The 19th century was a golden age for the invention of acoustical research instruments—tools for measuring audible frequencies or the speed of sound, or for making sound visible.
Advancements in instrument making and voice physiology paralleled advancements in sound recording, reproduction, and transmission. Apparatuses developed during that time included tuning forks, sirens, sonorous pipes, singing and sensitive flames, manometric capsules, and resonators.
This according to “1800–1900: Un secolo di strumenti per lo studio dell’acustica/1800–1900: A century of instruments for the study of acoustics” by Paolo Brenni, an essay included in L’acustica e suoi strumenti: La collezione dell’Istituto Tecnico Toscano/Acoustics and its instruments: The collection of the Istituto Tecnico Toscano (Firenze: Giunti, 2001, pp. 57–72).
Above, a manometric capsule; below, Professor Henry Higgins demonstrates a sensitive flame, using a rotating mirror for isolating the flame’s oscillations.
Today we honor both George Harrison’s birthday and National Cancer Awareness Month.
In 1997 Harrison was diagnosed with throat cancer; it did not appear to be a large tumor, and it seemed harmless. Chemotherapy and radiation showed effective results.
But in 2000, while he was working on a reissue of All things must pass, he underwent treatment for another cancerous growth in the lung, which had migrated from his primary lesion of the throat. Later he was found to have an inoperable brain tumor as well.
Harrison underwent a new type of cancer treatment in a Swiss clinic, but he finally succumbed to his disease on November 29, 2001. If the original cancer had been screened and diagnosed in time, we might be celebrating his 70th birthday today.
This according to “George Harrison” by Anirudha Agnihotry, an article posted on the blog Oral cancer awareness drive (Oral Cancer Organization, 2013). Many thanks to Dr. Agnihotry for guest-writing this post!
Above, Ravi Shankar imparts the rudiments of sitār playing. Below, Harrison with a few friends.
MIDI-Connect4 is a program that composes music from the unfolding of a board game, Hasbro’s Connect 4™.
The system uses evolutionary computation to evolve from scratch a neural network that plays the Connect 4 game. Music is produced when a user plays the game against the system. The system generates music by associating the moves of each player with musical forms (see above).
The program was inspired by a musical event called Reunion, which was conceived by John Cage, Marcel Duchamp, and Teeny Duchamp in 1968, in which sounds were spatially distributed around a concert audience as a chess game unfolded.
This according to “Composition as game strategy: Making music by playing board games against evolved artificial neural networks” by Eduardo Reck Miranda and Qijun Zhang, an article included in Proceedings of the 31st International Computer Music Conference (San Francisco: International Computer Music Association, 2005).
Below, the game’s intrinsic acoustical properties.
“I know a distinguished pianist, of tremendously nervous temperament; he often has trouble urinating, and often is subject to all the trouble in the world without being at liberty to satisfy his needs; yet whistling or a few chords on the piano frees this obstruction in an instant.”
So wrote Jan Matuszyński in an 1837 doctoral thesis for the École de Médecine in Paris, referring to his best friend and former school- and then flat-mate, Frédéric Chopin. Matuszyński’s topic, the concept of sympathetic nerves, was in the vanguard of Parisian physiological theory in the 1830s.
His thesis in his study of the suffering pianist was that “the intimate connection existing between the human ear and the abdominal viscera by the sympathetic nerves permits these organs to have a significant influence upon the organ of hearing.”
This according to “Reflecting on reflex, or, Another touching new fact about Chopin” by James Q. Davies (Keyboard perspectives II  pp. 55–82). Below, the composer’s celebrated “Raindrop” prelude, which may now be open to reinterpretation.
Musicforcats.com presents music by David Teie that is based on feline vocal communication and environmental sounds that pique the interest of cats, written in a musical language that is uniquely designed to appeal to the domestic cat.
The pieces are composed in three different styles; each style is designed to convey and evoke a particular mood.
- Kitty ditties: Playful and quick, these incorporate stylizations of some of the animal calls that are of great interest to cats. A little like sonic catnip, ditties are meant to arouse interest and curiosity.
- Feline airs: The purr is to cats what the moan is to humans; it can express pleasure or pain, but most importantly, it draws sympathetic emotions from the listener. The timing and cyclic rhythms of purrs are remarkably consistent among all breeds of domestic cats, and the feline air is based on the pulses of the purr.
- Cat ballads: Just as the pedal drum provides the heartbeat in human music, the swish, swish of these ballads provides the sound of suckling in feline music.
In the late 17th and early 18th century the great violin maker Antonio Stradivari used a special wood that had grown in the cold period between 1645 and 1715. In the long winters and the cool summers, the wood grew especially slowly and evenly, creating low density and a high modulus of elasticity. Until now, modern violin makers could only dream of wood with such tonal qualities.
