Sound Projection

Edited: May 29, 2020, 5:40 PM · Hi,

I asked a question to myself by listening and watching some recordings.

How can a soloist cover an orchestra with only his voice/instrument?

I think that it is mostly because musicians in orchestra have to play more piano than you'll normally do and that soloists need to get "perfect" sound projection ( bow pressure, etc...). But I may be wrong.

But there are still some passages were the orchestra plays loudly and the soloist still cover the orchestra ( like Vengerov in the end of Sibelius's first movt or Rostropovich in final part of Don

So I don't really know how they do this. I've thought that recordings were extremely modified to get that sound equality. But that's a bit like soloists were cheating (and I don't think they cheat). I've also thought that the composer always keep that sound equality when they compose a piece ( I mean that they prevent the orchestra to cover the soloist ).
And finally, I've thought about the concert hall and the soloist's placement in the hall compared to the orchestra musicians. But again, I'm not sure.
Can someone please answer this question correctly?


Replies (60)

May 29, 2020, 5:57 PM · I believe that its a mixture of the strings on ones instrument. Orchestras generally play quieter when they play with a soloist. But you are correct that sound engineers change things when mixing a recording. There may also be sound engineers in live concerts as well
May 29, 2020, 6:05 PM · Thanks, that's interesting
May 29, 2020, 6:06 PM · No sound engineers in live performances.

Composers have long known how to make it easier to hear the soloist. Violin (and other treble) soloists can be heard more easily when they are above the entire orchestra. A similar concept can be used in lower registers: the composer often clears the entire octave that the soloist is playing in. And moving notes can be heard over sustained notes, as shown very clearly in the Mendelssohn violin concerto.

May 29, 2020, 6:16 PM · No, live performances can definitely have an engineer. I've been to several where the musicians were thoroughly mic'd. It makes the concert experience not suck for the people in the back row.
May 29, 2020, 6:31 PM · Orchestras of the caliber that can afford to play with Vengerov or Rostropovich do not mike their soloists, except if it's an instrument that doesn't project without miking (eg mandolin). They also generally play in very carefully acoustically engineered concert halls where the last row does not suck.
I doubt that the type of string used has any major effect. The instrument certainly can.
Probably the largest factor is that when orchestras accompany soloists, they rarely play full out unless they have the solo line. Sustained notes might be attacked loudly but then they'll back away from it so the soloist can come through; accompanimental figures are played more quietly than they're marked. Even when you think the orchestra is playing loudly, it's not as loud as they could in a symphony.
Sometimes the parts are written in terms of register to help the soloist. Soloists are also aware of problem spots for projecting; some things you can do to "cut through" are to use more aggressive articulation, take more bows than you would otherwise, you see Vengerov going up the G string because the G string projects more than the D. There's some places where the soloist is going to be covered no matter what you do and all you can really do there is to look like you're playing loudly.
May 29, 2020, 6:38 PM · If you are playing at the local basketball arena (like our regional symphony does a couple times a year) then you mic everyone.

If you are playing in Disney Hall (or the Moss Center at Virginia Tech or anywhere else with pin-drop acoustics) you don't.

May 29, 2020, 9:22 PM · Here's a more thorough explanation of some of the ideas I was talking about, and more techniques composers have in their toolbox:

May 29, 2020, 10:43 PM · I'm definitely not a sound engineer by any means but I think it mainly has to do with the player's techniques. A strong vibrato will separate the soloists from the orchestra as it will not blend in. As well as more projecting bowing techniques such as using each portion of the bow more evenly. It probably also has to do with the soloist instrument. Usually, soloist go for more projecting and overall more powerful instruments that would not do well in an orchestra but sets it apart with many overtones letting it soar across the orchestra.
May 30, 2020, 1:19 AM · Forget about recordings in which all sorts of trickery may be used - haven't we all (or at least most of us) played in live, non-amplified orchestral concerts with a good but non-stellar soloist who is able to carry over the band without difficulty?

Most concertos in the repertoire were written before the "sound engineer" was conceived - even before there was electricity. Good composers know how to balance and contrast a soloist against a large orchestra, either by the dynamic, the register, the timbre or simply making sure the whole orchestra isn't playing when the soloist has delicate material to bring out.

