Thursday, September 11, 2014

Clarity in Woodwind Sound

                              Clarity in Woodwind Sound
The elements of good woodwind sound are stability, clarity, focus, color, and depth.  Today we will think about clarity. 

I had cataracts.  Little-by-little my world became fuzzy.  I didn’t notice at first.  Because my vision deteriorated at a snail’s pace, I thought I saw fine: my world was a lovely, soft blur of yellowish tones.

When I finally realized that I couldn’t read street signs well enough to be safe driving in unfamiliar territory, I had my eyes checked.  Out came the cataracts.

Suddenly, the world appeared in brilliant relief.  Each leaf on each tree stood out from the other leaves.  Trees were no longer a fuzzy, soft, comfortable blur, but individual leaves.  The edges were crisp and clearly separated from the empty space around them.  Some leaves appeared closer than other leaves!  “Good grief,” I thought.  “I knew that.  How could I have forgotten what things looked like in 3D?” 

Letters on signs stood out in crisp relief to the blank space around them.  They startled me.

The silver keys of my clarinet startled me as they contrasted with the shiny black of the granadilla.

Nothing was fuzzy.  I liked what I saw.  Crispness.  Definition. 

In addition, colors were no longer muted.  My cataracts were brown, so everything appeared yellowish-golden.  I told my hair stylist that my hair was turning yellow.  She said it was not.  I argued because I could SEE that it was turning yellow.  She shook her head.

I went to the dentist and complained that my teeth were turning yellow.  He said they were not.  I argued because I could SEE that they were turning yellow.  He shook his head.

When the cataracts came out. I was startled to look in the mirror and see my white hair and teeth.  “Oh,” I said to myself.

My world went from a fuzzy, muzzy, muffled, muted blur to a crisp world of objects that nearly sparkled in sharp relief to the space around them.

Woodwind clarity of sound is like that: unfuzzy, unmuzzy, unmuffled, unmuted.  (This makes a nice chant to say over and over with the accent on the second syllable. Try it.)

With clarity, each note of the clarinet or other woodwind stands in sharp relief to the nanoseconds of silence that surround it.  The sound is tight and contained, the edges defined with laser-finesse.  The sound sparkles, whether the timbre is light and bright or dark and mellow.  

Sound with poor clarity- fuzzy, muzzy, muffled, and muted- blends into the silence.  The nanosecond where sound begins and silence ends lacks definition.

Think about the trumpet player who sits behind you.  The one to whom you occasionally say, “Can’t you point that thing in some other direction?”  He probably has a clear sound.  Brass players have different clarity problems than woodwinds do.  Now think of his sound when he stuffs the mute in his horn.  (Which we wish he would do more often.)  Now you can’t easily tell where the sound begins and the silence ends.  They lack definition.

I asked my band-director-dad, Phillip Wilson, what was technically happening when sound lacked clarity: was fuzzy, muzzy, muffled, and muted.  He said that the harmonics were out of proper proportion, that clarity of sound was proportionately proper harmonics.  Every sound has a fundamental frequency, and then the harmonics, which are multiples of that frequency: the frequency doubled, trebled, quadrupled, quintupled, sextupled, sextupled, etc.  When the frequencies are not in proper proportion, we get FM3 (fuzzy, muzzy, muffled, and muted) sound.

Dr. David Griesinger (, noted Harvard-trained physicist/acousticist/concert-hall-designer, said that clarity is the quality that allows us to perceive distance, timbre, and location of a sound. 

I put these four ideas together to come up with the following working definition: Woodwind Clarity, the opposite of a fuzzy, muzzy, muddled, muted tone, is the quality that allows us 1) to demarcate the edges of the tone from its surrounding silence and 2) identify the distance, timbre, and location of the tone.  Clarity is the result of proper harmonic proportion.

I am proud of my definition.  Use it at will.  Just be sure that your woodwind sound is clear, however you define it.


No comments:

Post a Comment