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Strings Attached

Here is part 3 of the series I am writing on the science behind music in “Saamagaana – The First Melody“, a monthly magazine on Indian Classical Music. The intent is to help readers understand a bit more about the science behind music and musical instruments and to enhance their appreciation of the same.

This is from the June 2015 issue of the magazine. Please contact the magazine for subscriptions.

Strings Attached

Rosin, bow, the wooden body: R Ramkumar explains what makes for the melodious notes of the violin

I see only 4 strings on a violin. How is it then that a violinist is able to produce so many notes?

When a string is pressed against the fingerboard of the violin, it is held tight between the place where it is pressed and the bridge. Depending on where the string is pressed, the length from there to the bridge changes. This change in the length of the vibrating string as the fingerboard is pressed at different places produces different notes.

What is the violin bow made of?

The bow usually has hair from a horse’s tail (that comprise the white bottom part of the bow) held taut using a stick (the upper part and the corners).

I sometimes see violinists rubbing the bow against some material. What is it?

The material is called rosin. It is a resin that is collected from pine trees and dried. It makes the horse hair on the bow slightly sticky.

Why is the bow required? Why can’t a violinist just pluck the strings like a guitarist?

If a violinist plucks a violin string while pressing it down at some point along the fingerboard to produce a note, his soft fingertip will quickly absorb the vibration resulting in a dull, heavy sound (called pizzicato) rather than a clear note.

When the bow, made slightly sticky using the rosin, is drawn across a violin string, continuously excites it. The string sticks to the bow, gets pushed forward and slips back only to be again grabbed by the sticky bow to repeat this action hundreds of times each second. The string thus gets re-plucked so many times every second and produces a long singing note instead of the dull, heavy sound associated with a single pluck.

A guitar, on the other hand, has frets. When the string is pressed against the fingerboard, it is held tight between two hard objects–the nearest fret and the bridge and hence produces a clear note.

Why does the violin have a wooden body?

The vibrating violin strings can hardly make any sound on their own as they are too thin and can’t push too much of air about. However, when they are attached to the hollow wooden body, their vibration is passed on to the wooden panels of the body which try to vibrate at the same rate as the string. This creates more powerful ripples in the air pressure, thus making louder sound.

(R Ramkumar is a mridangam artiste and a senior management professional. He blogs at https://ramsabode.wordpress.com and can be reached at rramkr@gmail.com)

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(Image source: http://samuelcote.com/ref/violin/images/lrg-violin-partsnames-002.jpg)

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The sound of strings

Here is part 2 of the series I am writing on the science behind music in “Saamagaana – The First Melody“, a monthly magazine on Indian Classical Music. The intent is to help readers understand a bit more about the science behind music and musical instruments and to enhance their appreciation of the same.

This is from the May 2015 issue of the magazine. Please contact the magazine for subscriptions.

The Sound of Strings

Just like human beings, instruments too belong to families. Instruments in a particular family are similar to each other. Often made of the same types of materials, they resemble one another, and also sound similar. R RAMKUMAR presents the second in the series on the physics of sound and how our brain perceives music, voices and musical instruments

Why do some singers stick a finger in their ear or cup their ear while singing?

Humans, in general, are not designed to hear their own voices too loudly lest this drowns out any other sound they should be paying attention to, like that of an approaching train. Closing a ear, say, by sticking a finger in the ear, helps improve the feedback between the mouth and the brain and also partially blocks external sounds.
Thus singers can hear their own voices better and also monitor their pitch better. This is especially helpful in large concert halls where there is noise/echo and also when the singer is performing in a group.

Why are most musical instruments made of strings or shaped like columns?

Remember? A musical sound or note is made up of ripple patterns that repeat and join together in an organized way.

This can be made to happen easily if the vibrating object has a simple shape. A column or a rod is one of the simplest shapes possible and can vibrate in just the right way to produce musical notes. This is why most musical instruments either have columns of steel (for example, strings in a violin) or columns of air inside tubes (for example, flutes).

I peeped into the green room before the concert and saw the violinist change some of the strings. Why did he do that?

Strings are thin, long columns of steel or some other suitable material. New strings usually produce loud, clear notes. As the violinist keeps playing on them, they gradually get worn out and become an imperfect column shape. The notes that get produced from such strings would sound weaker and may start becoming vague in pitch. This might have been the reason why you saw the violinist replace the strings. The strings might have also broken and required replacement.

