Properties of Sound – Duration

Photo by Ryan Stone on Unsplash

Here I will focus on how the duration of one and each specific sound created in a music piece affects the music. Read the other article of the series here

Talking about sound, any sound: the clicking of the flute keys, the car when it’s idling, the sound of tapping on a crystal glass… each sound has a duration, lasts for this (x number of seconds / milliseconds / and so on). For example, the clicking of the flute keys make a short sound whereas the car engine when it is idling makes a continuous sound. The sound of tapping on a crystal glass has a short ring that lasts some seconds after the crystal has been tapped. 

Photo by Anjo Antony on Unsplash

Game 1:
Choose only one tone and play it as long as you can. Try it with non musical and with musical instruments. Experiment with only one sound source and play around with the parameter of changing or not changing the timber, loudness, intensity, octave of the sound. Next step would be to hear a sound for as long as you can (murmur of people in a busy shop – that is not a huge possibility at the moment so try something else). Whatever you do start as simple as possible, As Simple As Possible, and then add parameters focusing on duration (of a sound). 

Different things to notice for: 

  1. What are your rules if the tone is percussive?
  2. Changes in the quality of the sound (do you use more air – less air throughout your playing; do you change the dynamics?)
  3. Does your concentration change?
  4. Does your intensity of the tone change?
  5. If you repeat this game on 3 separate occasions, what changes to your sound and to yourself?
  6. Use an instrument that produces a A) continuous sound A1) indefinitely (violin), A2) as long as it is humanly possible (flute) B) percussive sound (drum) C) percussive / plucked with an after sound (guitar, piano) D) if you know any other type I am forgetting.
Photo by James Thomas on Unsplash

Composers have experimented and composed with this concept in mind perhaps the most famous is La Monte Young’s Composition 1960 #7 and there are many more performances of this.

La Monte Young
Composition 1960 #7

James Tenney / Having Never Written A Note For Percussion
Then you can get a bit more elaborate with your rules but still focusing on the duration of a sound Andrew Crossley – Koan #2
Read about Pauline Oliveros and the meditations here
Listen to Yves Klein’s Monotone Silence Symphony as well 
With these pieces the focus is on the duration of the breath and that drives the duration of the sound(s) and the piece.  poem in one breath – Matthew Welton | performed by Kathryn Williams (check more from K. W. and her project Coming Up for Air

Now we will move on from the music that offers an experience to more conventional scores where there are many tones / sounds interchanging and the duration of each sound or pause is related to the common pulse, the tempo. 

Photo by Mihály Köles on Unsplash

I’ll skip some steps where I would talk about tempo and jump to the duration of each note that along with other neighbouring notes create a rhythmical sequence. Each note has a specific value that is meant to be held for the exact duration. This brings us to the next game. One thing to observe is how rhythm is functioning to the performer’s or audience’s psychology when it is evident or regular or the ‘proper’ rhythm and when it is slower or faster or there is no rational relationship between each note value.. 

Game2:
Choose your favourite piece, perhaps an easy one to start with, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, and give each note a different rhythmical value, or tempo marking. 

Think about
1) your feelings and emotions
2) What happens with your tempo?
3) can you make much sense?
4) how radical can you make it?
5) would you say it’s the same piece, a variation of it, a completely different
composition…?
Carry on by changing the tempo for each fragment or note or forgetting that tempo has to exist in this context.

More questions for you to think about

  • Why does the duration of each tone or pause matter? 
  • If we are playing by ourselves, no accompaniment or C.D. playing, what is the purpose of keeping all the correct note values?
  • If every detail regarding how long a note should be is highly specific, is there any room left for leeway and how can we use it? 
  • What happens when we shorten the short notes and elongate the long ones? 
  • In what ways can we manipulate rhythm and when should we choose to do it?

Game 3
Observe how long it takes for something to happen from the birth of the sound-or even the preparation of it – to the sound fading away. How does that sound change? Mimic it with your instrument.

Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

There are no right or wrong answers and no one wins in these games (sadly). They are more of a trigger to challenge our comfort zones.

These thoughts and games are aimed towards educational and practice purposes regarding composition and instrument playing or singing.

© Rania Chrysostomou, 2020

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