Properties of Sound – Timbre [part 2]

When do you introduce contemporary techniques to your students?

You might have anticipated that there is no one answer fits all but you can… Recognise your instrument’s “proper” timbre in the first lesson or two, but allow them to discover it on their own and praise them for hitting that gorgeous air sound. Quite early start introducing contemporary techniques. If you opt for giving your students pieces from many eras including 21st century pieces then they will get used to them sooner.

Sometimes, technical words aren’t needed, AT. ALL. Just space and time to play and discover what the instrument can do. Especially if you have very young students, allowing discovery time where we can find lots of ways the instrument makes noise and music will keep things separated in their head (why can I sometimes blow a lot of air and other times I have to try to focus a specific pitch?). You don’t want them to come to the lesson and just bang the the keys with no purpose.

Here, I recommend a few more ways to go around with it, Games or Distractions as I call them:

  1. Listen! Share many recordings with your students and talk about emotions and thoughts. What does this remind you of, the piece is called —– can you guess why, what do you hear in the music when you feel nervous… Introduce music from different eras and styles as well as music that was performed yesterday!
  2. Choose your words. Try avoiding absolute words like right and wrong and proper as it suggests there’s only one way of playing. You may also encounter problems later on when you would potentially want to break that pattern. Instead say something like, this type of playing is appropriate here for reasons yxz. You are throwing in a bit of music history without even trying!!!
    2a) If a child is very young you don’t even have to say the words “contemporary techniques”. You can describe a sound (i.e. ringing bells, the roaring sea…) and let the child experiment to find ways of representing these sounds with instruments available.
  3. Storytelling time where the child has time to discover different sounds independently based on a story (a concrete concept) and find out how all sounds can fit together to make music.
  4. Dedicate 5 minutes at the beginning of each lesson to create sound colours. You can base each lesson on one theme, musical or non musical – using only percussive sounds, or only harmonics, or only multiphonics / describe emotions, places, animals, circumstances…
  5. If your students are over 11 years old then they will most likely be able to separate to recognise what playing is appropriate in each situation. You can talk a bit more in depth about contemporary techniques. So try introducing short phrases from pieces that use them, if not full pieces*. 
  6. Demonstrate and listen to recordings (yes, it is very important to listen)

*I have a piece for flute that can easily be arranged for any other instrument that is like a beginner’s piece to contemporary techniques, available on request

These are only suggestions. You know your students better and you can invent more!

Photo by Soundtrap on Unsplash

In school classroom settings
It might be a bit tricky to show or teach your students a piece that uses contemporary techniques. That’s what they are playing before you enter the room!!! Depending on your year group, the school (how open to new sounds they are) and the classroom you will get different reactions. As early as we can normalise that ‘proper’ music has many forms is usually better. So again, listening is one of the easiest tricks to introduce contemporary classical music – any music for that matter – and that timbre matters in music. This philosophy, normalising what is proper, goes beyond the music boundaries to understanding their world.


There is not one proper, right sound (thing) that is law binding and then some other sounds around it of less importance, called exceptions. Each sound serves in its era and has its purpose, its value and usefulness according to that time period and region, when it was used more prominently. In different eras the purpose, usefulness and value of a sound changes because the resources and human needs change. Today, we know how that sound was important in the past and what it represented. We can evaluate its necessity in our present. Each person’s present is different and each present changes every few while. Those values and uses and purposes change as well. Sometimes we have to re-evaluate a technique or a sound and maybe we have to let go of it if it’s no longer useful to us in the present; or at least put it aside. It is okay to not use it anymore, we learnt a valuable lesson. It is less okay to condemn anything new because we have not learnt to live with it yet.

The ambiguity that comes with music becomes more prominent when we talk about timbre, the sound colour in a piece. This is the entire story of the piece and it becomes personal to each listener. This is what makes music so arousing and perhaps confusing. It is okay not specifying what is right or wrong, embracing experimentation and play, establishing new findings, and living as a contemporary musician.  It is another muscle to work on!

personal stock

© Rania Chrysostomou, 2020

Properties of Sound – Timbre [part 1]

Sound Colour | Quality of Sound 
It’s what separates the sound of the saxophone from the sound of the banjo.

I often underestimate how choosing the right tone colour can alter, elevate or diminish a music piece. Imagine singing Twinkle Twinkle Little star with a breathy voice, and with a rawring voice. The meaning changes. It gives me goosebumps just thinking how powerful timbre is! Choosing the appropriate sound colour could be as simple as choosing to play the melody in a specific range, high or low, articulation, dynamics. Sometimes that’s all it takes to convey your meaning. But alas, there is always more, much, much more!

