Sunday, July 17, 2011

Do You Hear What I Hear? Perceptions of Violin, Viola & Cello Tone

Written by Andy Fein, luthier at Fein Violins

Do you hear what I hear? The answer is -No. No one hears with your ears except yourself. Each of us has a different perception of hearing depending on our age and life experiences.

Doubt that? Take this amusing and not very scientific Mosquito Ringtone Hearing Test. It's very common for people over age 25 to not hear tones over 15kHz ( about 2 octaves above the highest note on a full size piano). Big deal, right? That high a note is very rarely, if ever, played in music. However, that note and even higher tones make up the overtones of many notes we play on stringed instruments. Those notes add to the "brightness" of an instrument in terms of tone quality. The more and higher the overtones, the brighter the instrument will sound. But only if you can hear those overtones. That's why an instrument might sound tinny and annoying to one person and pleasantly bright to another person.

If you're age 19 to 25 and are being smug about hearing things your elders can't, snap out of it. The high frequency hearing loss starts soon after age 18. Earlier and faster if you've listened to lots of loud noises (like loud concerts or ear buds pumped up high).

Or, let's say you're a musician playing a fairly loud instrument for several to many hours a week. And let's say that you left ear is real close to that instrument. Sound familiar? Yes, violinists and violists can lose hearing in the left ear faster than in their right ear. (Or right ear faster than your left if you're unfortunate enough to have a seat where the trumpets are pointing right at you!)

If you're wondering what frequencies you can (and cannot) hear, the folks at Noise Addicts ( put together a great  and not so scientific Musician Hearing Test in a blog they wrote called "But can you hear THIS?"

If you are experiencing hearing loss due to loud music and loud playing, there are several very good musician friendly ear plugs that will let you hear everything, but at a lower volume. If you are young enough and lucky enough not to have much hearing loss, NOW is a very good time to start protecting your ears. The ETY-Plugs High Fidelity Earplugs are some of the best I've seen. You might consider wearing them when you go to clubs and loud concerts, when playing in loud bands, and when you are playing particular loud orchestral pieces like the "1812 Overture". BOOM!

These examples are to show you that everyone hears their instrument differently. So, when choosing an instrument, make sure you pick an instrument that YOU love the sound of. No one hears with your ears except yourself.

Another strange phenomenon of stringed instrument sound production is that while violinists and violists have the sound coming right into their left ear, cellists are physically behind the sound production of their instrument. Cellists hear their instrument in a markedly different way. They perceive the sound of their instrument as it vibrates the air around them. A more encompassing feel but a few milliseconds behind the tone perception of violinists and violists.

Once the sound you're producing leaves the close proximity of you and your instrument, interesting things begin to happen. If your instrument is very bright with lots of high overtones, the overtones lose energy very quickly as they move through the airspace around you. So what sounds like a very loud and bright instrument to the player often becomes a small and nasally sounding instrument a few rows back from the stage.

An instrument that has a very clear sound with very few overtones will carry much further. I think of that type of tone as very "centered". When you play the note, you hear mainly that one fundamental tone and not a lot of high overtones. It's a weird perception, this type of tone might not sound as loud under your ear as a bright instrument but it will be louder a few feet away. Many great Stradivarius and Guarnerius instruments have this type of tonality- very clear and centered but not exceptionally loud under your ear.  Luckily, the more centered tone is perceived as a more pleasant and mellow tone to both the player and the listener. Basically, don't fool yourself and don't torture yourself with a very bright sounding instrument if that is not the type of sound that you love.

We live in a modern world with a tremendous amount of background noise all the time. If you are ever lucky enough to be in a very remote and quiet place (I highly recommend the The Boundary Waters!), you will perceive the quietness. When you get back to a town or city, the noise will be almost overwhelming. As musicians, we have to play loud enough to overcome this background noise. Even in the best of concert halls, there is the noise of HVAC systems, cars, buses, trains, planes, sirens and people. The tone of your instrument has to penetrate the background noise and overwhelm it.

As our world gets louder, we ask our instruments to become louder as well. There's nothing wrong with that and it seems to be inevitable. How we accomplish that task effects our ears, our instruments and our audience.

Get out there and play music! Play music you love. Play on an instrument you love the sound of. No one hears with your ears except yourself.

Listen to our Fine Violins, Violas, and Cellos on our website!

1 comment:

  1. I've found myself being very annoyed at work which is a very noisy environment, that even the break room is too loud because of 5 vending machines which are always running. The worst part is that I like to listen to NPR tiny desk concerts on my IPAD, and when Im at home in my living room I do not need to turn it up to max, but when in my break room at work and I want to watch it with a friend it's impossible to hear it even when it's maxed out. that's how loud the "ambient noise" is.