Additionally there are more complex psychoacoustic factors in play, one of which is vibrato as Ben has indicated. I've banged on about this before, but it has been shown scientifically that modulating the frequencies of a solo instrument coherently causes them to stand out against random background noise ("co-modulation masking release")

May 30, 2020, 3:06 AM · And some of us have performed as soloists -- I'd guess typically with community orchestras in places with sub-optimal acoustics, which was my soloist experience.

Even in those circumstances, and playing as a viola soloist (harder to project than on violin), I don't think I had any real difficulty projecting over the orchestra. There was no need to do anything too different other than keeping in mind that a soloist pianissimo is more like what I would normally think of as a mezzo-piano.

It's not the "soloist instrument" either. Soloists with community orchestras are often section players in higher-level orchestras, and they're definitely not playing "soloist instruments." The viola I played as a soloist with one community orchestra is the same viola that I play as a section player in a different orchestra, with the same bow and same strings.

May 30, 2020, 6:14 AM · It's the composer's style which makes a solo part work or not -- remember that most of the solos people still play these days were written long before amplification, so the composer had to make the solo part work while playing in front of a whole orchestra.

Several compositional techniques have already been mentioned -- not writing other instruments on the same pitches as the soloist, writing the solo above the rest of the orchestra. One that I don't see mentioned is that the soloist is often playing a different rhythm from the rest of the orchestra.

I imagine also that acoustically the soloist is always out in front of the orchestra -- not necessarily so they can be seen better, but because the sound of the soloist is pushed out to the audience by the sound of the orchestra behind the soloist's sound.

Think of solo passages in the middle of an orchestral work instead of a concerto situation -- the solo passage is usually quite different in rhythm and pitch than the tutti it is being played against. So the principal violist, almost never near the edge of the orchestra, when there is a solo passage for the viola, can still be heard. But never as clearly as if the person were playing in front of the orchestra.

The development of the orchestral literature including solos was one of trial and error until the right acoustical combination of compositional techniques and instrument placement (think of how the 1st/2nd violins are seated beside each other usually these days compared to former times and only rarely these days when they are seated on opposite sides of the orchestra) to get the sound the composers were looking for.

Edited: May 30, 2020, 6:27 AM · OK OK if the orchestra plays ff then of course no soloist has a chance, but still I am with Ben that the real answer to Guillermo's question is "simply" a splendid bowing technique. Much weight, high bow speed, and being able to make that sound with a clear tone. Even softer passages can project really well with a great bowing technique.
May 30, 2020, 9:39 AM · Sometime in the past two decades violin maker Joseph Curtin published a pair of articles in the STRAD magazine about violin acoustics and vibrato. He stressed the irregularity of the of peaks in the overtone spectrum of different violins in terms of both frequency distribution and acoustic strength (i.e., decibels, DB) and how vibrato was a technique violinists used to enhance their sound. The way this works (according to Curtin) is that vibrato spreads the frequency range of the overtones produced to increase the apparent loudness of the notes whose overtones have lower peaks and evens out the sound level projected to an audience.

For me, reading this was an "AHA!" moment because with it I understood several experiences I had had in previous years, and it also enlightened those I was to have in the future.

Back in 1963, I was principal cellist in our community orchestra and my own cello had suffered a serious break** (apparently from being moved across the country the previous year - and possibly dry rot) and I had to play a couple of solo passages in a concert and I had to use a really lousy Kay cello that the orchestra owned (left over from a WW-II Navy band assortment of cheap instruments). When I got to the first solo I could sense how poorly my sound was projecting over the orchestra and I increased the speed and breadth of my vibrato to try to get "my sound." My movements became so vigorous that my left hand flew off the fingerboard. I learned two lessons; one, immediately (of course), was to calm it down, but the other was what I finally read in Curtin at least 40 years later.
**(I finally had that cello adequately repaired in 1990.)

The lesson of Joseph Curtin was really brought home to me by the former concermaster of our local chamber orchestra, in which I played for the last 9 years (until the pandemic). She had the most amazing vibrato I have ever heard (bar none). She has a reputation for it among violinists in our county, even those who have never met or heard her have heard about it. I would estimate in the right venue her apparent sound level is enhanced at least 5 times by her vibrato. I had thought it had to be her violin that was responsible for her amazing sound, but then I heard her testing bows on another violinist's instrument - and she made the same thing happen to that violin.
Combining the bowing and the vibrato does it.

