Rainbows of Sound

I usually like to start a class like the Listening class with some introduction to sound qualities. What are we listening to when we hear and recognize different instruments? How do instruments - and the human voice - produce sound? These questions lead one to a consideration of timbre, or tone color, and the physical properties of sound based on what is dubbed the Harmonic Series. 

I recently found this wonderful performance by Batzorig Vaachig and his daughter, demonstrating Mongolian throat-singing:

Students are usually blown away by the possibility of producing more than one note with the voice, and so it allows me to work in a bit of physics in order to explain the phenomenon. The most basic explanation is that it is much like producing rainbows by refracting light. In this case a single sound using a certain technique can be heard as a spectrum of notes, just like the spectrum of colors in a rainbow.

This video explains the harmonic series - but it goes by fast! It's worth pausing and pondering some diagrams and searching for more resources.

It's also great to get students to try and produce harmonics with their own voice! Whether successful or not, the process of listening for the components of a single note in their own voice heightens students' awareness of sound qualities generally. Of course, it helps when I can demonstrate (!) and convince them that it can be done...

Sometimes students are already familiar with this style and sound quality, and in a recent class I had one student compare it to didgeridoo, the aboriginal wind instrument of Australia. So we went searching for some examples and came up with this thorough site that explores a lot of different techniques for playing the instrument and highlights some performers as well. Did you know you can buy a collapsible, travel-ready didgeridoo?

Thanks for tuning in! See you next time...

Kathryn Woodard

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