Kettledrums (a.k.a. tympani) produce a definite pitch, but in theory they should not. At least the simplest mathematical model of a kettledrum would not have a definite pitch. Of course there are more accurate theories that align with reality.

Unlike many things that work in theory but not in practice, kettledrums work in practice but not in theory.

A musical sound has a definite pitch when the first several Fourier components are small integer multiples of the lowest component, the fundamental. A pitch we hear at 100 Hz would have a first overtone at 200 Hz, the second at 300 Hz, etc. It’s the relative strengths of these components give each instrument its characteristic sound.

An ideal string would make a definite pitch when you pluck it. The features of a real string discarded for the theoretical simplicity, such as stiffness, don’t make a huge difference to the tonality of the string.

An ideal circular membrane would vibrate at frequencies that are much closer together than consecutive integer multiples of the fundamental. The first few frequencies would be at 1.594, 2.136, 2.296, 2.653, and 2.918 times the fundamental. Here’s what that would sound like:

I chose amplitudes of 1, 1/2, 1/3, 1/4, 1/5, and 1/6. This was somewhat arbitrary, but not unrealistic. Including more than the first six Fourier components would make the sound even more muddled.

By comparison, here’s what it would sound like with the components at 2x up to 6x the fundamental, using the same amplitudes.

This isn’t an accurate simulation of tympani sounds, just something simple but more realistic than the vibrations of an idea membrane.

The real world complications of a kettledrum spread out its Fourier components to make it have a more definite pitch. These include the weight of air on top of the drum, the stiffness of the drum head, the air trapped in the body of the drum, etc.

If you’d like to read more about how kettle drums work, you might start with The Physics of Kettledrums by Thomas Rossing in Scientific American, November 1982.

What do tuning a guitar and tuning a radio have in common? Both are examples of beats or amplitude modulation.

Examples

In an earlier post I wrote about how beats come up in vibrating systems, such as a mass and spring combination or an electric circuit. Here I look at examples from music and radio.

Music

When two musical instruments play nearly the same note, they produce beats. The number of beats per second is the difference in the two frequencies. So if two flutes are playing an A, one playing at 440 Hz and one at 442 Hz, you’ll hear a pitch at 441 Hz that beats two times a second. Here’s a wave file of two pure sine waves at 440 Hz and 442 Hz.

As the players come closer to being in tune, the beats slow down. Sometimes you don’t have two instruments but two strings on the same instrument. Guitarists listen for beats to tell when two strings are playing the same note with the same pitch.

AM radio

The same principle applies to AM radio. A message is transmitted by multiplying a carrier signal by the content you want to broadcast. The beats are the content. As we’ll see below, in some ways the musical example and the AM radio example are opposites. With tuning, we start with two sources and create beats. With AM radio, we start by creating beats, then see that we’ve created two sources, the sidebands of the signal.

Mathematical explanation

Both examples above relate to the following trig identity:

cos(a–b) + cos(a+b) = 2 cos a cos b

And because we’re looking at time-varying signals, slip in a factor of 2πt:

cos(2π(a–b)t) + cos(2π(a+b)t) = 2 cos 2πat cos 2πbt

Music

In the case of two pure tones, slightly out of tune, let a = 441 and b = 1. Playing an A 440 and an A 442 at the same time results in an A 441, twice as loud, with the amplitude going up and down like cos 2πt, i.e. oscillating two times a second. (Why two times and not just once? One beat for the maximum and and one for the minimum of cos 2πt.)

It may be hard to hear beats because of complications we’ve glossed over. Musical instruments are never perfectly in phase, but more importantly they’re not pure tones. An oboe, for example, has strong components above the fundamental frequency. I used a flute in this example because although its tone is not simply a sine wave, it’s closer to a sine wave than other instruments, especially when playing higher notes. Also, guitarists often compare the harmonics of two strings. These are purer tones and so it’s easier to hear beats between them.

Radio

For the case of AM radio, read the equation above from right to left. Let a be the frequency of the carrier wave. For example if you’re broadcasting on AM station 700, this means 700 kHz, so a = 700,000. If this station were broadcasting a pure tone at 440 Hz, b would be 440. This would produce sidebands at 700,440 Hz and 699,560 Hz.

In practice, however, the carrier is not multiplied by a signal like cos 2πbt but by 1 + m cos 2πbt where |m| < 1 to avoid over-modulation. Without this extra factor of 1 the signal would be 100% modulated; the envelope of the signal would pinch all the way down to zero. By including the factor of 1 and using a modulation index m less than 1, the signal looks more like the image above, with the envelope not pinching all the way down. (Over-modulation occurs when m > 1. Instead of the envelope pinching to zero, the upper and lower parts of the envelop cross.)

I’ve played saxophone since I was in high school, and I thought I knew how saxophones work, but I learned something new this evening. I was listening to a podcast [1] on musical acoustics and much of it was old hat. Then the host said that a saxophone has two octave holes. Really?! I only thought there was only one.

When you press the octave key on the back of a saxophone with your left thumb, the pitch goes up an octave. Sometimes this causes a key on the neck to open up and sometimes it doesn’t [2]. I knew that much.

