Why music should be magical
We can over analyse music. Maybe that’s not so surprising when you consider that the theories of music and of sound production borrow so heavily from maths and physics, and many mathematicians are also keen musicians. But somehow that misses the point.
Music is much more about emotion. It has the capability to really move us, not because we are fascinated by the scales, the harmonic frequencies, the beats per minute or the time signatures but because those things – plus the occasional mystery magical ingredient – have the ability to make us relaxed, tense, happy, mournful, angry, defiant or proud. Sometimes many of these – and more – at the same time or in the same piece.
And because music is about emotion, that also explains why so many people who are not interested in mathematics or musical theory, can still make wonderful music.
Where does the magic come from?
This series of posts (look for the Magic category) is, of course, entirely hypocritical because I’m using analysis to try and reveal the mysteries of emotion. But hey, it’s worth a try. So what is it that makes some music so magical and, conversely, why does music without these ingredients just pass us by?
I’ve made a start by looking at the idea of timbre, because some sounds produced by instruments and singers are beautiful in themselves, almost regardless of what notes are played.
A quick word on the concept of timbre
In music, timbre is the perceived sound quality of a musical note. In simple terms, timbre is what makes a particular musical instrument or human voice have a different sound from another, even when they play or sing the same note at the same volume. One instrument or voice could be described as warm, another as bright, breathy, metallic, clean or reedy.
Timbre is not fixed for a particular instrument or singer – musicians can change the timbre using different singing or playing techniques. And subtle changes in timbre can occur depending on the particular instrument a musician chooses.
Timbre is influenced by the number of overtones in the sound, (the harmonic series), and the envelope of the sound (the properties of attack, sustain, decay and release ).
Enough theory, it’s time to get magical
The best way to appreciate just how magical timbre can be is to experience it. Here are some more examples of instruments with timbres that I really like. You will, of course, have your own favourites.
A really distorted vintage Hammond organ:
Then there’s most versatile of all instruments, the voice:
Not to mention synthesisers, the only function of which is to electronically manipulate timbre:
Let’s finish with one real instrument, the electric guitar, an interesting example because, while it does have its own distinctive timbre, this can be radically altered depending on the choice of amplifier and effects:
I’ll add more when I think of them but I expect you’ve got the point. Timbre is one of the things that can make music magical. You can’t see it on a musical score but you can sure feel it in the gut.
The magical mathematics of music by Jeffrey Rosenthal
Mathematics and Music: The American Mathematical Society