If it is the string that produces the sound, then why does a violin or a guitar have a wooden body?

Vibrating strings hardly make any noise on their own as they are too thin and don’t push too much of air about. When strings are attached to a hollow box like the body of a violin or a guitar, their vibration are passed on to the wooden panels of the body which try to vibrate at the same rate as the string. This creates more powerful ripples in the air pressure, thus making louder sound.

(R Ramkumar is a mridangam artist and a senior management professional. He blogs at https://ramsabode.wordpress.com and can be reached at rramkr@gmail.com)

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What is music? What is noise?

I have started writing a new series on the science behind music in “Saamagaana – The First Melody“, a monthly magazine on Indian Classical Music. The intent is to help readers understand a bit more about the science behind music and musical instruments and to enhance their appreciation of the same.

The article written for the April 2015 issue of the magazine is reproduced below. Please contact the magazine for subscriptions.

What is music, what is noise

What is music? How is bird song different from the mellifluous flow of the Mohana raga, the pentatonic scale common to so many cultures around the world? Why is one man’s beat another man’s poison? We begin a new series on the physics of sound and how our brain perceives music, voices and musical instruments, with R RAMKUMAR

Let us start with the basics. What is sound? How did you know that your wife just started singing in the kitchen?

When we throw a stone into a pool of water, it creates ripples that travel away from the place where the stone hits the water surface. In the same manner, when your wife makes a sound by singing, it creates ripples in the air that move away from her. This creates changes in the pressure of air which pushes your eardrums in and out when it reaches your ears. Your brain analyzes this and realizes your wife just started crooning.

How do you know what is music and what is noise? What is the difference between a musical note and noise?

When ripple patterns created by any sound reaches your ear, your brain can identify whether it is made up of repeating or non-repeating patterns.

Any musical sound or note, like the one’s made by your neighbor when she starts singing, is made up of a ripple pattern that repeats itself again and again. Any noise, like the one created when your neighbor slams her window shut to prevent you from hearing her practice, produces complex ripple patterns that don’t repeat. You come to know that it is noise because there is no regularity from which you can identify a musical tone.

A musical note consists of pitch, loudness, duration and timbre. We will try to understand each of these as we go along.

Why does a violin sound different from a flute?

The distinctive sound that each instrument produces is called its timbre. The same is true of human voice as well.

Violins have strings. When the violinist tries to play a note, the string starts to vibrate in many ways at the same time in a sort of a complex dance. The number of times anything vibrates per second is called its frequency. Since the string vibrates in many ways, it produces leads to multiple frequencies getting produced (called overtones) but the whole pattern of dance usually repeats at the same rate as the lowest frequency called the fundamental frequency. All other frequencies join to support this fundamental and produce a richer sound. Thus the quality of sound produced depends on the combination of different frequencies that go into its production.

When a flautist tries to play the same note, a different proportion of the various frequencies add to produce the note, creating a distinctive sound for the note that comes from the flute.

Thus, the same musical note sounds different when played on a violin and when played on a flute.

Why is, say, Sanjay Subrahmanyan’s voice different from Sudha Raghunathan’s?

As we saw in the answer to the previous question, the number of times anything vibrates per second is called its frequency. A close proxy of frequency is pitch. The more rapid the vibrations, the higher the pitch.

Human voice is produced due to vibrations of the vocal folds (vocal cords) created by air moving out from the lungs, upwards into the throat.  An adult male usually has thicker/longer vocal folds than an adult woman which means that his vocal folds will vibrate lesser number of times per second.  Hence his pitch will usually be lower. He usually has a larger vocal tract as well and his voice is lower and deeper. This is one of the primary differences between a male and a female voice and helps you decipher whether it is a male or a female singing.

Other factors include how sounds get habitually formed and articulated in an individual, which part of the body is being used to resonate the sound etc.

Piece all this together and you know whether it is Sanjay or Sudha.

(R Ramkumar is a mridangam artist and a senior management professional. He blogs at https://ramsabode.wordpress.com and can be reached at rramkr@gmail.com)

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Concert with Mambalam Sisters for Dikshitar Akhandam

I played mrudangam for the concert of Mambalam Sisters at the Dikshitar Akhandam. Song list and other details are given below.

