Laws of Sound in Music

By Louis C. Elson

There is no science in existence in which so many matters have been left at loose ends as in music. A variety of causes has led to this. Many of the terms connected with music are Latin or Italian, and the teachers of Germany have sometimes misinterpreted them in their otherwise authoritative works. Again, some leaders in music have been ignorant of the laws of acoustics, governing tone-production, and have given their sanction to false theories or definitions. Also some teachers, thorough in the routine of their work, have yet indulged in fanciful vagaries as to the correlation of sound to other physical forces, or as to the origin or application of some of the powers of music.

In this work it is not our purpose always to decide mooted questions. We may attempt that in many cases, but in some instances, where authorities are divided, it may be as well merely to present the different views and allow the teacher or the student to form his own conclusions. It may be of value, however, to give to the teacher, in a compact form, the points in music on which authorities differ, as well as those points on which there are undoubted popular errors. No compendium of this sort has yet been attempted, yet its practical value in teaching must be at once apparent. We have grouped these errors, mistakes and points of dispute under various heads.


The doubts in this field begin with the word itself, which some pronounce “A-cow-sticks” and others ‘A-coo-sticks.” Either manner of pronunciation is permitted by the large modern dictionaries.


While it is understood that sound is a species of vibration, generally of the air, the catch question is often propounded, “Would there be sound if no one heard it?” This merely mixes up the perception of sound with the physical force of sound. There was sound of the surges of a boiling ocean upon the earth, for example, long before there was any ear to hear it.

Effect of Atmosphere on Music

The speed of sound through the air is about a mile in five seconds. Slower in cold, dry air, and quicker in warm, damp air. People imagine that, because sound is clearer in cold, dry air, it therefore travels quicker, but, as the particles are further apart in dry air and nearer together in warm, damp weather, the opposite is the case. The following facts about speed of sound ought to be better understood: All kinds of tone have the same velocity. If the heavy tone of a bass tuba were to travel quicker than the delicate tone of a violin, orchestral music would at once become impossible. But it must be remembered that deep tones travel further than high ones. This can be tested on leaving church on and Sunday. The pedal tones of the organ will be heard, as one goes further and further away from the instrument, when the higher tones have entirely vanished.

Animals and Music

One may read over and over again that a horse, a mouse, a spider, an elephant are attracted by music. This is an absurd half-truth. Music is not a natural science, as this and many other statements in non-scientific works would imply. Nature does not give us a scale or a single harmonic progression. The foundations of music that are derived from natural laws are regular vibration (tone), rhythm (we all pulsate rhythmically and respond readily to rhythmic effects), and separate chords. With these materials mankind has worked in many diverse directions, so that it is not incorrect to say that music is an artificial product made out of natural elements. The horse and spider, and other animals, would be less attracted by Beethoven’s “Sonata Apassionata” than by a strong two-step, since the latter would be more forcibly rhythmic; and is this they would be joined by many tribes of savages. Experiments have been made in this direction amply proving the above statements and also showing that swine and donkeys are the least susceptible to rhythm among the mammals.

Color and Tone

Here we approach one of the most widely spread fancies in music. There are many most celebrated composers and teachers who firmly maintain that tone and color are closely connected. There are many who believe that every key produces the effect of a color. Mrs. H. H. A. Beach, the eminent composer, has from childhood associated keys and colors as follows:

  • Key of C – White
  • F sharp minor – Black
  • G sharp minor – Black
  • E major – Yellow
  • G major – Red
  • A major – Green
  • A flat major – Blue
  • D flat major – Violet
  • E flat major – Pink

Other composers give different color schemes. The tones suggest colors to them, but not the same colors to different composers. It is undoubted that color and tone are both regular vibration, although of different kinds. The gap between color and tone in rate of vibration is so enormous that one can scarcely imagine it even when the figures are presented.

The deepest tone that can be heard by the brain has sixteen vibrations a second – Sub-contra C, an octave below the deepest C of the piano. At 38,000 vibrations per second sound vanishes from the human brain. That would give a tone about three octaves above the highest E flat of the piano. Therefore an active and sensitive brain can perceive eleven octaves and a minor third of different pitches, from 16 to 38,000 vibrations per second.

The lowest vibrations of color that are visible to the eye are red rays, which vibrate about 460 trillions of vibrations per second. The highest are violet, vibrating about 730 trillions. The colors range from the lowest to the highest as follows: Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet – not an octave altogether.

If tones actually gave color-impressions, they would need to follow the above, and all composers would need to agree in their color scheme. As neither of these things take place we are forced to state our conviction that the correlation of tone and color is merely fanciful on the part of musicians.

Compass in Music

There are some errors connected with this subject. Some imagine that a six-octave piano would be almost unusable. As a matter of fact, most orchestral works are written between the lowest and the highest E of the piano. One of the greatest musical collections in existence – Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavichord” – has a much narrower compass than this.

