As I mentioned last week I am writing a series of posts (accompanied by You Tube videos) geared toward musicians who desire to learn the basics of musical notation. In last week's post one of the topics we discussed was the musical distance of a half step and a whole step. In real music, the distance between pitches can extend beyond a whole step. There is a musical unit of measure that we use to measure the distance between pitches. That unit of measure is an interval, and it is the topic of today's discussion.
As we mentioned last week, there are seven letters in the musical alphabet. When measuring distances between these seven letters, we count the starting letter as one and then count our way to the destination letter. So, the distance from A to C would be a third, because we count A as one, B as two and C as three. This graphic helps to demonstrate all of the intervals between the seven letters of the alphabet.
We can count the same way on the musical staff. Every line and space on the staff represents a letter. We count the starting note as one, and then continue to count the lines and spaces up to (and including) the target note to determin the interval. This graphic displays the musical intervals of one cycle of letters from C to C.
If you notice, that last graphic included an interval of an 8th. Remember that the musical alphabet is a seven letter cycle that repeats back to A. Since the letters repeat in a cycle, the interval of an 8th will always be a repeat of the letter you started on. It is not an identical match of the starting pitch (which is called a unison). It is the same letter in a higher or lower register.
When two pitches are sounded at the same time they create harmony. Harmonies that are pure and free from discord are called consonant. There are two types of consonence in music, perfect and imperfect consonence. The perfect consonent intervals in music are the unison, perfect fourth, perfect fifth and octive. The imperfect consonences are thirds and sixths. Harmonies that are discordant or clashing are called dissonant. The dissonant intervals in music are seconds and sevenths.
The pairings of numbers mentioned in the last paragraph have an interesting relationship. Each pair (2&7, 3&6, 4&5) are inversions of each other. An inversion is the flipped version of an interval. If a person plays a C and the E directly above it, this is the interval of a third. If you then change the order of these two pitches by playing the E below the C (instead of the one above) you are playing the interval of a sixth. You are still playing the same two pitches, but you have flipped the order of the pitches. The same is true when flipping a second into a seventh, or a fourth into a fifth.
Consonance and dissonance are used as tools by composers to create tension and release. Any form of good entertainment (a book, a movie, a sporting event, a piece of music, ect.) will contain conflict that builds twoard a climatic moment and then resolves. In music, this is accomplished by having dissonance resolve to consonance. There are other tools used to compose great musical climaxes, but the most basic elements are dissonance and consonance.
Unfortunatly, musical intervals are not always just simple numbers. Remember, there are actually 21 different pitches in music due to the sharps and flats. This means that there are variations on each number when pitches are raised or lowered. The unison and octive cannot be altered at all. Once these distances are changed they are no longer a unison or octive. The other perfect consonent intervals can be shortened (diminished) or lengthened (augmented).
diminished 4th / perfect 4th / augmented 4th
diminished 5th / perfect 5th / augmented 5th
Imperfect consonent intervals and dissonant intervals have two versions, major and minor. In addition, they can also be diminished or augmented.
diminished 2nd / minor 2nd / major 2nd / augmented 2nd
diminished 3rd / minor 3rd / major 3rd / augmented 3rd
diminished 6th / minor 6th / major 6th / augmented 6th
diminished 7th / minor 7th / major 7th / augmented 7th
All of these interval names can get confusing. Remember the principal of enharmonic equavlince from last week's post. Every sharp pitch can also be identified by a corrisponding flat (or in some cases natural) name. This means that many of these interval names overlap each other. A diminished 2nd, for example, is the same thing as a unison. An augmented 4th is the same thing as a diminished 5th. However, if you were measuring the distance from C to F#, you would call it an augmented 4th. If you were measuring the distance from C to Gb (same pitch as F#), you would call it a diminished 5th.
Some of the other examples, like the diminished 2nd mentioned above, occure rarely. For this to take place, you would have to be measuring the distance between a C and a D double flat. The term double flat means that you have lowered the pitch two half steps instead of one. These types of musical concepts are too complex for this basic discussion, so we will leave them for a future date. The most common musical intervals are listed in this figure.
This concludes our discussion on musical intervals. Please refer to the attached video for further understanding. I also provide private music instruction online. Private lessons can be booked from this
Last week we discussed the topic of overtones, and we mentioned the use of long tones when practicing overtones. This week I would like to spend some more time discussing the importance of overtones in an instrumentalist's practice routine. This discussion may not be applicable to the study of instruments that are not capable of sustaining their tone (like many percussion instruments). However, the study and use of long tones is a vitally important, and often overlooked topic in the study of instrumental performance.
