“High, fast and loud” are all great fun, but the fundamental aspect of any musical endeavor is a beautiful tone – pure, resonant, warm, clear, and in-tune. The quest of for a beautiful tone should always be first and foremost in the musician’s thinking, no matter what the tempo, volume or technical challenge. This is our job as musicians – part of our overall “musical hygiene” [Howard Snell, The Art of Practice (New Generation Publishing, Ltd., 2015) – and our listeners expect it of us. As daunting as the task may seem when standing in front of a student ensemble or grading the weekly chair test, this quest may not be as elusive as many believe. Understanding the resonance/intonation connection and some basic concepts of embouchure formation, airflow, posture, and balance between player and instrument can help remove the mystery of tone production and give teachers and players a clear advantage in achieving musical goals.
Fundamentals of Tone Production
How does one define a beautiful tone? Whether it be a brass instrument, woodwind or even voice, the sounds we find most appealing have warmth, body, focus, depth, highs, and lows. When describing a desirable trumpet sound, for instance, we may say that we want to hear a “dark” sound or a “bright” sound. But a dark sound without highs is dull, “woofy” and lacking in projection. A bright sound without lows is thin, edgy and difficult to play with. And both extremes are difficult to tune. Most of us want to hear a “Bright/Dark” sound – something with highs for clarity and projection and lows for warmth and power. These perceived highs and lows embody the whole overtone series sounding in each note we hear.
Each note produced on a brass instrument consists of a combination of overtones perceived by the human ear as fundamental pitch (the lowest of the overtones produced for that note) and tone color (individual overtones sounding above that lowest frequency in varying degrees of amplitude). For instance, a C on the trumpet contains the C we hear along with the other pitches in the harmonic series for C – C (in several octaves), G, E, Bb, D, etc. (See “Overtone Series” below). Most of us can’t hear these pitches in the note, but we can see them on the wheels of a chromatic strobe tuner. When you are tuning concert C with the strobe, you can also faintly see the G wheel standing still and sometimes even parts of the E wheel. A good example of an instrument that produces strong enough overtones to be distinguished from the primary pitch is the orchestral chimes. If you listen closely to the ring in the sound you will notice at least one additional pitch a 6th higher and/or lower, and sometimes these pitches clash with the harmony the fundamental pitch is meant to fit into. This is all part of the color of the chimes sound.
When you hear a C4 on the trumpet and compare it to the same note on the French horn there is an obvious difference in tone color even though the actual pitch is the same. This is because the shape and length of the trumpet tends to amplify the higher frequency overtones in the sound while the larger bell, conical bore and length of the French horn favors the lower. The higher overtones dominant in the trumpet sound are perceived as “brighter” and the lower overtones in the horn make it sound “darker.” The higher overtones in both instruments, however, tend to be amplified as the volume level increases (the fire gets hotter when we add more fuel). The job of the brass player is to produce a free and energetic air column and a pure vibration frequency that aligns with the air already vibrating in the tubing of the instrument. It’s the same principle at work when a microphone and speaker produce feedback or certain notes are louder than others while singing in the shower. If vibrations being produced align with vibrations already present in the air they combine and amplify each other. When we buzz into the trumpet the instrument picks up these vibrations and amplifies them providing its own characteristic tone color. If the information being supplied (airflow and vibration frequency) fits the length and shape of the tubing receiving it, we have achieved what the instrument was designed to produce – a beautiful, resonant, clear sound. Voila! If only it were that simple! But having a better understanding of overtones, resonance and acoustics will give us a clearer picture of what we are looking for in tone quality and a better idea of how to accomplish this physically. And catching a glimpse of the wonder and mystery of sound is just a tiny part of appreciating the amazing gift of music.
Find more information here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Overtone & https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harmonic_series_(music)
Randy Adams is Professor of Trumpet at Sam Houston State University where he has taught since 1993. He served as Houston Symphony Orchestra Interim Trumpet for the 2001-2002 season and has been a member of the Houston Grand Opera Orchestra since 1984. SHSU trumpet students have placed in the top five in the National Trumpet Competition’s Trumpet Ensemble division, two SHSU students have played Lead Trumpet in the Disney College All-Star Band and graduates have gone on to play Lead Trumpet in the UNT 1:00 Lab Band and sub with the Houston, Dallas and Pittsburgh Symphonies.
Here’s what we’ll be covering in the next two installments of Tone Centering for Trumpet:
Airflow – The Fuel Supply
Embouchure – The Vibration Motor
Tone Centering – Finding the Correct Frequency
Tuning the Tone – Making it Work with the Ensemble
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