Written by Mete Bakircioglu
Welcome back to “The Shape of Music,” a five-part series where we take you through the magic of music—how it works and what makes it sound so good. So far, we’ve learned about rhythm (the heartbeat of music) and melody (the “meat and potatoes” of music), and the musical alphabet which is used in these for understanding music. We specifically learned about the keyboard, and how it maps out this alphabet. Now that we’ve got the building blocks down, we’re going to expand on the musical alphabet and learn about the musical language!
The musical language is unlike any other language. It relies on instruments, instead of our voices, to communicate for us. Music makes you feel things—it gives you goosebumps, it makes you happy, it makes you cry—no matter where you’re from. Think about each of these feelings as a color. Just like there’s a spectrum of shades of color, there’s a whole spectrum of feelings that music lets us experience.
Follow along as we learn how to communicate with this new language. Think of the musical language as you would any normal language: there are rules to it which we call grammar, there is a vocabulary which lets us express our thoughts, and there are accents within a language which give our thoughts a unique sound. The fun thing about music is that the rules, the grammar of it all, are not hard. We actually already learned them when we explored note values and time signatures in the first episode. Now that leaves us with a whole vocabulary and all the unique accents to explore. In our musical language, the vocabulary is the way we touch our instrument and the notes we play, and the accent is which instrument we choose.
Building blocks of symphonies
You can best hear the musical language’s diversity in a symphonic orchestra. So many different instruments with so many unique sounds, or if we want to make the comparison to spoken language, accents. But in music we don’t call it an “accent,” we call it “timbre.” Timbre is the quality of the sound. Let’s talk about how each of these colors of sound exists in the orchestra.
The largest group in a symphonic orchestra is the string instruments. These include the violin, viola, cello, and bass. These string instruments can be plucked, or more commonly, played with a bow. If you watched the behind the scenes piano video from last episode, then this’ll sound familiar. As the bow passes over the string, it causes it to vibrate really fast. The pitch that comes out depends on how fast the string is vibrating. You can put your fingers over the strings to change the pitch. Thicker strings vibrate slower, which gives it a lower frequency pitch. Timbre, or sound quality, is pretty hard to describe since music is its own language. Do string instruments have bright sounds? Clear? Thick? See, the two types of languages aren’t really compatible.
So check out this Brandenburg Concerto from the Freiburger Baroque Orchestra in Germany to decide for yourself what it sounds like.
Another group in an orchestra is made up of the brass instruments. These include french horns, trumpets, trombones, and tubas. This family of instruments is defined by its long pipes attached to bell-like ends. All brass instruments are played by vibrating your lips against a hole on the instrument. The vibrations go through the pipe then the bell shaped end, producing sound! Here’s a french horn solo from Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony. The french horn sounds so clear and light and heavy all at the same time!
Next we have the woodwinds. In an orchestra, this family includes the flute, oboe, clarinet, and bassoon. These instruments are all pretty thin pipes with holes along them. They’ve got an open bottom and a mouthpiece at the top. You play woodwind instruments by blowing air through the mouthpiece—that’s where the “wind” in “woodwind” comes from—and opening or closing the holes with your fingers to change the pitch. Below is a clip of Bach’s Sonata in C Major. The main instrument you hear is the recorder. Sounds kinda like a bird right?
Last but not least is the percussion family. Percussion instruments include any instrument that makes a sound when it is hit, shaken, or scraped. Some examples are the drum, tambourine, maraca, timpani, xylophone, and piano. If you’re wondering why the piano is in the same category as the drum, remember that the piano’s sound comes from a hammer striking (key word!) a string. Percussion instruments keep rhythm, adding structure and color This next piece, Ravel’s Bolero, begins quietly with the beat of a drum, and transforms into a powerful melody as each new instrument is introduced. The drum is the backbone of the piece.
If you want a more detailed report of each family of instruments, check out the Oregon Symphony’s page!
Join the fun!
Now let’s do an activity. Grab a blank piece of paper and some coloring supplies. I’m going to play you some music, and your job is to color what you hear. Remember, the different instruments and ways they are played give the music color, a form of communication that is unique to you. Unlike spoken words, musical phrases have no literal meaning. I can say “please close the door on your way out,” but I can’t literally tell you that with music. You get what I mean? So whatever you hear is going to be how you understand it. You get to give the music meaning by deciding what to color. It’s like a choose-your-own-adventure book! Here we go…
Listen to the Podcast:
Make sure to check out the podcast version of this episode on the website for a deeper review of the color of sound and the musical language! Thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll continue your musical journey in the next episode, where we conclude this part of our adventure with our final episode by learning about the circle of fifths. Buckle up because we’re going to uncover the secrets to sound.