I first heard Heifetz perform the Beethoven concerto in concert when I was 16. I was used to hearing him on our 78rpm records. I was amazed, sitting in the balcony at that concert to hear the same sonic balance of solo to the orchestra (Baltimore Symphony) that I heard on our recordings. And when he hit the pizz notes in the 3rd movement it sounded as though a pistol had been fired - I even turned my head to see where that sound was coming from.
I later heard the same incredible violin strengths in live concerto performances by Stern, Perlman and Hahn.
Eric Friedman's performance of the Brahms concerto, on the other hand did not come to my ears with that strength. In contrast, his performance opened my mind to an aspect of masterful concerto composition by the way Brahms had composed that music so the violin overtones carried the solo sounds through the "frequency gaps" in the orchestra sound.

I know others have written above of these phenomena. I just wanted to add the experiences of my own ears that have confirmed them - and why.

Edited: May 30, 2020, 1:40 PM · I think people are forgetting that another huge reason why vibrato makes it easier to cut through is because the addition of vibrato disrupts the natural balance between bow speed, pressure (I know some people hate that word, so let's say vertical force), and contact point.

Imagine you play a note for 4 seconds without vibrato as loudly as you can. To create the largest possible sound, you need to exert the maximum amount of bow speed, vertical force and closeness to the bridge as possible. This could be actually be achieved if you play a note for about half a second. When you try to hold it for 4 seconds however, you are forced to adjust one or more of these 3 basic parameters, since the time factor has now been manipulated.

Let's take one example combination. If you try to play as loudly as you did in the half a second note but also using the whole bow, you would have to play further away from the bridge to avoid scratching, but this reduces the output of upper harmonics and reduces overall volume. But by adding vibrato, you can now bypass the requirement of playing much further from the bridge. The faster and wider your vibrato is, the closer you will be able to play towards the bridge without reducing bow speed and vertical force, since it will increase the total volume of vibrato outputs. I don't know the exact science of how vibrato achieves this, some of the physics experts here could probably explain this better than I have.

May 30, 2020, 3:34 PM · In addition to the factors already mentioned: sound intensity in decibels is proportional to the square root of the energy (number of players) So that a first violin section of 9 players is not 9 times louder than the violin soloist, but only 3 times louder, and only if they are playing forte, in unison. Of course the orchestra backs off for a violin solo. The brain has a preference for the higher pitches, so that for two violins playing in octaves, the higher octave sounds louder. The brain also prefers the sound that arrives first. The soloist stands only a few feet in front of the violin section, but it makes a difference. And, good, expensive violins sound louder.
May 30, 2020, 4:17 PM · 'sound intensity in decibels is proportional to the square root of the energy (number of players) So that a first violin section of 9 players is not 9 times louder than the violin soloist, but only 3 times louder, and only if they are playing forte, in unison.'

Very interesting to learn that!

May 30, 2020, 7:14 PM · Isn't there an issue of phase incoherence as well?
May 31, 2020, 2:19 AM · Two factors, over and above the sheer power of the instrument (or voice):

- vibrato, which "detaches" the solo from the accompaniment, and "catches" our attention;
- the "singers formant", at and around 3kHz, which allows violins, singers etc to be heard against an orchestra (or a Steinway..). This the "projection" everyone talks about, and which can be so painful under the ear.

Edited: May 31, 2020, 10:36 AM · Joel, shouldn't that be the logarithm rather than the square root, or am I confusing things?
Edited: May 31, 2020, 11:05 AM · I remembered a logarithmic relationship also. As long as one is getting technical, I think it also pays to be very careful about the terms one is using. "Energy" vs. "Intensity" vs. "Power" etc.

"How our ears perceive sound can be more accurately described by the logarithm of the intensity rather than directly to the intensity."

