Properties of Sound – Envelope

Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash

(not this envelopešŸ !) Read the article and find out games about Duration here
The Envelope of a sound, or a note in our instance. 

People interested in sound, when they talk about the Envelope of a sound they refer to the shape or contour of the sound as it evolves over time.
A simple envelope consists of three parts: 
Attack | Sustain | Decay. 
Or as used in music production: 
Attack | Decay | Sustain | Release

As always with these posts, we will examine the instruments in their most basic form. If a typical student that has been learning an instrument for two months was asked to describe the three parts of a sound, of a note they produce on their instrument what would they say? 

Produce a note with minimal and adequate effort in the middle (or easiest) register of each instrument. Also, imagining we’re in a very dry room, no reverb / echo. If you have a piano, do not use the pedal and instead try to hear the natural shape of the sound coming from your keys.

An acoustic guitar has a sharp attack, little sustain and a rapid decay. A piano has a sharp attack, medium sustain, and medium decay. Voice, wind, and string instruments can shape the individual attack, sustain, and decay portions of the sound (here). We know that we can manipulate the ASD of all instruments but it takes effort and practice. For now, familiarise yourself with the most basic form of the envelope of your instrument. 

Game 1:
The lottery of the animalsā€™ walk

Photo by Robert Coelho on Unsplash

Write on pieces of paper different animals (giraffe, antilope, snake, frog, and so onā€¦). Put those papers in a hat. Draw an animal at a time and just by using your instrument try to mimic their walk while the other person tries to guess what animal it is.

By adjusting the quality of your playing to better describe each animal you were playing with articulation. When classical musicians talk about the envelope of a note they will use the word articulation: staccato and legato, and all that is in between and beyond.

Another thing to notice about the envelope of the notes on your instrument is that notes in the extreme registers have a significantly (using the word very generously) different envelope. On the guitar, a very high note on the high E string will have a smaller decay than playing the lowest E string. 

Game 2
It will never happen(?)

Find the differences between the registers on your instrument going from high to low. Then try to match the envelope of a high note with the envelope of a low note. Use anything you have available (still no electronics until you hear all the faint sub-sounds your instrument makes naturally).

Game 3
Story in the Envelope

Articulation defines the character of a melody. Play the same melody with different articulation. Play 5 consecutive notes of equal length on your instrument and try to create a story through articulating each note differently than the one before it and after it. 

Game 3a

Add some more characters now, people you know, feelings, and add chords as well as individual notes. Once you start experimenting with this you’ll hear some accents, sharp brutally cut off sounds, mellow intertwined sounds, merging different articulation effects and even creating ones never used before!

I encourage you (and you, your students) to play using their whole body and face. Make grimace faces, move around as the character might to get a good feeling of articulating musical sentences. I like how nerdy this exercise is as it also awakens the desire to look up other styles of music and their characteristics. And I think itā€™s a fun way to do a bit of conditioning and technique.

I think playing around with the envelope – articulation – of a melody is like punctuation. It needs to be convincing to make sense.
So play with courage!

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

Ā© Rania Chrysostomou, 2020

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