Definite Emotions of Keys

Berlioz was the chief originator of the idea that each key had its definite emotion, which, while it has a modicum of truth to sustain it, has been pushed far into the domain of imagination. Berlioz gave the character of the keys upon the violin, but his followers have carried this idea into the general field of composition, unwarrantably. Even Berlioz’s table is rather imaginative. It runs as follows:


  • C – grave, but dull and vague
  • C sharp – less vague and more elegant
  • D flat – majestic
  • D sharp – gay, noisy and rather commonplace
  • E flat – majestic, tolerably sonorous, soft, grave
  • E – brilliant, pompous, noble
  • F – energetic, vigorous
  • F sharp – brilliant, dashing
  • G flat – less brilliant, more tender
  • G – rather gay, and slightly commonplace
  • G sharp – dull, but noble
  • A flat – soft, veiled, very noble
  • A – brilliant, elegant, joyous
  • B flat – noble, but without pomp
  • B – noble, sonorous, radiant
  • C flat – noble, but not very sonorous


  • C – gloomy, not very sonorous
  • C sharp – tragic, sonorous, elegant
  • D flat – serious, not very sonorous
  • D – lugubrious, not very sonorous, commonplace
  • D sharp – dull
  • E flat – very vague and very mournful
  • E – screamy and slightly commonplace
  • F – not very sonorous, gloomy, violent
  • F sharp – tragic, sonorous, dashing
  • G – melancholy, tolerably sonorous, soft
  • G sharp – not very sonorous, mournful, elegant
  • A flat – very dull and mournful, but noble
  • A – tolerably sonorous, soft, mournful, rather noble
  • B flat – gloomy, dull, hoarse, but noble
  • B – very sonorous, wild, rough, ominous, violent

On this foundation rests the “character of key” statement. Many composers of fame have fallen under its spell in so far that they have “favorite keys.” Beethoven himself in certain letters showed that he thought of B minor as a “black key,” D flat major as “majestic,” and A flat major and F minor as rather “barbarous.” This could only have been a passing mood which his own compositions do not bear out. It would be easy to contradict every such arbitrary summary of the character of keys, by famous compositions in them. The modicum of truth in the classification, however, is this: the tessitura, or general lay of the tones, would differ considerably between a work in C major and in G major. When a composer chooses a key for a composition, it is presumable that he has used the best possible pitch of tones for his subject, and it is always a defect to transpose a good work from its original key: Schumann’s “Two Grenadiers” or Hugo Wolf’s “Gesang Weylas” would lose somewhat by transposition. One may also remember that orchestral works depend greatly for their effect upon the key chosen, for horns, clarinets, oboes, etc., are not, like the piano, equally effective in all keys, but sound excellent in certain keys and poor in certain others.

The fallacy of key-character has been pushed so far that we have seen it stated that “the key of F is the key of nature,” also that Beethoven chose the key of F major for his sixth symphony because that was the true pastoral key, forgetting the important fact that they key of F in his time was the same as the key of E in our own days of higher pitch. The many statements about definite key-character are dangerous half-truths, and even Berlioz’s table is far too fanciful to be followed in practical music.

Pure Tone

It is not sufficiently understood that what is called a pure of a good tone is not a single tone at all, but a mingling of one tone (the fundamental) with a number of fainter, higher tones, which blend with it and alter its quality. A tone heard quite alone would be dull, “muddy” and lifeless. The faint overtones which form above it and blend with it are what form the quality of each musical tone. The following simple experiment may be made by the teacher at the piano: Press down small g without striking it. Now strike great C and then lift the finger from it. The small g will be clearly heard, showing that it formed part of the fundamental note C. Press down f, e, d, c sharp, one by one, and no tone will be heard when the lower C is struck, but when small c is pressed down and the C an octave lower struck, there will again be heard the clear, sympathetic tone, showing that it formed part of the lower C.

If the overtones are clearly present, the lower ones full and the upper ones faint but clear, a rich mellow tone is the result. If the upper ones are too strong the tone is acid and thin. One the clearness of the upper overtones depends the delicacy of the tone. The violin or the voice sounds dead in a damp atmosphere because the air is to dense to vibrate the faint, high overtones, and these are therefore smothered out. The same result is sometimes found on the reproductions of the phonograph. A baritone or tenor voice can often be excellently reproduced, while a violin tone, or a sweet soprano voice, which depends for its quality upon the high, faint overtones, is not so successful, the record not taking up the faintest overtones, but reproducing the stronger ones only.

Many inventions connected with this matter are now on the eve of perfection. One may mix up a pure tone (adding the best proportion of overtones) much as an apothecary would mix a prescription. It is within the scope of possibility that science will yet go so far as to be able to tabulate the proportion of overtones in any tone and thus give a written description of the voice of Caruso, for example, that could be understood and actually reproduced centuries hence.


