I was chatting with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart the other day about how music composition may have changed over the years. Technology does seem to get its fingers into all sorts of areas and the arts are no exception.

Unaltered original photograph of Mozart conducting his orchestra. Courtesy of www.maxresdefault.com

Now Mozart, like Beethoven (although I have never met Beethoven before), could conceive of a full orchestral score (usually in several voicings) in his head.  He only had to write it down for the instrumental musicians that he was composing for, and presumably so that he could occasionally get paid. Mozart didn’t need a full orchestra in front of him to try things out to see how they sounded.

But there are few such prodigies in the world.

Most of the rest of us mere mortals require either the actual musicians or, in today’s technology, really good music samples with a computer speed that is as fast as the wind.

Most composers of yester-year needed to try their music out in front of an orchestra and make changes as needed. This undoubtedly was quite expensive, both in terms of finances and time. The lucky and/or very talented ones such as Franz Liszt, a 19th century composer, even had the financial stability and foresight to build a working desk that was half desk and half piano.  Even though there was a tuning fork in the picture, I doubt whether Franz Liszt would have ever used it; in Germany, A (440 Hz) was, and is today, tuned to A (445 Hz).  Mr. Liszt had perfect pitch as well which would have obviated the need for a tuning fork, even one that was tuned to be a bit sharp, at least according to our standards.

Franz Liszt’s composing desk

Actually, it is thought that Franz Liszt also had synesthesia and he attributed colors to the sounds of his music, but that belongs to a different blog called “See the Music”.

Needless to say, composing music in the old days was quite difficult, and unless you were VERY talented, VERY rich, or VERY lucky, composing would not be your day job.

With the advent of modern digital technology and essentially no limits on the amount of data storage and access time, the modern composer is ½ musician, ½ technical wiz, and ½ computer programmer.  The modern composer not only needs to know about the various keys and modes, but also his or her way around a music to digital interface (MIDI).  A modern composer also needs to know a lot about compression, attack time, release time, compression ratio, bandwidth, frequency response ….  In short, a modern composer also needs to be ½ audiologist.

There are a number of software/hardware interfaces in the market place and there are many libraries of music samples from which the composer can avail themselves of.  No longer does a composer need a large orchestra to try their music out and make changes- it can all be done in the solitude of their home or office.

My son Shaun in front of his MIDI based software/hardware workspace. Courtesy of www.Chasin.ca

So, if you ever meet a modern day composer (such as my son Shaun), take him out for a drink- he needs to get out of the house more.  And if you want to pick one up in a bar, you need to learn an entire new set of pick-up lines.  No longer will “hi cutey; wanna dance?” work.  One needs to suavely go up to the composer (who is probably too shy to approach you) and say, “I love the compression ratios that you selected for your last piece… would you like to come over and see my sound library?”…

While returning from a short vacation in the Lunar Colonies, as I plummeted to earth, I thought that I would do an experiment.  Once the parachute opened I stepped out of the lunar shuttle to take some measurements on the way down.  As we know, almost all of acoustics, whether it’s the study of our hearing, musical instruments, noise in a factory or classroom, or the acoustics of the new Lunar City Staab Coliseum (named in honor of Wayne Staab, America’s 46th president), has a lot to do with the speed of sound.

Marshall in his space suit returning from a vacation in the Lunar Colonies.

In virtually every formula that is used in the study of acoustics, the speed of sound variable is in the numerator at the top of the equation.  As the speed of sound increases, so do the frequencies of the various resonances; and as the speed of sound decreases, the associated resonant frequencies decreases.

The graph shows most of the data that I had collected.   Actually this graph is not mine but came from an excellent article on the speed of sound from Acoustics Today  which is a magazine of the Acoustical Society of America.  But my data were almost identical.   I guess that another member of the Acoustical Society of America had done this experiment before me.

Courtesy of Acoustics Today, a magazine of the Acoustical Society of America.

As I plummeted to earth, I allowed myself to scream the phoneme /a/ as in ‘aaaarg’.  The phoneme /a/ is a low back vowel and the one that allows the vocal tract to be as open as possible (which is why your family doctor, when looking down your throat asks you to say /a/ and not /u/).  A feature of /a/ is that the vocal tract is an almost uniform diameter tube that is closed at the vocal chords end and open on the yelling side of the mouth.  This is virtually identical to the acoustics of a trumpet.

And indeed, as I fell further into the earth’s atmosphere, the formant frequencies of the vowel /a/ increased as the air pressure increased.  It wasn’t uniformly increasing since as you can see in the graph, the speed of sound does not uniformly increase as we near the earth’s surface, but the formant frequencies of my scream did appear to correlate well with the speed of sound- increasing as the speed of sound increased; decreasing as the speed of sound decreased.

I must admit to chickening out as I dove below 5000 meters and decided to terminate the experiment and re-enter the lunar shuttle.  However I suspect that depending on where I landed (latitude) and altitude regarding sea level, I could use the chart to calculate the exact formant frequencies of my yell, or the resonances of many musical instruments, such as the trumpet.  I could also use this figure to very a rough estimate of the latitude where I landed…