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Sound as an organism in itself

Sound is in itself a "living" entity that follows a well delineated parabola that can be divided into various time phases: generally an attack phase, a sustain phase and a decay phase. Reflection on this aspect is of fundamental importance; so much so that a current of thought known as "spectralism" was born in France in the 1970s. Its research centred on individual sounds, variation of frequency over time and dynamics of partials. This current was born from the conviction that following the "life" of a sound from its birth to its death could make an autonomous musical form. This thought is obviously closely linked to a computer analysis of a spectrum, which makes it possible to reconstruct the "genetic heritage" of each sound as if it were being placed under a giant magnifying glass. This was a notable enlargement of an investigative field that is still at the centre of theoretical and esthetical debate and research because it postulates a formal structuration within each individual sound. For example, let's imagine that we have struck an enormous tam-tam and that we have closed our eyes and listened to how the timbre progressively evolves telling a well defined musical "story". This would be enough to convince us about how fascinating this point of view could be.

Sound as a building stone

Historically, we are used to considering sounds as individual cells of a more complex organism; i.e. as elements dependent on the musical context in which they are included. The articulation of sounds over time and their structuration in gestures and figures brings musical form to life; this is the same strategy of events that takes place in a feature length film. "Music" is none other than this: thought that becomes sound and a constant feedback between emotion and extreme rigour that manifests itself through the organisation of musical cells in a period of time. It brings to life a type of “dramaturgy” of events, of which the composer is the ultimate director constantly looking for a balance between freedom and rigour, logic and invention, imagination and consistency. The elements, i.e. "the building stones" (as Hermann Hesse would say[1]), with which the composer can externalise their poetry must be a part of a specific musical language, melodic lines, harmonic aggregates, rhythmic articulations and reasonable timbre choices. We will now discuss several modus operandi passing through various languages and eras.

"Building" with sounds: musical form

If, after we have carefully listened to the second movement from Ludwig van Beethoven's Appassionata, a sonata for piano, we had to "recount" what happened, we would identify a theme which then undergoes a cycle of melodic, rhythmic and harmonic variations and finally returns to its original root. The most interesting aspect of this formal model, known as "variations on a theme", is the recognition of the main characteristics of the base theme with each variation and at the same time the progressive distancing from the theme created by the variations. Another constructive principle is the basis of the famous fourth movement of the Peer Gynt Suite by Edvard Grieg (also famously used as the theme song for Inspector Gadget!). It is immediately evident that there is an accumulation process that involves all the parameters: the dynamic (the great crescendo), the timbre (the progressive addition of instruments with a strategic intervention of the percussions in the finale) and the register (the shift from low to high notes). All of this is rendered even more pressing by the acceleration that leads to the final delirious explosion. Various formal ideas appear in several passages of Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring (in which there is an evident game of multiple timbre and dynamic contrasts) and his Petruška. In its references to popular feasts, noisy fairs and the circus world, heterogeneous elements associated with different time lines are simultaneously staged. A purely rhythmic game built on the succession of binary and ternary metres characterises both the second half of the Beatles' song We can Work it Out and a famous song by Leonard Bernstein from West Side Story. While an eminently timbre-gestural element, a type of violent "stabbing" imitated by orchestral string instruments, accompanies the famous shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock's film Psycho. We have presented several examples of how the musical universe can be varied and rich with potential evolution capabilities still to be explored. Luckily, human creativity, the curiosity of research and the desire to experiment and discover will never come to an end.


  • For a brief introduction to the issue of perceived sounds as musical building stones from a perceptual point of view, see the pages on Perception of sound and Physiology of the auditory system.
  • For more details on the spectral analysis of sound, visit the page on Fourier's Theorem. This page requires a basic knowledge of mathematics, even if the reading of the sonograms (including the tam-tam strike) is intuitive and explained in a simple way that is accessible to all.

  1. "..... in our Glass Bead Game we analyze those products of the sages and artists into their components, we derive rules and patterns of form from them, and we operate with these abstractions as though they were building blocks ..... to arrange and sum up all the knowledge of his time, symmetrically and synoptically, around a central idea. That is precisely what the Glass Bead Game does ..... not just a juxtaposition of the fields of knowledge and research, but an interrelationship, an organic denominator ..... as a universal language and method for expressing all intellectual concepts and all artistic values and reducing them to a common denominator ....." Hermann Hesse, Glass Bead Game

"Fisica, onde Musica": un sito web su fisica delle onde, acustica degli strumenti musicali, scale musicali, armonia e musica.

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