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The Science Behind Musical Instruments (Part Two)

In Which I Discuss How Sound Works in Keyboards, Electronic, and Technological Music

Image courtesy of Eicca Toppinen

Welcome to the second part of getting scientific with music! In the previous installment, I discussed the physics surrounding sound in stringed instruments, woodwinds, brass instruments, percussions. Here, I'll transition to how sound works in keyboards, electronic, and technological instruments.   

Keyboard instruments are interesting in that they each produce their own sound in different ways and yet all have keyboards. Generally speaking, they are more complicated than other instruments to a degree.

Let's start with the harpsichord. Its sound comes from strings, whereby pressing keys will cause a quill to pluck the strings. To change the volume or sound quality, the pedals or levers of the harpsichord allow the musician to link each key to one or more strings that are tuned to the same note (or the same note in different octaves).  

Then, we have the clavichord. Its sound also comes from strings, but the difference is that pressing a key will cause a hard bridge or rod—a "tangent"—to hit the string. The string will vibrate for as long as the tangent is in contact with it. To put this into perspective, imagine what happens when you press your finger down hard and fast behind a fret on a guitar's fingerboard. That's what the tangent on a clavichord does. 

Next up is what we consider the universal instrument—the piano. Once again, strings are what make its sound. Pressing a key will cause a felt hammer to hit a string. The greater the force placed on a key, the louder the sound will be.

Moving on from string-based keyboards, we'll look at the pipe organ. Its sound comes from vibrating air columns from inside its pipes. Much like the edge-blown woodwinds, pressing a key will direct air from a pump or compressor across an edge into the pipe. The musician can link the keyboard to "stops," which are different arrays of pipes. There's also a high-pressure, portable version of the pipe organ called the calliope, which was originally powered by steam.

Of the keyboards, the celesta is the easiest to explain. Its sound comes from metal bars, and pressing a key will cause a hammer to strike a given bar.

Finally, there's the accordion. In ancient times, it was known as the most sublime of all instruments. Its sound comes from metal reeds set in motion by air from its bellows. When a key is pressed, the accordion open valves that allow air from the bellows pass one or more metal reeds.

Now that we've officially covered the more traditional instruments, we can now talk about technological advancements that streamline how music is played. We'll start with electronic instruments, which create sound through electrical signals turned into vibrations by a speaker. Older electronic instruments use analog signals, while newer ones are digital. Digital instruments can actually "talk" to each other using Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI).

There are also other interesting technologies that change how music is created. My favourite of these is the synthesizer, which is created with a computer, and can actually mimic the sound of traditional instruments without computer "beeps" and "boops." Admittedly, it can be hard to tell the difference without a trained ear. 

Another one is the laser harp. What differentiates it from the traditional string harp is the way it's played: you block the light on the string that activates the corresponding sound. This is because a single laser beam is split into paralleled layers of light that create "strings" connected to a synthesizer. 

Speaking again of synthesizers, we also have the Tenori-On Music Synthesizer that consists of a screen you hold in your hands. Instead of resembling a piano, which most synthesizers do, it's a sixteen-by-sixteen grid that houses LED switches representing 256 different built-in notes. 

To create music, you can activate the switches in many different ways, whether by pressing buttons or programming a sequence (laying a light pattern) to play a melody. You can even use additional samples and customisable options it offers, This synthesizer records up to sixteen different tracks you can edit on your computer. 

To end this two-part series, I want to list another technological method of creating music called the Ball Bearing Beat Machine. It's set up in a grid formation, and different sounds are assigned to its horizontal axis while tempo is assigned to its vertical axis. 

Beats can be created by placing the ball bearings into a holder on the grid. If placed close together, the beat will be fast, whereas spreading them apart will slow the tempo down. This is, essentially, how music is created with the beat machine, even replacing traditional drum sets. The machine is capable of creating temps and beat patterns that many drummers cannot. Many designers have even expanded upon the beat machine to create those that use blocks or other objects to lay out sound patterns. 

And that concludes my longer-than-intended science lesson. My hope is that this little series proved interesting and educational for any and all music enthusiasts out there. Please stay tuned as I will soon introduce another music-related series that will actually be recurring!

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The Science Behind Musical Instruments (Part Two)
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