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Klarinet Archive - Posting 000351.txt from 1999/04

From: James Pyne <>
Subj: [kl] science & materials when decoupled
Date: Tue, 6 Apr 1999 08:23:27 -0400

On Sun, 4 Apr 1999 12:30:14 Dee Hayes wrote and I agree:

>So it is very important to distinguish between the physics of the situation
>and the player's interaction with and perception of the situation. Both are
>very real and are important elements to deal with and must be dealt with

Recent discussions have involved the question of how the quality of tone
may change when some material other than Mpingo (African Blackwood) is
utilized in the construction of the clarinet or some part of the clarinet,
other than the mouthpiece. (Regarding mouthpieces, hard rubber became
"traditional" as it successfully challenged wood as the material of choice
for clarinet mouthpiece construction many years ago, though questions of
optimal materials remain.)

Posts have talked about the relative merit of what might be called
"scientific" vs. "experiential"(anecdotal) methodologies in making
determinations regarding tone quality. In this arena it is very difficult
to define these methodologies with clarity, as Dee Hayes insight suggests.
Relative to that, I'm not sure there is a good overall understanding of
what the science of acoustics itself, through reliable measurement of
sound, can prove. This research area is, at least concerning musical
acoustics, less developed than one might expect. It was surprising to me,
when entering into this field of research, that more was not thoroughly
understood about instrument building, the construction of music halls and
especially the nature of tonal spectra. (By tonal spectra I mean the
complex waveform of an airborne sound that gives us, among other things, a
sense of tone quality or timbre.)

As early as 1952 Harry F. Olson in "Music, Physics and Engineering" said
that "timbre is the most important fundamental attribute of all music", yet
there is not a vast body of literature concerned with timbre research. A
wonderful musical instrument or a great concert hall cannot be designed by
"formula". That is to say by relying upon mathematical relationships that
have been perfected through exhaustive research. Microphones continue to
improve and digital measurement tools that provide visual analysis of tonal
spectra are becoming much more sophisticated. These improvements are
helpful and enrich an exciting research environment. But these tools can
not yet probe deeply enough to give complete answers to questions involving
the minute differences in air motion that we may sense, for example, as
subtle changes in timbre. To be highly reliable these data need to satisfy
the refined requirements, in terms of the extraordinary sensitivity of the
human ear, of musical sounds.

To illustrate I'll use a quote from Leo L. Baranek's "Acoustical
Measurements", published by the American Institute of Physics.

"At the most favorable pitch an ordinary ear can detect sound pressures
smaller than 10 to the minus 10 of normal atmospheric pressure. At this low
sound pressure the eardrum moves less than 10 to the minus 9 cm, which is
one hundred-thousandth of the wavelength of light or one-tenth the diameter
of the smallest atom!"

Given the present state of acoustic (and perceptual) science, a rational
approach to the assessment of anecdotal evidence (illuminating, descriptive
accounts) may be the best and possibly the only way to deal with practical
problems of instrument design that can produce variations in timbre. If the
systematic study of such evidence is well organized, fairly reliable
results can be obtained. In that sense only is it possible to be as
"scientific" about timbre as one might wish.

So until we can measure sound carefully enough to capture and document all
needed information involved in sensing timbre differences (and then learn
how to properly analyze our perception of those differences) we must rely
on human ears to gather meaningful information, and on the response (in
well organized experiments) of human beings to evaluate it. Though
state-of-the-art sound measurement tools may offer some important clues at
this time, analysis of experiential evidence is, to the best of my
knowledge, an indispensable component in answering design questions that
relate to tone quality. On the other hand I believe that in the near future
we will see computer based sound analysis protocols that will "listen"
carefully enough to be successfully incorporated into the design and
manufacturing process of musical instruments and components. Relatively
sophisticated sound analysis programs moving in that direction have already
been developed by our research group here at OSU.

James Pyne
Clarinet Studio/Research Group
School of Music
The Ohio State University
1866 College Road
Columbus, Ohio 43210
Tel: 614 292 8969
Fax: 614 292 1102

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