Edited: June 1, 2020, 10:39 AM · continued-- Jean is right. After looking at my old acoustics textbook; The relationship between sound energy (watts) and perceived loudness (phons or decibels)is logarithmic, base ten, much steeper than square root. So that a section of 10 violins sounds only twice as loud as the violin soloist! Which would explain why it is probably not worth the time and money for an orchestra manager to find a sub. for a section string player who calls in sick, but a missing wind or brass player makes a real hole in the music. The total sound energy of a big orchestra playing a full volume is about 80 watts, enough to power one light bulb.(!) Another illustration; For large chamber music, like the Brahms, Tchaikovsky sextets, the Mendelssohn octet, the lead violin on the top note is not overwhelmed by the sound of the other 5-7 players. Composers that want a louder string section sound have learned to go for density, write lots of divisi, with octave doublings, to get the subjectively louder sound.
Phase has something to do with it. Two violins playing in unison are never perfectly in phase, and are never perfectly 180 o out of phase, which would result in --silence.
With a Viola or Cello concerto, the situation is worse, those are mid-range instruments, easily masked. The orchestra learns to back off even more. For Hindemiths' Schwanendreher Viola concerto, he simply omitted the violin and viola sections from the orchestra accompaniment.
Edited: May 31, 2020, 3:42 PM · Not to get too picky, but Watts is a unit of power (J/s). Watt-seconds is a unit of energy. (In the US, for example, one pays for electrical energy by the kilowatt-hour). Fortunately, it does not matter here, because the argument of a logarithm is always dimensionless. In physics this is ordinarily accomplished by taking the ratio of the intensity (or energy or power) and a corresponding reference quantity having the same dimensions. That is why I/I0 appears in relationship of decibels to intensity. But since Joel is already making his case in terms of a ratio (doubling the number of players, for example), then the relationship is entirely organic, and he can use whatever dimensions he prefers for intensity. In Joel's case the reference state (I0) is one violinist. The "decibel scale," however, is standardized against a fixed reference I0 value.
May 31, 2020, 7:10 PM · Paul D. is a real scientist and I only know enough to be dangerous, so, thank you. jq
May 31, 2020, 11:23 PM · The instrument and bow make a difference. But the primary determining factor is the player's technique -- right hand, vibrato, and left-hand articulation (for clarity).

Composers are thoughtful, usually, about the balance of soloist and orchestra. Professional orchestras, especially, are easier to play with as a soloist since they know how to be delicately quiet and still sound good. Community orchestras and youth symphonies tend to struggle with this.

But as a teacher memorably told me around twenty years ago when I was prepping for a solo performance with orchestra (imagine this in a thick Russian accent), "There are only three dynamics as a soloist. Forte! Double forte! And triple forte!" As a soloist, you never truly play at a soft volume. You change the color of your sound -- you change your vibrato, you change your sounding point, etc. But you still produce, in terms of absolute decibels of sound, quite a loud noise.

What carries to the back of the hall isn't necessary a function of just decibels, though. There's some black magic of physics involved.

June 1, 2020, 12:31 AM · Lydia - I'm not sure everything taught with a thick Russian accent should be taken as prescriptive. This may be the way solo playing has developed over the years, partly as a result of halls getting larger and orchestras louder, but it is still possible and musically invaluable for a soloist to be able to command the stage, conductor, audience and all by playing pianissimo. Of course it depends on the piece but there are moments in the Beethoven concerto that can be pure white magic.
June 1, 2020, 4:15 AM · "What carries to the back of the hall isn't necessary a function of just decibels, though. There's some black magic of physics involved."

As I said earlier, the Singer's Formant..

June 1, 2020, 9:46 AM · We're getting very technical.
To take a "standard" violin concerto - the Brahms.
Pretty thickly scored.
A lot of the accompaniment is string minims, which can easily cover any soloist. Orchestras normally play these f-p, so the impact's there, but not covering the soloist.
Play the same passage with an amateur orchestra, and it's either too loud, or flaccid.
June 7, 2020, 4:03 PM · @Malcolm:

Haha, here's the thing. Brahms is probably uniquely difficult for this discussion because it is truly a battle of the violinist to punch through the orchestra. He truly did not give a flying f*** about how difficult it would be for a soloist to create that tone for 45 minutes. In terms of orchestration I would not consider it "standard" at all.