To discover what our instrument can do, its possibilities regarding timbre, we will be looking at acoustic instruments without any pedals and we will start with the conventionally agreed normal playing style of the instrument. How would the instrument sound like if it played a piece written by a composer in the classical era. I think it’s a good base to start from.

Distraction 1
Listen and discover your instrument’s timbre.
Identify the normal / proper way of playing your instrument. Discover the full spectrum (sound colour) of your instrument while maintaining its primary character. Then try mixing techniques together.

mix and match and add other ones!

It always helps if I am trying to describe a person I know already, or an animated character or an animal. A heavy elephant, a slithering snake, the river, would sound like *this* on my instrument.

That is the characteristic sound of your instrument. Try to add some adjectives to establish its sound, e.g: The flute has an airy sound, the violin has a mellow sound, the saxophone has a bright sound. In this so called normal playing we still vary the colour of the brightness, airiness, and mellowness of the instruments by slightly tweaking some properties of sound or combining them together, like dynamics (loudness), articulation (envelope), duration if possible, and the range we are playing in (pitch), but the sound still keeps its identity. Also, try changing your location and ask someone to tell you what they can hear.

I’ll quote what say about the bassoon describing its timbre.

The bassoon’s double reed gives it a rich, slightly buzzing quality in the lowest notes and a sweet nasal sound higher up. Bassoons can be extremely expressive as solo instruments and their warm vibrato enables them to sound remarkably human, a little like a resonant baritone singer. They are also great for creating punchy rhythmic lines and as bass instruments they help provide support for the whole orchestra”.

This is the timbre of the bassoon in the classical orchestra, without any external or imaginative sound effects. Isn’t it remarkable and fascinating?!

Even though there is a charm in playing like this we can and we should* go beyond these boundaries, especially as educators. Timbre is such a powerful tool. It creates an engaging storytelling experience, the student can learn muscle control, breath control and so on, it promotes individuality, and confidence to say the least. You can’t play a multiphonic or a jet whistle, or pianississimo unless you put your whole heart into it. Composers should* know – or be aware of the possibilities – of an instrument and performers should* be playing and discovering new possibilities of their instrument, even if it’s just new to them.*should: of course, that’s my opinion. I’d like to hear your thoughts.

Exploring the timbre of an instrument, voice, ensemble, leads us to the (in)famous extended techniques!!!

These techniques are extended in one sense, as they go beyond the conventional techniques we are used to hearing and playing in classical music. They are part of what the sound of the instrument. I prefer talking about Contemporary Techniques as I feel it’s a more appropriate description, they are used more prominently in contemporary times. 

Distraction 2
To familiarise ourselves with the shades of timbre, the possibilities of our instruments and how timbre affects storytelling, choose a simple melody or song and play it in different ways. Again, thinking about characters will help the process A Lot! An elephant hopping around some sleepy mice trying not to wake them up

Here are some ideas you can work withNot all ideas will work for your instrument, but elaborate:
1) use a lot of air. 
2) Play it using harmonics, very high harmonics
3) sing as well. You can also be playing one low note and it will act as a bass note.
4) combine different, pizzicato / staccato techniques
5) place different instruments around you while playing

Distraction 3 ‒  ELEMENTS
You need a card deck. 
♠️ = Water
♥️ = Earth (stone) 
♦️ = Wind 
♣️ = Fire

Pull out one card at a time and your students need to describe the element by producing music / sound. All students need to play at the same time. It gets noisy but there are reasons for it. They have to be impulsive, they don’t have time to sensor or rethink their option to make it pretty, and they will feel less self-conscious if everyone is playing at once. Encourage them to use sounds that go beyond the pretty playing of the instrument and give them a chance to demonstrate. There is no wrong or right way as long as there is a logical explanation. The execution may not be perfect at first but it gets the brain working. Try to add different restraints, like play only forte / piano, fast / slow, set a specific number of notes they can use each time…

© Rania Chrysostomou, 2020

Properties of Sound – Location

We are exploring the properties of sound, introducing creative games that help identify the uniqueness of each instrument. So far we looked into the Envelope , Duration, Loudness, and Pitch. Now we will look at Location. 