Venue: Dakshinamurthy Auditorium, PS High School, RK Mutt Road, Mylapore, Chennai
Organizer: Bharatiya Sangeetha Vaibhavam
Theme: Dikshitar Akhandam

Vocal: Mambalam Sisters (Vijayalakshmi and Chithra)
Violin: Dr. R. Hemalatha
Mrudangam: R. Ramkumar
Khanjira: K.S. Rangachari

List of songs:
1) shrI dakSiNAmUrtimIsham – phEnadyuti (S)
2) hariyuvatIm haimavatIm – dEshisimhAravam
3) parvatavardhanI pAhimAm – sAmA (AS)
4) shrI nIlOtpala nAyikE – nArIrItigauLa (AS)
5) cEta shrI bAlakrishnam – jujAvanti
6) pavanAtmajAm bhajarE – shankarAbharaNam (AST)
7) shrI bhArgavI bhadram – maNgaLakaishiki

(Key: O=raga outline, A=raga alapana, t=tAnam, N=neraval, S=kalpana swaram, T=taniavartanam)

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T.M. Krishna at BSV Trust’s Dikshitar Akhandam

Venue: Dakshinamurthy Auditorium, PS High School, RK Mutt Road, Mylapore, Chennai
Organizer: Bharatiya Sangeetha Vaibhavam
Theme: Dikshitar Akhandam

Vocal: T.M. Krishna
Violin: R.K. Shriramkumar
Mrudangam: K. Arunprakash

List of songs:
1) mangaLadEvatE – mArgadEshi (A)
2) sAmi ninnE kOri (varNam) – shrIranjani (AN)
3) shrI valmIkalingam – kAmbOji (AN)
4) bAlagOpAla – bhairavi (A)
5) shrI guruguha mUrtE – udayaravicandrikA (O)
6) shrI vEnkaTagirIsham – suraTi (OS)
7) varadarAja pAhi (nOTTusvaram) – shankarAbharaNam

(Key: O=raga outline, A=raga alapana, t=tAnam, N=neraval, S=kalpana swaram, T=taniavartanam)

Song no. 2 (varnam) in the above list is composed by Ramaswami Dikshitar. T.M. Krishna said the speciality of this varnam is that in the charanam, the first swaram is composed by Ramaswami Dikshitar while the next three are composed by Shyama Shastri, Chinnaswami Dikshitar and Muthuswami Dikshitar respectively.

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Seetha Rajan and students at Dikshitar Akhandam

Venue: Dakshinamurthy Auditorium, PS High School, RK Mutt Road, Mylapore, Chennai
Organizer: Bharatiya Sangeetha Vaibhavam
Theme: Dikshitar Akhandam

Vocal: Seetha Rajan and students
Violin: M. Rajeev
Mrudangam: Patri Satish Kumar

List of songs:
1) tyAgarAja pAlayAshumAm – gauLa
2) tyAgarAja madhvajArOha – shrI
3) tyAgarAjO virAjatE – aTANA
4) tyAgarAjam bhajarE – yadukulakAmbOji
5) tyAgarAjEna samrakSitOham – sALagabhairavi
6) tyAgarAjAya namastE – bEgaDA
7) tyAgarAjAdanyam – darbAr
8) shrI tyAgarAjasya – rudrapriyA
9) tyAgarAjE krityAkrityam – sahAnA
10) vIravasanta tyAgarAja – vIravasantam
11) tyAgarAjam bhajEham – nIlAmbari

(Key: O=raga outline, A=raga alapana, t=tAnam, N=neraval, S=kalpana swaram, T=taniavartanam)

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Abhishek – A day with Thyagaraja

Brilliant concert by Abhishek and team! Anantha’s mridangam simply sang along. It was such great accompaniment!

Venue: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Chennai
Organizer: Sri Parthasarathy Swami Sabha
Theme: A day with Thyagaraja

Vocal: Abhishek Raghuram
Violin: B.U. Ganesh Prasad
Mrudangam: Anantha R. Krishnan

List of songs:
1) girirAja sutA – bangALA
2) entamuddO – bindumAlini (A)
3) raghuvara nannu – pantuvarALi (ANS)
4) koluvaiyunnADE – dEvagAndhAri
5) rAkA shashivadanA – TakkA
6) enduku nirdaya – harikAmbOji (ANS)
7) Emi jEsitE – tODi (AN)
8) nI nAma rUpa mulaku (mangaLam) – saurAshTram

(Key: O=raga outline, A=raga alapana, t=tAnam, N=neraval, S=kalpana swaram, T=taniavartanam)

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