Edited: June 8, 2020, 7:53 AM · "There's some black magic of physics involved." If there's one thing we know about physics -- it's that it's not magic. Of course we all know that, but it helps sometimes to take a step back from these discussions and ask whether any of the stuff we talk about all the time like "projection" can be measured. And there have been studies of this stuff (including studies of the singer's formant that Adrian mentioned). What violinists usually do, right out of the gate, is to find holes they can punch in those kinds of studies (as invariably there are real-world parameters that have been neglected just to make the experiments possible or to keep them within sane financial boundaries) instead of considering what might be learned that one can use.

As far as vibrato is concerned, I wonder what role evolution plays. Are our minds programmed to catch certain kinds of sounds more than others? Obviously we know that the visual cortex is programmed to detect movement. The auditory cortex too? (That's a question, not a conclusion.)

It would be interesting to put a violinist into a recording booth, wearing headphones to hear a "music minus one" type of orchestral accompaniment, and measure the range of sound pressure that the soloist produces using various microphones while "performing" a concerto. Then repeat the experiment with a few movements of solo Bach.

June 8, 2020, 8:30 AM · In most of the experiments and studies I am aware of so far, "carrying power" has correlated pretty closely with the decibel level up close (on violins).
June 8, 2020, 9:03 AM · I wonder if soloists sometimes fight too hard to dominate at all costs. I heard master classes by Ida Haendel for example and this is the point she tends to stress most: The importance of being heard over the orchestra. She seems to live in constant panic about that.

But I don't think the goal has to be to dominate at every moment. In most good concertos there are passages where the solo part is not actually "first violin", the soloist plays 'second violin" sometimes for a while and maybe the oboe plays "first violin" or some other orchestral voice. Even concertos like Viotti 22 have such sections.

We should also be aware that the violin is actually a very powerful instrument--note quite like the piano but not so far below either. If you have ever played orchestra with a harpsichord or guitar soloist you know that fact. You know then what playing piano really feels like.

Edited: June 8, 2020, 9:34 AM · Many years ago I attended a performance of the Brahms Concerto by Eric Friedman and the Kern Philharmonic (originally founded in 1932 and renamed again in 1982 as the "Bakersfield Symphony Orchestra").

I was initially underwhelmed by Friedman's violin's inability to penetrate the orchestra sound, but it was not long before I began to appreciate the performance and Brahms's masterful scoring by the way the solo sound emerged above the orchestra's by its overtones and the way it blended with the orchestra. I thought it was an entrancing experience not sounding like any recording I had heard - probably just what Brahms meant.

The only other performance of the Brahms I had attended was Isaac Stern with the National Symphony - and that just seemed like sheer power (but my seat was in the first row, almost close enough for his sweat to drip on me).

I have not seen a graphic display of the effect of vibrato on the amplitude of sound, but I have certainly heard it. To my ears (not so good anymore) I have heard apparent 4X (20DB??) increase in sound due to a violinist's vibrato alone. I suspect this would show on the graph as a broadening or filling in of the "noise" spectrum (especially around the overtones) rather than an increase in peak amplitude at any frequency that my brain interprets it as - and I suspect that in my ears there occurs activation of many additional cilia.

What else could it be?

Edited: June 8, 2020, 9:51 AM · Andrew - It's psychoacoustic magic! I don't suppose it's the whole story but co-modulation masking release (the modulation being the application of vibrato) enables the auditory system to distinguish the harmonic spectrum of the violin in which all the frequencies are modulated together from the orchestral frequencies which of course cover a similar absolute range but are modulated more-or-less at random. The violin sound thus becomes a coherent "auditory object", no louder than before but requiring a masking level up to 6dB higher (if I remember correctly).
Edited: June 8, 2020, 11:07 AM · @David, that result does not surprise me. Do your clients ever specifically ask you to make sure their violin is good and loud? Same question to those who are dealers -- do your customers gravitate toward the loudest instrument on the shelf?
June 8, 2020, 11:23 AM · Of course, "decibel level" includes the "singer's formant"!
Bear in mind that the number of players in each section decreases as we got down the musical scale: the bigger the instrument, the more decibels it produces. A viola is usually louder than a violin, but projects less.
Edited: June 8, 2020, 1:14 PM · Nobody understands me (boo hoo) but I'll make one last pitch. The human auditory system has evolved an exquisite ability to break down, reassemble and interpret sound mixtures, the underlying processes of which scientists have hardly begun to understand. Co-modulation masking release is one process that we can now demonstrate and study in the laboratory, although exactly how he trick is done remains mysterious.

