Aesthetics of Tone

I recently came across this article written by Steven Emery.  It’s absolutely the best depiction of tone description I’ve come across.  Dizzy used to say, “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.”  Well, describing sound and why we like it or don’t is even more complex.  Steve does a fantastic job.  I hope you enjoy.  Thanks, Steve for allowing me to re-post your work here.

One Trumpeter’s Tome on Tone

Discussing the aesthetics of tone quality is definitely a daunting business. Words fail when we try to describe the ineffable, so thanks for bearing with me as I make one more attempt.

From the standpoint of physics (sound waves traveling through air) and biology/psychology (how our bodies and minds receive and react to those vibrations) what we hear as “bright” and “dark” is simply the predominance of certain overtones within the sound.

“Highs,” especially in the 5000Hz range (i.e. piccolo or orchestral bells) “highly” stimulate the eardrums. On the other hand, “lows” are not only heard but felt and give the impression of weight (bass drum and tympani.) The splash of a gong presents an extreme range of overtones but without the focus and coherence that we expect from what is traditionally considered “musical” tone.

If one makes an analytical study of tone and tone production (Disciplines that may apply are physics, acoustics, fluid dynamics, biomechanics, the psychology of perception) it is possible to discover much helpful information. For performing musicians however, our ultimate goal is emotional communication. The aesthetic effect of tone is much more complex than what can be measured in the sound.

An artists’ intention is to communicate meaning and to evoke deep emotional response.  As musical artists, we use sound as our medium of expression. In this artistic context, the words “bright” and “dark” are just too simplistic.

Let’s consider the aesthetics of tone

A few words brass players commonly use to describe desirable qualities of sound are: round, focused, warm, brilliant, deep, ringing, resonant, solid, fluid, stable, agile, broad, compact, commanding, rich, singing, strong, flexible, lyrical etc.  Many of these terms represent contrasts and are an attempt to express paradoxical realities. That can leave us frustrated if we want only simple answers.

It is also important to consider our own prejudices.  For example, a pejorative use of the word “bright” could mean, shrill, lacking depth narrow, nasal, tight, edgy, thin, shallow, metallic, hard, etc.  On the other hand, if “bright” is considered a desirable quality, then perhaps we mean glorious, brilliant, shining, ringing, radiant, shimmering etc.  By “dark tone” I could mean tubby, heavy, thick, dull, veiled, foggy etc. or, on the other hand, warm, rich, muscular, velvety, deep, chocolaty, golden, etc.  Of course these adjectives refer to highly subjective and sensual realities.

Another issue to consider (as anyone who plays in an ensemble knows) is that we tend to rely heavily on what our ears tell us as we play.  We use this information to make aesthetic judgments during performance.   Experienced players are keenly aware of musical balance and blend, which require precise control of sound intensity and flexibility of tone color. This is especially apparent in orchestral performance.  To do the job well, we simply must have sufficient and “accurate” feedback to our ears.

The situation is complicated by the fact that what we actually hear as we play can never be considered an accurate representation of the musical effect that reaches the audience, the conductor or the microphone.

Dale Clevenger’s response, when complimented on “that signature Clevenger sound” was appropriate in this context.

He said, “Yeah, too bad I’ll never hear it!”

Fortunately, we can continue to develop the musical quality of our sound by seeking help from trusted colleagues, conductors and mentors, by studying quality recordings of our work, and by allowing ourselves to be influenced by the finest players.

Ultimately what most of us respond to is beauty and character in the sound.

So, what is beautiful sound?

Humans instinctively react to musical sounds of all kinds.

Apparently, musical tone “means something” to us emotionally.  It is evocative. It strikes a sympathetic resonance in our hearts. The same thing happens when we taste excellent food, breath in a pure scent, view a majestic scene or see a lovely face. Our response is not logical, analytical or reasonable. It is however, strongly influenced by our individual “taste,” which may explain why there is so much confusion and disagreement surrounding this subject.

Beyond simple personal preference, our response is also strongly conditioned by what we are accustomed to and influenced by the unique sound of other players who we admire. All that being said, it can also be well argued that, in the perception of beauty, there may be universal human constants at work.

My own observation is that when all the ingredients that comprise tone are excellently proportioned, dynamically interactive and relationally harmonious we recognize that tone as beautiful.