Location refers to the listener’s perspective, in front, behind the listener, etc…

The location of a sound is vital for our survival, like when we misplace our phone and ask Alexa to make it ring on full volume so we can locate it; or when we are crossing the street and we use our sense of hearing as well as our eyesight. Pop music producers (pop, R’N’B, rap…) or artists involved in electronic music pay more detailed attention in organising the location of each sound (panning) and how it evolves over the course of the song location-wise.

This is a fun audio to listen to. Wear headphones to get a good sense of how the location of a sound affects the overall experience. This is a very concrete example of sound location and how it affects us in making sense of the sound and the world around us. 

But, as classical musicians how much do we think about the location of the music when we are performing, writing or listening to music? Is it important to know which direction sound, music, noise is coming from when we are in a concert setting? 

In theatre, and film as well as pop and electronic music, artists take extra care in panning the sound – and making it feel that it is coming from any one direction. In the performing arts it’s important to know the location of a sound because it adds to the story telling; we know that at some point a horse is going to come in the character’s way.

Knowing, or not knowing, where a sound is coming from affects the listener psychologically. To inspect the psychological side of placing a sound in a specific location one needs to watch nothing else apart from a haunted thriller movie. The necessity of positioning a sound is extremely highlighted in this genre. 

Marco – Polo — 󠀫group game (assess the use instruments or voice)

Photo by Rene Bernal on Unsplash

The normal game: one player is ‘it’ or’ Marco’, and tries to find the other players while the ‘it’ player’s sense of sight is limited by shouting ‘Marco’. The other players must respond with the word ‘Polo’. So ‘Marco’ needs to locate where the sound of the word ‘Polo’ is coming from to find the other players.

This game will allow the children to experience how the location of a sound manipulates their emotions and realisation of their space. The children can play it in a nursery room in the dark (if it is age appropriate) or just covering someone’s eyes with a scarf and surrounding them in a designated space will be fine. The second option is less traumatizing for children prone to daydream, and less of a mess at the end of the game. 

To play with your music students, you can keep the words ‘Marco – Polo’, you can add other sounds with your instruments or body percussion, (if age appropriate) walk towards or away from the sound or mix up different sounds and add direction to the sound as well. (A variation of this game we played in my parkour session by Esprit Concrete. I love how a simple game like this one can have multiple benefits depending on the context you are playing it in). You can make it a bit more complex by adding a series of sounds, and depth: high, low, near, far, all combinations of these. 

There are two music based focal points: 

  1. Identifying the correct location of the sound
  2. How does the player feel when 
    1. the sound comes from each location
    2. when there are more than one sources of sound
    3. Doesn’t know where the sound is coming from

I would specify the point I want to make each time as it gives an entirely different intention to the game. The first point, apart from it being a great motivator, it trains the players for when they are part of an ensemble to listen to other instruments and adjust their playing. And for survival purposes! The second point intends to awaken creativity, which is useful from a performance or compositional perspective as the player will learn to identify the intent of each decision. 

Depending on who the listener is, the sound arrives to them in an entirely different context even though it is part of the same music. For instance, when playing in an orchestra, the violin player will hear the other violins louder and perhaps not so loud the flutes because they aren’t sitting next to each other. But the audience member will hear a compact sound, a blend of all instruments. 

Mini Sound installation Performance

Place your students in various locations around the room or outside (perhaps two meters apart from each other) and ask them  to play one of their pieces. Ask other students to walk through the various locations and report their impressions. Do they hear the same piece? Do they blend all the sounds in their head creating a new piece? 

Food for thought

If you are playing offstage, to give the impression that you are far away, do you have to play forte to be heard? Can you have the same effect just by playing pianissimo? Have a look and listen at these music pieces where the composers ask for an instrument to be offstage, you may find some in this article.
This might be a silly one but it is a fun experiment with your students to better explore the necessity of why it is important to place your sound source in the specific position and understanding how their instrument works. If the performers turn their back to the audience does anything change in the location or direction of the sound? If you are a pianist or play on another big instrument you could ask your audience to turn their backs.

Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

There are some very practical and functional reasons why classical music performances are set as they are. With these games and thoughts I would like to trigger your perception to the matter so you make the best choice in your next recital. It might be that the best way for your performance is by setting the stage in front of the audience, as it has always been. It might also be that for this performance taking meticulous thought on the location of the music in regards to the audience will add another layer to your story telling making it overall a more compelling performance.