It is a popular error to suppose that “absolute pitch,” an ability to recognize and name any note on its being sounded, is a certain evidence of great ability in music. It certainly implies a musical ear, but it is rather a special use of memory than of musical attainment. The blind almost always have it because they need to cultivate it. There are several eminent composers alive at present who have not “absolute pitch,” and there are some mediocre musicians who have it. It can be cultivated by sounding a tuning-fork many times a day and humming the note (A or C) until it remains in the memory. Other notes will soon follow in its train. An odd point in connection with absolute pitch is that it sometimes temporarily deserts a person who has it. Also, in employing it, the violinist will recognize it more quickly upon the violin than upon any other instrument, the oboist upon the oboe, etc.

Concert Pitch

Many a young teacher falls into the error of imagining that “concert pitch” must be the proper standard of pitch for concert music. The reverse is true. Concert pitch is the name applied to any high pitch which any musical instrument manufacturer may choose as best fitted to his instruments, and as the public generally like the pungent tone of a high-pitched instrument best, concert pitch is always above the normal pitch. Every musician should work to establish the “International Pitch” of 435 vibrations for one-lined A, or 517 3-10 vibrations for two-lined C.


Tablature means the designating of definite notes without writing them in notation. The tablature used by musicians calls the lowest octave (three notes only) of the piano the “sub-contra,” and the lowest notes of this instrument “sub-contra A,” “sub-contra B,” etc. The next octave (beginning with the deepest C) is the “Contra” octave, the next the “Great” octave, the next the “Small” octave. Now beginning with the middle C we start the “one-lined” octave, then the “two-lined,” etc. Here there enters an important error that has been perpetuated in several excellent books. The musician must write these notes as follows C, G, C, E or C’, E’, C”, E”, but never thus, C1, G4, C2, E2, because the scientists, the acousticians, have a numeral tablature which begins at great C, marking the above notes as follows: C3, G3, C4, E4. Therefore we must never mark middle C as C1, or the C an octave higher as C2, as this will lead to endless confusion with the scientific nomenclature. Thus the tuning-forks which sound A will be marked by the scientists A3, and those sound C will be marked C4. This error is taking root in America, and will lead to great confusion unless corrected.

Sympathy of Vibrations, Synchronism

This is a law of nature that has been much misunderstood by those who have not studied acoustics. Simply stated, it means that if an object is vibratory and the exact number of its vibrations are made in the air near to it, the object will begin vibrating and sounding without having been touched. Many a teacher has had practical experience of synchronism by having had a vase or a globe begin to rattle when one particular note is sounded on the piano, or possibly a violin string will give forth its note under the same circumstances. The author once had a peculiar experience of synchronism. He was singing a duet in a moderate-sized room (the second voice being also a male one) in which a high F was taken fortissimo. As the note rang out a glove on the gas chandelier above the singers burst into splinters, which flew all over the room. It was a clear case of synchronism, but the vibrations were so forcible that the globe could not sustain them.

Something similar took place at the St. Louis World’s Exposition. In order to show the popular errors in this matter we will first quote a telegram that was sent to the largest papers in the East and published by them:

“(St. Louis Special to the New York Times.)”

“Musicians and architects agreed that the shattering of the glass skylight of Festival Hall at the World’s Fair was caused on the big organ by some unskilled musicians, though they are not inclined to place the responsibility for the accident upon the should of Professor W. C. Gale, of New York, who was playing the organ when the glass fell.”

“Professor L. M. French, of Chicago, expressed the sentiments of the other inquirers into the cause of the accident when he said that he believed the harsh notes had been struck by a predecessor of Professor Gale, so loosening the glass that it fell with little provocation.”

(Reprinted in The Boston Transcript and many other newspapers.)

Could anything be more ignorant than above! Even an infant or a blacksmith cannot play “Harsh notes” upon a well-tuned organ. When the stops are set the tone resulting is always the same, no matter who presses down the key, or how it is pressed down.

“Harsh notes,” had they been produced, would not have disturbed the skylight. It was pure, good and resonant tones, full and regular vibrations that caused the glass to vibrate in sympathy (synchronism) and brought it down upon the heads of the audience.

Newspaper, excursions into the domain of acoustics are always to be distrusted. The author once saw, in a large and influential Western paper an account of an organ pipe that would not speak until the organist turned all the blasts of air from the wind-chest into that particular pipe, and then – bang! – a mouse and her young ones, who had made a nest in the pipe, were blown up to the ceiling, and the silent pipe spoke again! Organists will at once recognize the absurdity of all this. One cannot concentrate the full force of the bellows on one pipe, and there is never a current of air rushing through any organ pipe. It is again one of the mistakes of the ignorant.

The miracle of the Walls of Jericho may have been but a Scriptural version of another phase of synchronism.

Architectural Acoustics

“A good music hall should in itself be a musical instrument,” said Berlioz, and this remark was much more scientific than his schedule of the emotions of keys given above. It is a popular error, sometimes echoed by college professors, that we understand the chief points of synchronism and reflection of sound as applied to halls. The wish is father to the thought, in this case, for there are more poor halls than good ones, even in the most modern edifices.

When the laws of synchronism are fully discovered we shall be able to demolish buildings or throw down bridges by the sounding of a single tone, not necessarily very load, but continuous.