Keep in mind however, that it is not beauty alone in which we are interested, but also the communication of meaning. We’ve heard the phrase “Don’t take that tone with me!”  and we know that our “tone of voice” can be employed not only to express sublime sentiments but horrific emotion as well.  The dramatic potential of the sound of the human voice is immense.  Actually, the expressive capability of the human voice is what we should emulate and as  Mr. Herseth once told me, “You know…. it doesn’t always have to be beautiful!”

Experienced players have learned to allow their tone (among many other things) to adjust to accommodate the stylistic differences of the wide variety of composers whose music they interpret.  I recommend to my students that they play their “routine” exercises (such as scales) in such a way as to portray the characteristic style of various composers.  Play one exercise in the style of Wagner for instance and the next in the style of Ravel, the following scale in the style of Stravinsky and the next in the style of Mozart.

Not only must the colors in the tone be flexible but also, it is necessary to be fluent in the execution of a wide variety of other musical elements that comprise style. Some “ingredients” to listen for are, timing within the tempo (in regular or flexible pulse), a sense of “pace,” quality of attacks and releases, verticality and/or linearity, weight of the sound, texture of the sound, shape of individual notes, shape and gesture of complete phrases, flexibility and/or stability of sustained pitch, precise or loose intervallic relationships, vibrato, dynamic inflections within individual notes and throughout phrases, and many more.  All these elements must work in complete harmony with each other in order to successfully express the authentic character of the music

If the goal is great musical expression, one must consider much more than “color” of tone alone.

Every serious musical artist will continue to educate his or her aesthetic palate.  We can enjoy all kinds of tone, from all instruments in all genres in order to fully develop an excellent sense of taste. Then we will be better equipped to discern what styles and artistic qualities of “musical food” are appropriate to prepare and serve to our audience.

Finally, players must strive to discover, develop and maintain their own simple and natural manner of tone production. Much of our work is to cultivate, nurture and appreciate our individual “voice” through the instrument.  It is also necessary to develop a wide pallet of color, texture, dimension, shape and density of sound that will afford the expression of a much greater range of musical meaning.  When listening to great performers on any instrument (especially vocal artists) it should become obvious that there is no single “dark” or “bright” tone that is sufficient for the range of human experience we strive to communicate.

So, is a “bright” tone bad and “dark” tone good?

Let’s decide to not trap ourselves in that very small box labeled “bright” or “dark.” The world is full of stunningly interesting and beautiful tone. Open your ears, taste the sounds and enjoy!

©2010 Steven A. Emery

Steve Emery began his playing career at age fifteen, playing extensively in the genres of jazz and popular music. While a student at Oberlin College Conservatory he discovered the world of orchestral music and began laying the foundation of his classical training. While in his first position as professor of trumpet at The University of Missouri at Kansas City, Steven was appointed to the assistant principal trumpet position with the Kansas City Philharmonic. The next year he won the co-principal trumpet position with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, serving as principal trumpet from 1982 until 1988. Steven was then invited to become a member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra trumpet section. As a freelance player, Emery has been involved in recording projects with Touchstone Pictures and WGBH Television, as well as The Empire Brass, Old South Brass and Proteus 7. He has played the American and international premeire performances of works for trumpet by Andre Jolivet, Nebojsa Zivcovic and Kensaku Shimizu. Since leaving the BSO Steven has been invited to perform with the Vienna Philharmonic and as principal trumpet with the New York Philharmonic. He has also had the opportunity to sub as principal trumpet with The Saint Louis Symphony. Emery has, over his years in Boston, become one of the most sought after teachers of trumpet in the area.

2 thoughts on “Aesthetics of Tone

  1. Steve Robinson

    I studied with Steve at the University of Missouri-Kansas City in the late ’70s. Not only was he an excellent Player and Teacher he was (few may know) a “Body Builder” . He helped me in the Gym as well as in the Practice Room!

  2. Pilgrim

    I have returned to read this several times over the past few years. Many years ago, I heard Steve play “O Holy Night,” accompanied by his wife on the piano, in a small church just before Christmas. I don’t have much musical knowledge, but it was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard. I’ve been reminded of it recently, upon finding Tine Thing Helseth’s Christmas album. I think she demonstrates much of what Steve articulates so well, here.

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