Photo by Will Francis on Unsplash

Location of sound

  1. Performer to performer 
  2. Performer to audience
  3. Performer to conductor
  4. Moving around the stage
  5. Moving around the auditorium / space
  6. The audience moves around
  7. Sound installations / performance installations

© Rania Chrysostomou, 2020

Properties of Sound – Envelope

Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash

(not this envelope🠁!) 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 animals’ walk

Photo by Robert Coelho on Unsplash

Write on pieces of paper different animals (giraffe, antilope, snake, frog, and so on…). 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 it’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

© Rania Chrysostomou, 2020

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.. 

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
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

Properties of Sound – LOUDNESS

I hope you had a thought of the properties of Sound and had a little experiment with Pitch. Today let’s have a look at Loudness.

Photo by Johanna Vogt on Unsplash

How forte or piano you play, loud or soft and all the dynamics in between, above and below. In music these terms are relative as we know. Relative to the instrument, to the piece, to the room or hall we are performing in, even to the piece we are playing. Piano can mean soft, or restrained, or gently and depending on the phrase and the era of the composition the intention of our soft playing will be different.

Perhaps it is more evident to try with forte which depending the context it might mean or strong, with force, heavy…

There is game where you have to say the same phrase in as many ways as you can think of. Find a small passage from what you are practicing right now and play it forte. Now, continue playing f but change your intention playing it with force, heavy, punchy, with nerve. How would your angry self say it and how would your calm self say it but keeping it loud and the same tempo. The changes might be very small but audible. It will help if you mimiced some thing or some one, like an animal, a neighbour or the sea. This is one of the attributes of playing an acoustic instrument or writing for acoustic instruments. There is the powerful tool of intent that gives character to the music.

Photo by Pao Edu on Unsplash

Try the same game with piano as well and then try it with the “in between – above – and – below – ones ppp, pp, p, mp, mf, f, ff, fff, piu. Don’t forget the accents sf, or sfz (***HOT TIP FOR COMPOSING –>) that don’t have to exist only in f environments. And last but not least (I hope I haven’t left any dynamics out) crescendi and diminuendi, the hairpins otherwise known. Make them small, make them big, make them sudden, go to extremes and go to the step right next to where you started and work on that difference, find the intent behind it.

So now adding on to the game I introduced last week in the post about Pitch, try your small passage exaggerating the dynamics (chromatisms I would say in Greek and it always confuses me when I have to say it in English). Play the ‘wrong’ dynamics and mix them up.

All thoughts and ideas writen here are through my own experience and observation.

© Rania Chrysostomou, 2020

The Properties of Sound

I conducted a workshop called Same – Same – Differnet, workhop for flutists in May 2020 and during that process I was posting some thoughts on the event’s page on Facebook that would come handy during the workshop. As this is something any musician can use in their practice, regardless if they are performers, composers, educators, and no matter of what type of music they are dealing with, I thought of sharing them here well. I am guilty that there is not much profound information here but I think looking into the Elements of Sound is an area we overlook and it is good to be reminded about it every now and then. There will be a few blog posts coming, one for each element so keep an eye for the next one.

Pitch | Loudness | Timbre | Duration |  Envelope: attack, sustain, release | Location

For the Elements of music click here

We know the properties of sound. How can we use this knowledge in our playing if all of these properties are usually predetermined from the composer? Or are they? If I change phrasing do I change the whole piece? And, am I allowed to do this? In what context? How much is too much?

Interesting questions! Thanks for asking!!! 😅 We will discuss later what happens with other pieces written in other eras or by living composers. Let’s take this small piece for now. 

The score of Fantasy Impromptu-ish is pretty heavy. Notes everywhere and a couple of stylistic decorations, the score is almost complete. It could be, but it also could be a bit more. You see, there are some dynamic markings that can be interpreted in many ways. What is piano? If we try playing very softly then we might produce an air sound. Then we discover that we can play an air sound in a few dynamics. A note can have air and a pitch or go back and forth between air and pitch or… and still sound piano, quietly, reserved, gentle, held back.

Why don’t you take 2-4 bars of your favourite piece, or Fantasie Impormptu-ish and try to manipulate only one sound property using the entire phrase. The first property of the list is PITCH so let’s go with that. What can we do?

We can play that phrase using only

  • harmonics
  • multiphonics
  • microtones
  • change of registers
  • sing
  • something else…

Give it a go and let me know what happened.

All thoughts and ideas writen here are through my own experience and observation.

© Rania Chrysostomou, 2020