Consider the pattern of bumps and troughs on a vinyl record. By visual inspection alone, who could possibly guess that this contains the sound of an orchestra, generated by many instruments that by the magic of listening we are able to separate, recognise and consider in isolation ("the oboe player is really expressive") while selectively ignoring everything else? Vision with its point-by-point representation of outside space on the retina is simple by comparison. AI is getting very clever but is still a long way from being able to analyse the auditory scene like we can.

Edited: June 8, 2020, 2:31 PM · I found a book on this topic a while ago in the public library. It is a truly fascinating subject; unfortunately I have now forgotten the author and the title of the book, so I can not recommend it.

There is a corresponding feature of ours, though maybe less complicated: Humans appear to be the only mammals that can sing; singing defined as the voice's ability to produce sounds of precisely defined pitch. Amazing stuff! Why would evolution favor such a talent?

If someone here knows a good and well written book on the topic of music processing by the brain (one written for the general public, not for experts of course) and does remember the author and title please recommend it here. I believe it is worth reading for every musician.

BTW: If vision is "simple by comparison" is not that clear to me. Consider the fact that the brain can construct (in real time!) a three dimensional mental image from the minute differences between the pictures of the two eyes. Our brains knew about perspective a very long time before it was discovered by renaissance artists.

Edited: June 9, 2020, 5:04 AM · Hi Albrecht - The only book I know on the subject is Auditory Scene Analysis by Albert Bregman but it's more than 25 years old. I left this field 12 years ago and I really hope someone has since made a breakthrough but I've not heard of one.

For the last few months the blackbird outside my window has occasionally produced a short musical phrase ending on an ascending minor 6th, spot on B to G every time. I don't think it learned that from me, and why just one phrase amidst dozens of tuneless ones? I'm sure there must be other exceptions (cuckoo?) that prove the rule but they're certainly very rare and possibly confined to birds.

I truly think vision is simple by comparison. The principles of visual object recognition are pretty well understood and can be performed by machines but with sound it's hard to know where to go after Fourier analysis. Astronomers are pretty clever with stellar spectra, but dissociating simultaneous auditory objects is much more complicated!

Edited: June 9, 2020, 7:42 AM · "A viola is usually louder "than a violin, but projects less." But when a double-bass is tuning backstage, even very softly, you can hear that up in the balcony. Maybe that's because the audience isn't opening any cough-drop wrappers that emit the same frequencies.

Steve, as regards vision vs. sounds, those are excellent points to think about. When we think about some of the really weird stuff that violinists deal with -- like the "sounds" of different bows, which is accepted to be a real thing despite really no hard physical evidence in experiments that have been performed on vibrations in bow sticks, we have to concede that the auditory cortex must be capable of parsing very subtle differences. ("Amplifying is the word I wanted there but that has other connotations in this context.) Any sense can be developed well too -- think of the sommeliers who have to be able to recognize specific wines and vintages to earn their certificates, or people who work on fragrances for perfumes and such. As Noam Chomsky wisely observed, AI is many years away from doing many tasks easy conquered by human infants.

Edited: June 9, 2020, 9:13 AM · Yup. I'd like to pose a "simple" challenge to the AI people; I'll give them a complex sound waveform, maybe a passage of symphonic music or a mixture of natural sounds, and their task is to find out what it is without listening to it.

Actually maybe this is why the sound projection debate has gone elsewhere...

June 9, 2020, 10:28 AM · Actually I think AI should be left out of this. Take chess: It is true that a computer can play champion level chess--if it has like a few thousand times the processing capacity of the human champion's brain. Meaning AI does not mimic human intelligence; it arrives at results that mimic the results of human intelligence but does it in very different and wildly less efficient ways. AI can deal with vision problems (either because they are more tractable than sound problems or because the promise greater profits; I would bet the second). But that does not explain how the brain deals with them.
June 9, 2020, 11:57 AM · That's certainly true, I was really just making a point about how difficult a task this is. But there must be ways in which such an AI device could be exploited commercially?
June 9, 2020, 11:58 AM · "There is a corresponding feature of ours, though maybe less complicated: Humans appear to be the only mammals that can sing; singing defined as the voice's ability to produce sounds of precisely defined pitch. Amazing stuff! Why would evolution favor such a talent?"

what about whales?

