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The Physics of Coltrane’s Technique: How Pros Hit the High Notes

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http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/12/science/...amp;oref=slogin

Hear the Music

The Physics of Coltrane’s Technique: How Pros Hit the High Notes

By KENNETH CHANG

Published: February 12, 2008

The saxophone, invented by Adolphe Sax, the Belgian instrument maker, and patented in 1846, is a curved tube of brass with holes. Its vibrations can reach high-pitched wailing notes, particularly when played by jazz musicians like John Coltrane.

The vocal tract, including the mouth and upper throat, is another vibrating tube, and for some years, scientists and musicians have wondered how important the one is to the other.

But it is not so easy to jam a microphone or camera down a saxophonist’s throat. In addition, the mouth is also not the easiest place to make precise measurements.

“It’s highly variable,” said Jer Ming Chen, a physics graduate student at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. “It’s wet. It’s moist. It’s also very loud in there. It’s incredibly loud in there. That’s been the main challenge that prevented direct measurements.”

Writing in the current issue of the journal Science, Mr. Chen and two colleagues describe a measuring device they were able to build in the mouthpiece of a tenor saxophone to determine whether saxophonists use their vocal tracts in making music.

Their answer: yes and no.

The researchers’ device, embedded in the mouthpiece, does not interfere with the saxophonist’s ability to play. It injects a specially designed sound, a mix of 224 frequencies, into the saxophonist’s mouth.

A microphone listens to the echoes bouncing off the mouth and vocal tract, detecting which frequencies are amplified by the shape of the vocal tract.

Five professional saxophonists and three amateurs went to the laboratory to play a saxophone outfitted with the device.

The researchers found that over standard lower-frequency notes in the saxophone repertory, the resonant frequency of the vocal tract varied between players and did not matter much to the note being played.

But in the very high notes, called the altissimo range, the professional players tuned their vocal tract — adjusting their tongue, jaw, pharynx, larynx and glottis, the middle part of the larynx where the vocal chords reside — to the note they played.

Amateurs, not capable of this trick, could not play these notes.

“It seemed pretty clear there was something happening in the vocal tract,” Mr. Chen said. “In hindsight, it really makes sense now.”

The researchers expect the same effect for other wind instruments — they are now testing clarinets — and perhaps also brass instruments like trumpets and tubas.

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JFC! Any even half-qualified saxophonist knows this!

And guess what, Poindexter - you're usually going to need to lower & open your throat to hit the low notes too.

They actually pay people to write shit like this?

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They actually pay people to write shit like this?

How about this (SOURCE, complete with jaw-dropping headline)...

Secret to Sexy Saxophonists Revealed :rlol

By Charles Q. Choi, Special to LiveScience

posted: 07 February 2008 2:00 pm ET

John Coltrane and other famed jazz saxophonists hit piercing high notes that amateurs can't by expertly changing the shape of their vocal tracts, research now reveals.

The finding addresses a longstanding debate about how professional musicians pull off acoustic stunts.

The shape of the vocal tract produces different kinds of resonances — the amplification of specific frequencies of sound. For at least 25 years, musicians and scientists have argued over what role the acoustics of the vocal tracts of saxophonists and other reed instrument players had in influencing their notes, with opinions ranging from "negligible" to "crucial."

Untangling this mystery has proven hard, since it is challenging making precise acoustic measurements inside the mouth during playing.

"It's wet in the mouth and the acoustic conditions in there are really variable, and it gets really loud in there during playing," explained researcher Jer-Ming Chen, an acoustician at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.

So, Chen and his colleagues tried hooking up a tenor sax mouthpiece with a device that measured vocal tract resonances as three amateur and five professional saxophonists played.

"Our group's advisor, Joe Wolfe, is a jazz saxophonist, and we did quite a bit of measurement with him," Chen said.

The acoustics of the vocal tract seemed to have only modest effects on how notes sounded over much of the saxophone's range. However, the scientists found that in the high range, pro saxophonists knew how to change the shape of their vocal tract, and the resonance that resulted helped them reach high notes amateurs could not.

"Are these expert players aware of what they're doing? While they don't seem specifically aware that they're tuning their vocal tracts, they are aware they're adjusting something in their throat," Chen said.

Chen added that for pro saxophonists to reach these notes, "they say they have to hear the sound in their head, to kind of get a mental image of the sound. This suggests they have some muscle memory with this tuning. I think that means anyone can learn how to do this, but you need to put in a lot of practice to get that same muscle memory."

The researchers are now attempting to see if similar effects are happening in other saxophone techniques , "such as subtone playing, where you're trying to play the lowest notes on the sax very softly," Chen said. "It's easy to play those loud, but it's quite a bit of a struggle to play them soft. Or we can look at multiphonic playing, where you play multiple notes at the same time. We can also see if this tuning phenomenon happens in other single-reed instruments such as the clarinet, or double-reed instruments like the bassoon and oboe."

Chen and his colleagues detailed their findings in the Feb. 8 issue of the journal Science.

Edited by Rooster_Ties

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I doubt laypeople really know much about what goes into playing the saxophone.

Science isn't exactly an academic journal, y'know.

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Poindexter :lol:

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I doubt laypeople really know much about what goes into playing the saxophone.

Science isn't exactly an academic journal, y'know.

Slow news day.

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I doubt laypeople really know much about what goes into playing the saxophone.

Science isn't exactly an academic journal, y'know.

Sure it is. Science is definitely an academic journal, with more popular interest-type of material at the beginning of each issue, written more for the layman. The latter two thirds or so are usually very academia/professional scientist oriented. As a professional scientist, I reference Science and Nature occasionally in my work.

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The acoustics of the vocal tract seemed to have only modest effects on how notes sounded over much of the saxophone's range.

That's bullshit too. On a tenor, you can change the timbre of the same note from pinched, almost bassoon-like to wide open and roaring just by changing the throat from pinched close to wide open, like you got an orange stuck in it (or like you're going to fog up some glass).

The air column of a saxophonist really serves the same "essential" function for them as it does for a vocalist. Using the throat to alter timbre and facilitate different ranges is freakin' fundamental to playing the instrument in anything other than a rudimentary fashion.

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I doubt laypeople really know much about what goes into playing the saxophone.

Science isn't exactly an academic journal, y'know.

Sure it is. Science is definitely an academic journal, with more popular interest-type of material at the beginning of each issue, written more for the layman. The latter two thirds or so are usually very academia/professional scientist oriented. As a professional scientist, I reference Science and Nature occasionally in my work.

Not sure what area you work in, but in the world of physics Science, Nature and Physical Review Letters are THE three most prestigious journals to publish in (Science and Nature are regarded as particularly prestigious among experimental physicists).

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