Similar wood can now be made available for violin making. The fungus species Physisporinus vitreus and Xylaria longipes can decay Norway spruce and sycamore—two important kinds of wood used for violin making—to such an extent that their tonal quality is improved. Unlike other fungus species, they gradually degrade the cell walls, inducing thinning; but even in the late stages of decomposition a stiff scaffold structure remains through which the sound waves can still travel directly.
The implementation of such biotechnological methods for treating soundboard wood could make it possible one day for violinists to afford instruments with the sound quality of a Stradivari.
This according to “Production of superior wood for violins by use of wood decay fungi” by Francis W.M.R. Schwarze, et al. (Journal of the Violin Society of America XXII/1  pp. 116-124). Above, a Stradivarius at the Palacio Real de Madrid. Below, a brief documentary on the process described by Schwarze.
Since the 1950s scientists have increasingly agreed that Paganini was probably a victim of Marfan syndrome—although beneficiary seems a more appropriate word than victim.
The typical characteristics of this pathological condition—a tall, thin body and particularly long, thin arms and hands—are perfectly in keeping with the virtuoso’s somatic characteristics, noted by all who described him and confirmed by the concert sketch by the poet and painter L.P.A. Burmeister , who is the only artist known to have reproduced the violinist’s exact physiognomy (above; click to enlarge).
There can be no doubt that Paganini’s abnormal ligaments—together, of course, with his extraordinary musical talent—were a definite advantage, and by no means a handicap, in his chosen career.
This according to “Nicolò Paganini (1782–1840)” by G. Sperati and D. Felisati (Acta Otorhinolaryngologica Italica XXV/2 [April 2005] pp. 125–128). Today is Paganini’s 230th birthday! Below, Jascha Heifetz play’s the composer’s Caprice, op. 1, no. 24.
Elephants can communicate using sounds below the range of human hearing (infrasounds below 20 hertz). These vocalizations have been presumed to be produced in the larynx, either by neurally controlled muscle twitching (as in cat purring) or by flow-induced self-sustained vibrations of the vocal folds (as in human speech and song).
In an experiment, direct high-speed video observations of an elephant larynx demonstrated flow-induced self-sustained vocal fold vibration in the absence of any neural signals, thus excluding the need for any purring mechanism. The observed physical principles of voice production apply to a wide variety of mammals, extending across a remarkably large range of fundamental frequencies and body sizes, spanning more than five orders of magnitude.
This according to “How low can you go? Physical production mechanism of elephant infrasonic vocalizations” by Christian T. Herbst, et al. (Science CCCXXXVII/6094 [3 August 2012] pp. 595–599). Below, a podcast interview with Dr. Herbst provides examples and further details (including the fact that the elephant had died of natural causes).
Kerry Klein speaks with Christian Herbst about recreating and analyzing the lowest vocalizations that elephants produce
Filed under Animals, Science
Today, on the 230th anniversary of the death of virtuoso castrato Farinelli (1705–82), let’s make a pilgrimage to his grave, as did the authors of a study that involved exhuming him to gain insight into his biological profile.
Born Carlo Broschi, Farinelli was castrated before puberty to preserve the treble pitch of the boy’s voice into adult life, and his powerful and sweet voice became legendary. His skeleton displayed some characteristics that are probably related to the effects of castration, including long limb-bones, persistence of epiphyseal lines, and osteoporosis.
In particular, the frontal bone was affected by severe hyperostosis frontalis interna (HFI), a symmetrical thickening of the inner table of the bone. HFI is relatively common in postmenopausal women but very rare in men. In the case of Farinelli, castration was probably responsible for the onset and development of this condition.
This according to “Hyperostosis frontalis interna
(HFI) and castration: The case of the famous singer Farinelli (1705–1782)” by Maria Giovanna Belcastro, Antonio Todero, Gino Fornaciari, and Valentina Mariotti (Journal of anatomy
CCXIX/5 [November 2011] pp. 632–37).
Above, a portrait of Farinelli by Corrado Giaquinto; below, an excerpt from the 1994 biopic by Gérard Corbiau.
There are various basic orientations, persuasions, and biases underlying specific uses of metaphors of somatic eruption. An alternative reading of body fluids as metaphoric sites of festive critique in subversively humorous discourse and art differs from more prevalent psychoanalytic interpretations.
The most appropriate musical example in this context is Kodály’s 1926 Háry János, in particular the opening sneeze.
This according to “Explosions in visual art, literature, and music” by Suzanne De Villiers-Human, an essay included in Critical theories symposium (International review of the aesthetics and sociology of music XXXVI/1 [June 2005] pp. 179–197).
Below, the celebrated sneeze depiction, which introduces both the opera and the suite derived from it.