Edited: June 9, 2020, 12:09 PM · Canines can sing!
So can mocking birds!
June 9, 2020, 12:56 PM · But Irene and Andrew, can you notate their songs? Even when they are in a sense "tuneful" I think you'll find that very difficult because they're constantly modulating and hardly ever settle on a note for long enough to be able to identify it.
Edited: June 9, 2020, 2:10 PM · steve: yes, you can notate pretty much anything if you come up with the proper system.
or if you have the time for a longer read

and, of course, composers have been inspired by non-human singing to make a stab at imitating the songs, from the various birdcalls in pieces like Beethoven's 6th to one of my personal favorites:

Edited: June 9, 2020, 3:16 PM · Just to be fair to Albrecht, he was only talking about mammals. I think everybody agrees that birds can sing :-)

Could you train a dog or a whale (or perhaps a chimpanzee) to repeat a simple tune? Has this been tried? Just curious. By the way, quite a few humans cannot be so trained :-)

Edited: June 9, 2020, 7:05 PM · Check out the book "Mozart's Starling."
June 9, 2020, 7:28 PM · What makes the mockingbird especially interesting is that it will repeat its song once or twice and then move on to some completely novel song that it has never sung before. In other words, it spins out riffs but never develops them. But the initial repetition means that what they're doing isn't random. The difficulty of writing down a bird or whale song on ordinary staff paper tells you more about the limitations of the recording medium.
June 9, 2020, 9:54 PM · O. Messien tried to accurately transcribe bird songs to the piano for his Catalog of Birds. The birds make it difficult for us when they refuse to use any of our proper tuning systems, and won't stay in tempo.
June 10, 2020, 1:30 AM · I got this from the book I quoted above. And you are right, it should probably be restricted to terrestrial mammals. And I agree, birds can sing (some birds anyway, not crows for example though they are classed as singing birds...). I am pretty sure there are birds that one could teach to sing human melodies. There are those who can imitate railroad signaling whistles sufficiently to fool railroad workers (ancient technology now of course but this was real at some time in the past).

Still, what would the evolutionary advantage of singing be?

Edited: June 10, 2020, 2:58 AM · I'm only familiar with Eurasian species so can't generalise to the New World, but I really cannot match a single note to the wrens, dunnocks, starlings, crow, jackdaws, chaffinches, goldfinches etc that sing round here. Can anyone recognise Messiaen's birds from his notation? The question of evolutionary advantage must be fodder for another thread, if not another forum!
June 10, 2020, 9:20 PM · Hi! I think sound projection should be viewed from a different perspective in the advent of amplification in huge stages, and audiences.

Lest we forget, consider the old german (broken-chicken wing) bowhold.

The volume with that technique (the lost art) is certainly lower, and not suitable for an audience of say, more than 50 people (as Dunbar, the cognitive primatologist put it well).

Otherwise, from scientific point of view the N3√úRO transmissions (neurotransmissions) related to that are unknown.....


June 11, 2020, 9:03 AM · When birds sing a particular song, do they always start on the same note? In other words, do they have perfect pitch? Could I tune my violin to a bird song?
Edited: June 11, 2020, 9:34 AM · "Still, what would the evolutionary advantage of singing be?"

Or the panda's thumb? (That's the title of a book by Stephen Gould. Quite an interesting and useful book.)

Krisztian Gabris where have you been?? We have missed your weed-fueled commentary!

David that is a good question, I wonder if there is any research out there. Bird song has been the subject of quite a bit of scholarly work.

And crows do sing. They just do it rather poorly. The same could be said of many pop singers like Bob Dylan, for example. Perhaps that is why they are sometimes described as "crowing" rather than singing?

Edited: June 11, 2020, 9:59 AM · David - Most birds round here don't produce identifiable musical pitches at all, just a collection of warbles, trills, glissandi and jingly noises (aka "modern music"), but as I think I said up above we have a Blackbird that occasionally ends its 2-sec song with a quick rising B and G natural. I've checked it half a dozen times and the pitches are always the same. Other Blackbirds I've known to do something similar but I don't think identical.

