General Question

LostInParadise's avatar

How are we able to distinguish different types of instruments playing together in a concert?

Asked by LostInParadise (18208 points ) April 2nd, 2012

I recently heard about the idea of biophony In one article, it said that the sounds made by different species were like the instruments in an orchestra. In order to get a handle on this, I would like to know how we can recognize the different instruments that are playing at the same time. Do they have different frequencies? I thought they were playing the same notes. Why is it that, for example, we can make out a piano, cello and horn playing together? On the other hand, why is it that a lawn mower or jackhammer seems to blot out all other sounds?

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7 Answers

jaytkay's avatar

The short answer is timbre, the “category for everything that cannot be labeled pitch or loudness”.

Wikipedia – Timbre

But I am very interested in hearing some more answers here, because my answer describes what is NOT timbre, rather than describing what IS timbre.

And related to your question, I can never get my head around the idea that the sound of a whole orchestra (or any complex sound) can be played over a single loudspeaker using a single signal.

Sunny2's avatar

You can hear different tone qualities in the various instruments. You can train your ear to distinguish the sounds. Some people hear better than others. My dad, a musician, would ask me to identify the instruments playing in an orchestra when there was a solo part. I didn’t find it difficult.
The jack hammers obliterate other sounds by sheer volume and tone quality. I’m glad i don’t have to work with one.

LostInParadise's avatar

As I understand it, sound quality comes from the combination of harmonics of an instrument. It seems to me that when different instruments are playing together, the various harmonics are going to interfere with each other, obliterating the individual identities. All that I can think of is that for a given instrument, there are certain identifying harmonics that it is particularly strong in.

One thing that I would be curious about, is the extent to which different species of animals have different fundamental frequencies. It seems to me that, generally speaking, larger animals make lower sounds, although I am sure that even if this true, there are a lot of exceptions.

wundayatta's avatar

All instruments, like all vocal cords, make characteristic sounds. That is to say, they are all different, and anyone who is trained to be sensitive to the differences will hear them. When you display the sound waves on a chart, you can see how different all the sounds are.

The reason why all instruments produce characteristic sounds is due to what the morphology of the instrument does to sound waves. It has to do with harmonics and overtones and material and how the instrument is played. Frequency is just the beginning. Even the purest instrument does not put out a pure sine wave sound. There are many modulations and it is those modulations that our ears pick out and label as coming from this or that instrument.

dappled_leaves's avatar

I am willing to bet that there is a “jackhammer of instruments”... maybe the bagpipes? Not to disparage bagpipes (I enjoy them), but I suspect if other instruments were playing in concert with them, it would be more difficult to distinguish their individual voices. Maybe someone else can think of a more appropriate instrument.

El_Cadejo's avatar

I’ve always been amazed by how many different sounds we hear at the same time and yet can distingush all of them effortlessly and instantly.

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