To really learn something about music theory, we're going to
have to start at the VERY beginning. So what is the very beginning?
You guessed it (maybe by looking at the title of this page!): the
first thing we're going to have to learn about is sound! Why sound?
Well, as you probably already know, music is a form of sound.
Exploring the nature of sound in general will give us a basis for
learning about music in particular.
What is Sound?
So what exactly is sound? Well, let's look at the properties of sound. We can hear it, but we can't see, taste, smell, or feel it, right? Now, wait a minute, we CAN feel sound. Have you ever stood next to a large speaker? Or maybe you've felt the rumbling of heavy bass music through a table or a floor. These effects prove that sound is some kind of physical phenomenon. Sound must somehow be "hitting" you, letting you "feel the beat". But how can that be happening? We don't see anything when we "feel" sound...nothing but air! So we must be feeling the air when we feel sound!
OK, so how exactly are we "feeling" the air? Well, to answer this question, we need you to complete a little demonstration. Ready? Gently, take one of your hands and find your windpipe (at the base of your neck). The windpipe is the tube through which air passes when we breathe or talk. Now, keep your fingers touching your windpipe and sing a note (any note!) for a few seconds. If you're not the singing type, you can also hum or talk instead of singing. So, what did you notice? Your windpipe probably vibrated; if not, you may need to try again while singing a little louder.
Hmm, now we have the results of an experiment on sound, but what do these results mean? Let's think about this logically. Your windpipe vibrated when you made a sound. So, this means your windpipe caused the air to vibrate. Great, now we've figured out that sound is just vibrating air. But that still doesn't explain the rich variety of sounds that we can hear.
Well, the answer to this one is simple. We've established that
sound is simply vibrations in the air. In fact, the reason we can
hear sounds is that these vibrations trigger tiny sensors in our
ears that send the messages to our brains. Back to the question:
why is there such a wide variety of sound? Well the answer is that
there is an almost infinitely wide variety of vibrations in the
air. For example, the air can vibrate at different speeds and
intensities. Each of these slight variations can produce a
different sound. Everyone has experienced a wide variety of sound,
from the lyrical singing of a violin to the chirping of a
Instruments and Sound
Another question: how do all the musical instruments produce sound? Well, in all cases, the instruments produce a vibration (usually through the vibration of a string). This vibration is in turn transferred to the air, and eventually reaches our ears. Again, a wide variety of vibration is possible from the many different instruments. Of course, one violin may sound drastically different from another violin due to a slightly different type of vibration produced. This applies to any instrument, not just violins.
Yet another point to think about is acoustics. You've probably
realized that an instrument sounds different in a small room than
in a huge concert hall. At least, you've experienced an echo, which
is just the vibration of the air being reflected by something so
that it is heard multiple times. The acoustics of a room work the
same way: the various surfaces can slightly alter the type of
vibration and change the sound slightly. The surfaces can also
direct the sound to travel in a certain direction. For example, in
a concert hall, the sounds made on the stage travel out towards the
audience because of the design and shaping of the hall. In some
places, the concert hall is so well designed that a musician cannot
even clearly hear the musician sitting next to him/her because all
the sound is being directed outwards!
Well, hopefully we've provided you with some basis on how sound
works. This knowledge will be important in the upcoming pages where
we go into more detail about sound and specifically music.