Theory to consider, discuss and demolish - humans invented music by mimicking blackbirds and a few other birds, not for evolutionary advantage (except maybe to make themselves more attractive to the opposite sex?) but just for amusement. They soon discovered they could do it better by blowing across a reed or the end of a bone, and the rest is paleontology

June 11, 2020, 11:24 AM · Possibly to communicate before the advent of language. If you consider bird "songs" there is great variety -- not just clear pitches but all kinds of clicks and other sounds. Even today these feature in a few human languages. Maybe early people were not mimicking the mere aesthetic of bird (and other animal) sounds, but rather their underlying purpose.
Edited: June 12, 2020, 12:15 AM · miscl. comments:
Birds, animals, use sounds for signaling, mimicry, or expressing raw emotions. My father had an African Grey parrot,the champion talker, which spooked me when it would only say "Good morning" first thing in the morning, and then would yawn late in the evening. The great apes have the same vocal apparatus as humans, and are very smart, but do not have their own vocal language.

Language will probably always be either a mystery or a miracle, because there is no physical evidence possible from prehistory, and written language only starts about 3000 BC. The development of language does not fit the evolutionary model, because surviving ancient languages, like Greek, Basque, Welsh.., are not simple or easy. It is a mistake to assume that isolated tribal languages are fossilized, the same as 10,000 years ago. Gradual deterioration of grammar, syntax seems to be the trend in modern European languages. (Compare Shakespeare to rap texts). Anthropologists only have hypotheses. One is that language became necessary to teach tool-making technology. Another is that singing and language developed simultaneously. Chinese (5000 years of uninterrupted language) is more tonal than English. A tribe in Brazil (why are our examples always from the jungle?) teaches their language to the young by singing.
Language is different from signaling because it is constructed from interchangeable parts called phonemes, a limited number of single-syllable combinations of vowels and consonants, that connect into thousands of words, and unlimited ideas.
Our hearing is amazing, and not surprisingly matches the peak frequencies used in speech, about 100-5000 Hz. The range of the Cello, which most of us find more pleasant than violin when played solo, just happens to match the combined ranges of singers, from the lowest bass C to high soprano. We are able to discern accents and dialects, sort out the subtle differences between [T, P, K]. French has 24(?) vowels, Spanish only 6. Change the pronunciation only a little, and people can't communicate (Italian-Spanish-Portugese).

Returning to the original topic; The role of proximity in tone projection is not fully appreciated. The Violin soloist stands a few feet in front of the orchestra. His sound arrives very slightly sooner to the audience. There is a trick that I have heard of that sound engineers can do. When miking a soft instrument, like acoustic guitar, introduce a very small delay in the system. Then the audience hears all the sound coming from the guitar instead of the two speakers off to the side. That is consistent with the theory that our sense of sound direction, locating the source, in addition to the loudness difference, the brain has a way of measuring the phase angle/difference of the sound arriving at slightly different times at the two ears.

A practical example; Those that have read my posts before will know that most of my playing is with Mariachi(!). We only play acoustic, typically with 2 trumpets and 3 violins, with singers at full voice, operatic style. That might seem like an impossible balance problem. We avoid the problem 3 ways; pitch- play an octave higher than the trumpets, density - 3-part close harmony, and proximity, we put the violins up front with the singer, next to the customer's table, with the trumpets well behind, maybe at the opposite side of the room.

Edited: June 12, 2020, 1:46 AM · Joel - Some good points there but I think speech and signing must have evolved as equal and alternative means of communication, or else the congenitally deaf wouldn't acquire sign language so readily. Is sign language any less rich (careful now...)? Music has become intertwined with speech but is still separable and plenty of people happily do without it so I think must be an exaptation with little or no survival value rather than an adaptation. It seems to be for some birds too!
June 12, 2020, 7:34 AM · Sign language is very rich, that is why I believe people who lose their hearing (for example, in an accident) and need to learn to sign are often surprised that it takes so long to become truly fluent.

My own hunch is that singing preceded what we think of as "language" as a means of human communication.

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