I thought that when this key didn’t open, the octaves work like they do on a flute: no mechanical change to the instrument, but a change in the way you play. And to some extent this is right: You can make the pitch go up an octave without using the octave key. However, when the octave key is pressed there is a second hole that opens up when the more visible one on the neck closes.

According to the podcast, the first saxophones had two octave keys to operate with your thumb. You had to choose the correct octave key for the note you’re playing. Modern saxophones work the same as early saxophones except there is only one octave key controlling two octave holes.

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[1] Musical Acoustics from The University of Edinburgh, iTunes U.

[2] On the notes written middle C up to A flat, the octave key raises the little hole I wasn’t aware of. For higher notes the octave key raises the octave hole on the neck.

How can you convert the frequency of a sound to musical notation? I wrote in an earlier post how to calculate how many half steps a frequency is above or below middle C, but it would be useful go further have code to output musical pitch notation.

In scientific pitch notation, the C near the threshold of hearing, around 16 Hz, is called C0. The C an octave higher is C1, the next C2, etc. Octaves begin with C; other notes use the octave number of the closest C below.

The lowest note on a piano is A0, a major sixth up from C0. Middle C is C4 because it’s 4 octaves above C0. The highest note on a piano is C8.

Math

A4, the A above middle C, has a frequency of 440 Hz. This is nine half steps above C4, so the pitch of C4 is 440*2^{-9/12}. C0 is four octaves lower, so it’s 2^{-4} = 1/16 of the pitch of C4. (Details for this calculation and the one below are given in here.)

For a pitch P, the number of half steps from C0 to P is

h = 12 log_{2}(P / C0).

Software

Here is a page that will let you convert back and forth between frequency and music notation: Music, Hertz, Barks.

If you’d like code rather than just to do one calculation, see the Python code below. It calculates the number of half steps h from C0 up to a pitch, then computes the corresponding pitch notation.

from math import log2, pow
A4 = 440
C0 = A4*pow(2, -4.75)
name = ["C", "C#", "D", "D#", "E", "F", "F#", "G", "G#", "A", "A#", "B"]
def pitch(freq):
h = round(12*log2(freq/C0))
octave = h // 12
n = h % 12
return name[n] + str(octave)

The pitch for A4 is its own variable in case you’d like to modify the code for a different tuning. While 440 is common, it used to be lower in the past, and you’ll sometimes see higher values like 444 today.

If you’d like to port this code to a language that doesn’t have a log2 function, you can use log(x)/log(2) for log2(x).

Powers of 2

When scientific pitch notation was first introduced, C0 was defined to be exactly 16 Hz, whereas now it works out to around 16.35. The advantage of the original system is that all C’s have frequency a power of 2, i.e. Cn has frequency 2^{n+4} Hz. The formula above for the number of half steps a pitch is above C0 simplifies to

h = 12 log_{2}P – 48.

If C0 has frequency 16 Hz, the A above middle C has frequency 2^{8.75} = 430.54, a little flat compared to A 440. But using the A 440 standard, C0 = 16 Hz is a convenient and fairly accurate approximation.

Every positive integer can be written as the sum of distinct Fibonacci numbers. For example, 10 = 8 + 2, the sum of the fifth Fibonacci number and the second.

This decomposition is unique if you impose the extra requirement that consecutive Fibonacci numbers are not allowed. [1] It’s easy to see that the rule against consecutive Fibonacci numbers is necessary for uniqueness. It’s not as easy to see that the rule is sufficient.

Every Fibonacci number is itself the sum of two consecutive Fibonacci numbers—that’s how they’re defined—so clearly there are at least two ways to write a Fibonacci number as the sum of Fibonacci numbers, either just itself or its two predecessors. In the example above, 8 = 5 + 3 and so you could write 10 as 5 + 3 + 2.

The nth Fibonacci number is approximately φ^{n}/√5 where φ = 1.618… is the golden ratio. So you could think of a Fibonacci sum representation for x as roughly a base φ representation for √5x.

You can find the Fibonacci representation of a number x using a greedy algorithm: Subtract the largest Fibonacci number from x that you can, then subtract the largest Fibonacci number you can from the remainder, etc.

Programming exercise: How would you implement a function that finds the largest Fibonacci number less than or equal to its input? Once you have this it’s easy to write a program to find Fibonacci representations.

* * *

[1] This is known as Zeckendorf’s theorem, published by E. Zeckendorf in 1972. However, C. G. Lekkerkerker had published the same result 20 years earlier.

If you hear electrical equipment humming, it’s probably at a pitch of about 60 Hz since that’s the frequency of AC power, at least in North America. In Europe and most of Asia it’s a little lower at 50 Hz. Here’s an audio clip in a couple formats: wav, mp3.

The screen shot above comes from a tuner app taken when I was around some electrical equipment. The pitch sometimes registered at A# and sometimes as B, and for good reason. In a previous post I derived the formula for converting frequencies to musical pitches:

h = 12 log(P / C) / log 2.

