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Acoustics as Part of a Musical Education

By Louis C. Elson.
A few years ago two courses of lectures on musical topics were delivered at the Lowell Institute, in Boston, both being practically free to the public; one course, on "The Symphony and the Symphonic Orchestra," drew forth crowded audiences at each lecture ; the other, on "The Scientific Basis of Music," although delivered by the greatest acoustician of America, attracted only a few beggarly dozens of auditors. This absolute indifference of the musician to the study of the physical laws underlying his art, is true not only in Boston, but in every American music center. Composers imagine that nothing practical is to be gained by an acquaintance with acoustics, and the average music student thinks that a knowledge of the laws of sound would demand long study and lead to no tangible result. As a matter of fact, the fundamental physical laws which underlie music can be learned in six or eight lessons, and the practical results which would accompany the study of such a course may be briefly stated, as follows, by giving an outline of a practical course of study and its application to direct musical uses.
The first lesson would naturally be elementary, describing the character of sound vibrations, demonstrating the symmetry of those which produce tone and the irregularity of those which result in noise. An exhibition of the figures of the Chladni plate would readily demonstrate the fact that what sounds well to the ear would look equally well if made visible to the eye. The student would at once comprehend that music (tone) is founded upon symmetry, and that even the lower animals are attracted by this symmetry.
The second lesson might be devoted to the study of the canons of the stretched string. As the laws underlying length, thickness, tension, and density are unfolded to the student, they could be at once applied to the different instruments. The student would immediately perceive the effect of difference in size in the construction of the piano ; would understand something of that "drafting the scale," which always mystifies him when used by the piano salesman ; would comprehend the reason of the difference in tone-quality between a concert-grand and a baby grand, and would view the application of the canons in every stringed instrument from banjo to piano.
The third lesson might deal with sounding-boards and boxes. In this lesson the student would learn how nature has guided man in musical construction ; the drum of the ear would give the principle of a soundbox, sound holes and all, and the principle of the resonance of the violin, the inferiority of the banjo, the use of the apertures in the front board of violin, guitar, or mandolin, and various other mysteries would become very clear.
The next lesson, or possibly two lessons, could be applied to teaching the "chord of nature," the principle of the overtones. With these two lessons the entire principle of the playing of brass instruments would be revealed ; cornet, French horn, trombone, trumpet, bugle—the entire family of brasses would be clearly understood with a comprehension of the division of vibrations in the chord of nature. The use of the mixture stops and the transposing stops (quint, twelfth, etc.) of the organ would now be readily grasped, and the knowledge of the causes underlying differences in quality of tone would no longer be a mystery. The next lesson, growing most logically out of this, would be an explanation of the scale of nature, the true proportions of vibrations in the succession of tones which we call a scale. The fact that all the tones that we hear in our musical system are slightly out of tune would be explained by giving the evolution of the "tempered scale" which we employ, and the fact of Bach's composition of "The Well-tempered Clavichord" to establish it, would give to the pupil a clear instance of a point where composition and acoustics join hands. The student would intuitively defend the "tempered" system against those scientists who reproach us with using a scale that is out of tune, by responding that this same scale was chiefly established by the best of all musicians, and if it did not offend his ears it certainly need not jar on less musical ones. The tuning of the piano is now an intelligible process to the pupil who is following this very brief acoustical course.
An analysis of musical pitch now follows—a most important subject to the musician in America, where the fight for a rational pitch is only half-won. The causes of the rise in pitch are explained, and a synopsis of the international pitch, used in France and America ; the "concert pitch," a most indefinite and variable quantity ; the "Scheibler pitch," used in Germany, can all be explained and contrasted in very quick succession. The invention of tuning forks by John Shore, of the English army, in 1711, and the low pitch used at that time would demonstrate to the student how much the singer has had to bear from the modern piano-manufacturer in search of a "bright tone." A lesson might now be devoted to the classification of the different vibrations of musical instruments. In this lesson the student would learn that the voice practically belonged to the family of reeds—at least, in the physical production of its vibrations ; he would learn the control that we have over string-vibrations ; why the plucking of a string causes the brightest possible string-tone ; why the exciting of a string near its center causes it to become hollower in quality ; why the violinist plucks at a point well removed from the bridge when he plays "pizzicato " ; why the harp-player plucks near the center of his string ; why the violinist bows near his bridge when he desires an especially bright tone ; why the kettle- drummer strikes sometimes in the center, sometimes at the side of his calf-skin.
What there is left of mystery in the production of tone and its resultant quality disappears with the next lesson, which deals with the length and shape of musical tubes. Now we learn why a conical tube gives all the overtones and produces a bright tone ; why a cylindric tube neutralizes half of its overtones and gives a hollow tone. We also investigate the flue and reed mouth-pieces of organ pipes, and through these we come to the whole family of musical tubes ; the flute, oboe, horns, bassoons, etc , can pass rapidly in review, and by the end of this lesson the pupil arrives at the ability of judging of the pitch and quality of tone of an instrument which he has never heard sounded. This capability can be tested by bringing different-shaped organ-pipes into the class-room and causing the students to demonstrate their pitch and tone before sounding.
Last, and most wonderful of all, comes the beautiful demonstration of that sympathy of sounds for other sounds of the same pitch which is called synchronism. That an instrument will speak if one sounds a tone which it produces is the least of this wonderful mystery of nature ; that a building will rock, that an entire hall will tremble, if we but sound its fundamental tone, or pipe one of its overtones long enough, begins to demonstrate to the student a power which is as great as that of electricity and greater than that of steam—a power of whose application, however, we are as yet totally ignorant.
The fact that every hall lends itself most readily to same especial pitch, that every opera-house is in itself a musical instrument, will open a new field of wonder to the musical student. That we have lost the art of architectural acoustics (I firmly believe that the ancients possessed it), that we build our concert-halls in the dark as to their tonal result, that Sayles Memorial Hall, at Brown University, is most beautiful to see and most difficult to sing in, and nobody can tell why,—these are a few of the wonders and problems of the final lesson. We can leave it to the judgment of the unprejudiced reader, if the study of so many acoustic laws, the unveiling of so many mysteries, is of practical value to the musician or not.
The writer of this article has for many years put in practice a course like the one above outlined, and as the horizon of the teachers who had studied it broadened out, as their work became more advanced and they filled a wider field, they found the acoustic lessons coming more and more into practical use. Nor should we lose sight of the fact that only those who study something of acoustics can comprehend the true relation of music to the family of the sciences ; only those who understand the symmetry of vibrations, the fixed law of the overtones, the wonderful revelations of synchronism, can fully appreciate the glory of the tonal art, and only they can see how man, working with natural materials, was yet able to go beyond the natural laws and build for himself an art which is above all the others in the fact that it goes beyond its natural foundations and becomes a purely human invention.

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