Long tones are exactly what the name suggests them to be. They are tones that are sustained for a long period of time. As I mentioned, they are often overlooked in instrumental studies. This occurs because most students desire to obtain speed in their playing. The reason we all strive to learn how to play an instrument (or sing) is to impress others. Performing passages with fast, flashy and elaborate notes always seem to be the best way to impress others. Long tones seem easy to achieve and boring to perform. However, long tones that are executed correctly are both challenging and constructive tools for increasing one's performance level.
Tone quality is just as important of a performance quality as flash and speed. Without a desirable tone the fastest notes in the world will still be perceived as annoying instead of being entertaining. Developing your tone as a performer should be accomplished in two stages. First, one should look to develop a tone that is consistent, neutral and controlled. This will allow for the performer to achieve changes in pitch, rhythm, dynamic, and articulation while maintaining a consistent tone. Developing a consistent tone quality with long tones is the first step in this process. Then a performer can gradually increase the fluctuation of musical elements within his/her playing while striving to maintain a consistent tone.
Consistent long tones also help to improve intonation on instruments where intonation can fluctuate due to performance technique. Many performers practice long tones in front of an electronic tuning device to have a visual display of their intonation. Repeated practice in this manor causes the performer to remember what it feels like to play in tune. Eventually this type of tone production become second nature.
The second stage of tone production is developing one's own unique sound. Each performer's tone is unique, since it is shaped by specific details of his/her playing style. The unique quality of a performer's tone is even more relevant with instruments which require breath, because the tone is shaped by both the instrument and the performer's body. Finding and perfecting your unique tone is a performance quality that will distinguish you from other performers. Being identifiable and unique is often a beneficial quality in musical performance.
One of the best ways to develop your unique and identifiable tone is through the use of long tones. After a musician has developed a consistent and controlled tone, he/she can begin to listen to an examine the unique qualities of that tone. While holding out long tones, desirable tone qualities can be accentuated through experimentation. The result will be a signature tone that is unique to the performer.
I hope that this discussion has helped you to recognize the importance of long tones in the study of musical performance. A well rounded musician develops every aspect of their performance ability, including tone quality. I still incorporate long tones into my practice routine regularly. The results of long tone studies are noticeable and valuable.
What are overtones? Every musical pitch is actually composed of a mixture of many different pitches or frequencies. To avoid confusion I will use the term pitch to refer to a melodic note and frequencies to refer to the pitch elements which compose that melodic note. The lowest frequency within a pitch is called the fundamental. The additional frequencies present within the pitch are called overtones. The first overtone is always one octave above the fundamental. The second overtone is a fifth higher than the first overtone, and the next one is a fourth higher than that. The interval of each overtone gets closer as one travels up the series. This mixture of tone colors gives each pitch it's unique tone color.
This post applies most directly to wind players, although knowledge in this topic can be applicable to other areas of musical performance. Wind players blow air into their instrument to cause the vibration that produces sound. By making slight modifications in the way we blow, we can emphasize certain overtones more than others. Varying the emphasis of different frequencies across the overtone spectrum can change the color of a wind performer's tone. Skilled musicians use this technique to adapt their tone to the musical style that they are performing.
The modifications in mentioned in the last paragraph are made through slight adjustments in a performer's throat, tongue, mouth and jaw. Through experimentation with long tones, a performer can discover how to produce the tone that they desire with accuracy and consistency. Many wind players disagree over how many of the body parts listed above should be used in shaping ones tone and to what degree they should be manipulated. However, most agree on the concept of hearing the desired tone in one's mind and then experimenting to achieve it.
I cannot speak specifically on this topic for every wind instrument. I can, however, add specifics about the study of overtones in saxophone performance. Saxophone players often practice shifting between the overtones of a particular note while fingering the fundamental on a long tone. In addition, we practice overtone scales by using the fingerings of lower fundamentals to produce the pitches of higher notes within the sequence of a scale. The ability to eliminate lower frequencies within a pitch and bring out a certain overtone as if it is the fundamental is helpful. A saxophone player can use this ability to gain more control over the shape of their tone. We can also use this ability to increase the range of our instrument by playing harmonic pitches.
As a student, I always found it helpful to understand the application of the elements I was practicing. Overtones are one of those elements that many people include in their practice regiment without understanding the application. I hope that this post will help you to understand the significance and use of overtone studies in your practice time.
Ray Melograne received his BA and ME in music education from Queens College. He is currently teaching music in the NY public schools. He also teaches privately on the Zoen.com network.