Here C is the pitch of middle C, 261.626 Hz, P is the frequency of your tone, and h is the number of half steps your tone is above middle C. When we stick P = 60 Hz into this formula, we get h = -25.49, so our electrical hum is half way between 25 and 26 half-steps below middle C. So that’s between a A# and a B two octaves below middle C.

For 50 Hz hum, h = -28.65. That would be between a G and a G#, a little closer to G.

Update: So why would the frequency of the sound match the frequency of the electricity? The magnetic fields generated by the current would push and pull parts, driving mechanical vibrations at the same frequency.

Musical keys typically have 0 to 7 sharps or flats, but we can imagine adding any number of sharps or flats.

When you go up a fifth (seven half steps) you add a sharp. For example, the key of C has no sharps or flats, G has one sharp, D has two, etc. Starting from C and adding 30 sharps means going up 30*7 half-steps. Musical notes operate modulo 12 since there are 12 half-steps in an octave. 30*7 is congruent to 6 modulo 12, and six half-steps up from C is F#. So the key with 30 sharps would be the same pitches as F#.

But the key wouldn’t be called F#. It would be D quadruple sharp! I’ll explain below.

Sharps are added in the order F, C, G, D, A, E, B, and the name of key is a half step higher than the last sharp. For example, the key with three sharps is A, and the notes that are sharp are F#, C#, and G#.

In the key of C#, all seven notes are sharp. Now what happens if we add one more sharp? We start over and start adding more sharps in the same order. F was already sharp, and now it would be double sharp. So the key with eight sharps is G#. Everything is sharp except F, which is double sharp.

In a key with 28 sharps, we’ve cycled through F, C, G, D, A, E, and B four times. Everything is quadruple sharp. To add two more sharps, we sharpen F and C one more time, making them quintuple sharp. The note one half-step higher than C quintuple sharp is D quadruple sharp, which is enharmonic with F#.

You could repeat this exercise with flats. Going up a forth (five half-steps) adds a flat. Or you could think of a flat as a negative sharp.

I saw somewhere that James Earl Jones’ speaking voice is around 85 Hz. What musical pitch is that?

Let P be the frequency of some pitch you’re interested in and let C = 261.626 be the frequency of middle C. If h is the number of half steps from C to P then

P / C = 2^{h/12}.

Taking logs,

h = 12 log(P / C) / log 2.

If P = 85, then h = -19.46. That is, James Earl Jones’ voice is about 19 half-steps below middle C, around the F an octave and a half below middle C.

Toward the end of his life, Beethoven added metronome markings to the scores of his symphonies to indicate exactly how fast they should be performed. The tempos indicated in the scores are consistently faster than how the symphonies are usually performed.

James Kibbie has recorded Bach’s complete organ works and Kimiko Ishizaka has recorded his Goldberg Variations. Both artists have made their recordings free for download.

This evening I watched my daughter in Fiddler on the Roof. I thought I knew the play pretty well, but I learned something tonight.

Before the play started, someone told me that the phrase “bidi-bidi-bum” in “If I Were a Rich Man” is a Yiddish term for prayer. I thought “All day long I’d bidi-bidi-bum” was a way of saying “All day long I’d piddle around.” That completely changes the meaning of that part of the song.

When I got home I did a quick search to see whether what I’d heard was correct. According to Wikipedia,

A repeated phrase throughout the song, “all day long I’d bidi-bidi-bum,” is often misunderstood to refer to Tevye’s desire not to have to work. However, the phrase “bidi-bidi-bum” is a reference to the practice of Jewish prayer, in particular davening.

Unfortunately, Wikipedia adds a footnote saying “citation needed,” so I still have some doubt whether this explanation is correct. I searched a little more, but haven’t found anything more authoritative.

Now I wonder whether there’s any significance to other parts of the song that I thought were just a form of Klezmer scat singing, e.g. “yubba dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dum.” I assumed those were nonsense syllables, but is there some significance to them?

Update: At Jason Fruit’s suggestion in the comments, I asked about this on judaism.stackexchange.com. Isaac Moses replied that the answer is somewhere in between. The specific syllables are not meaningful, but they are intended to be reminiscent of the kind of improvisation a cantor might do in singing a prayer.

My previous post began with a story about a performance by John Coltrane. Douglas Groothuis left a comment saying that he used the same story in his book Truth Decay. Before telling the Coltrane story, Groothuis compares the philosophies of Kenny G and John Coltrane.

Kenny G’s philosophy is as shallow as his music.

I just play for myself, the way I want to play, and it comes out sounding like me.

Coltrane’s philosophy, like his music, is more ambitious.

Overall, I think the main thing a musician would like to do is give a picture to the listener of the many wonderful things he knows and senses in the universe. That’s what music is to me — it’s just another way of saying this is a big, wonderful universe we live in, that’s been given to us, and here’s an example of just how magnificent and encompassing it is. That’s what I would like to do. I think that’s one of the greatest things you can do in life, and we all try to do it in some way. The musician’s is through his music.

As Groothuis comments, Kenny G only spoke of expressing himself, while Coltrane “expressed a yearning to represent objective realities musically.”