are interesting and pleasant and go well together.

A rhythmic, organized set of thuds and crashes is perfectly good music - think of your favorite drum solo - but many musical instruments are designed specifically to produce the regular, evenly spaced waves that we hear as particular pitches (musical notes). Crashes, thuds, and bangs are loud, short jumbles of lots of different wavelengths. The sound of surf, rustling leaves, or bubbles in a fish tank are also white noise, the term that scientists and engineers use for sounds that are mixtures of all the different wavelengths (just as white light is made of all the different wavelengths, or colors, of light).

Figure 1
Figure 1 (noisevstone.png)

A tone (the kind of sound you might call a musical note) is a specific kind of sound. The vibrations that cause it are very regular and make only a particular set of waves. Musicians have terms that they use to describe tones. But this kind of (regular, evenly spaced) wave is useful for things other than music, so scientists and engineers also have terms that describe tonal sound waves. As we talk about where music theory comes from, it will be very useful to know both the scientific and the musical terms and how they are related to each other.

For example, the closer together the waves of a tonal sound are, the higher the note sounds. Musicians talk about the pitch of the sound, or name specific notes, or talk about tuning. Scientists and engineers, on the other hand, talk about the frequency and the wavelength of the sound. They are all essentially talking about the same things, but talking about them in slightly different ways, and using the scientific ideas of wavelength and frequency can help clarify some of the main ideas underlying music theory.

Longitudinal and Transverse Waves

So what are we talking about when we speak of sound waves? Waves are disturbances; they are changes in something - the surface of the ocean, the air, electromagnetic fields. Normally, these changes are travelling (except for standing waves); the disturbance is moving away from whatever created it in a kind of domino effect.

Most kinds of waves are transverse waves. In a transverse wave, as the wave is moving in one direction, it is creating a disturbance in a different direction. The most familiar example of this is waves on the surface of water. As the wave travels in one direction - say south - it is creating an up-and-down (not north-and-south) motion on the water's surface. This kind of wave is very easy to draw; a line going from left-to-right has up-and-down wiggles. So most diagrams of waves - even of sound waves - are pictures of transverse waves.

But sound waves are not transverse. Sound waves are longitudinal waves. If sound waves are moving south, the disturbance that they are creating is making the air molecules vibrate north-and-south (not east-and-west, or up-and-down. This is very difficult to show clearly in a diagram, so most diagrams, even diagrams of sound waves, show transverse waves.

Figure 2: In water waves and other transverse waves, the ups and downs are in a different direction from the forward movement of the wave. The "highs and lows" of sound waves and other longitudinal waves are arranged in the "forward" direction.
Transverse and Longitudinal Waves
Transverse and Longitudinal Waves (wavetypes.png)

Longitudinal waves may also be a little difficult to imagine, because there aren't any examples that we can see in everyday life. A mathematical description might be that in longitudinal waves, the waves (the disturbances) are along the same axis as the direction of motion of the wave; transverse waves are at right angles to the direction of motion of the wave. If this doesn't help, try imagining yourself as one of the particles that the wave is disturbing (a water drop on the surface of the ocean, or an air molecule). As it comes from behind you, a transverse waves lifts you up and then drops you down; a longitudinal wave coming from behind pushes you forward and then pulls you back. You can view here animations of longitudinal and transverse waves, single particles being disturbed by a transverse wave or by a longitudinal wave, and particles being disturbed by transverse and longitudinal waves. (There were also some nice animations of longitudinal waves available as of this writing at Musemath.)

The result of these "forward and backward" waves is that the "high point" of a sound wave is where the air molecules are bunched together, and the "low point" is where there are fewer air molecules. In a pitched sound, these areas of bunched molecules are very evenly spaced. In fact, they are so even, that there are some very useful things we can measure and say about them. In order to clearly show you what they are, most of the diagrams in this course will show sound waves as if they are transverse waves.

Wave Amplitude and Loudness

Both transverse and longitudinal waves cause a displacement of something: air molecules, for example, or the surface of the ocean. The amount of displacement at any given point changes as the wave passes. If there is no wave, or if the spot is in the same state it would be in if there was no wave, there is no displacement. Displacement is biggest (furthest from "normal") at the highest and lowest points of the wave.

Figure 3
Displacement (Displacement.png)

The amplitude of the wave is a measure of the displacement: how big a change is it from no displacement to the peak of a wave? Are the waves on the lake two inches high or two feet? Scientists measure the amplitude of sound waves in decibels. Leaves rustling in the wind are about 10 decibels; a jet engine is about 120 decibels.

Musicians call the loudness of a note its dynamic level. Forte (pronounced "FOR-tay") is a loud dynamic level; piano is soft. Dynamic levels don't correspond to a measured decibel level. An orchestra playing "fortissimo" (which basically means "even louder than forte") is going to be quite a bit louder than a string quartet playing "fortissimo". (See Dynamics for more of the terms that musicians use to talk about loudness.) Dynamics are more of a performance issue than a music theory issue, so we won't be discussing them much.

Figure 4: The size of a wave (how much it is "piled up" at the high points) is its amplitude. For sound waves, the bigger the amplitude, the louder the sound.
Amplitude is Loudness
Amplitude is Loudness (physics1c.png)

Sounds that have Pitch

The aspect of evenly-spaced sound waves that really affects music theory is the spacing between the waves, the distance between, for example, one high point and the next high point. This is the wavelength, and it affects the pitch of the sound; the closer together the waves are, the higher the tone sounds.

All sound waves are travelling at about the same speed - the speed of sound. So waves with a longer wavelength don't arrive (at your ear, for example) as often (frequently) as the shorter waves. This aspect of a sound - how often a peak of a wave goes by, is called frequency by scientists and engineers. They measure it in hertz, which is how many peaks go by per second. People can hear sounds that range from about 20 to about 17,000 hertz.

Figure 5: Since the sounds are travelling at about the same speed, the one with the shorter wavelength "waves" more frequently; it has a higher frequency, or pitch. In other words, it sounds higher.
Wavelength, Frequency, and Pitch
Wavelength, Frequency, and Pitch (phys1b.png)

The word that musicians use for frequency is pitch. The shorter the wavelength, the higher the frequency, and the higher the pitch, of the sound. In other words, short waves sound high; long waves sound low. Instead of measuring frequencies, musicians name the pitches that they use most often. They might call a note "middle C" or "second line G" or "the F sharp in the bass clef". (See Octaves and Diatonic Music and Tuning Systems for more on naming specific frequencies.) These notes have frequencies (Have you heard of the "A 440" that is used as a tuning note?), but the actual frequency of a middle C can vary from one orchestra, piano, or performance, to another, so musicians usually find it more useful to talk about note names.

So why should we bother talking about frequency, when musicians usually don't? As we will see, the physics of sound waves affects the most basic aspects of music, including pitch, tuning, consonance and dissonance, harmony, and timbre.

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