Color and Sound

Two recent events have pushed me to put "pen to paper".  A recent Facebook thread on the Horn People page discussed the relative value of high priced hand-made, boutique horns.  One of my points was that I felt that on my Rauch I had a larger palette of colors to choose from than I had previously experienced in other brands.  In addition to this discussion I recently gave a lesson on contemporary interpretation and my student told me that I need to write this stuff down.

Synesthesia is the brain process that means that we hear colors.  Olivier Messiaen and Wassily Kandinsky were famous names in this area, but what I am referring to is not perceiving colors in music, or art in general.  I am talking about producing different colors and changing your sound to adapt to the requirements of the music you are performing.

Singing and Vowel Sounds 

Singers have their instrument built in and each instrument is different.  A column of air is vibrated by the vocal chords and then (this is the important part) that sound is amplified by the their resonating chamber.  That chamber is the oral and nasal cavities.  If you have ever listened to a singer warming up they often do exercises where they use the different vowel sounds during their vocalises.  (a, e, i, o and u)

Try singing and change the vowel sounds.  The alterations of your oral cavity can be astonishing.  Tongue placement, Palate (not to be confused with a painter's palette) and throat muscle tension.  All of these factors change the harmonics in the sound creating a different color.  Singers have an infinite selection of colors by changing vowel sounds and the variations in between.  Language can be another help in this way.  Some languages are more "musical" than others.  Languages with more complex, or subtle vowel sounds like Chinese or French might give a  person an advantage in this area.

How do you become more attuned to these variations? 

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The Throat:   We are taught to never introduce tension in our throats because of what it does to the sound and the effenciency of our breathing.  Think about that a moment:  "…what it does to the sound…."  What actually happens?

Try breathing through your nose, singers do this to help center notes and to eliminate the tension in the throat.  By doing this you bypass the throat as a mechanism for tension.  After doing this breath through the mouth and try adding tension.  The easiest place to do this is where the collar bone joins the rib cage.  Then work your way up towards the jaw trying to feel the variations that occur in your sound.  You may not discern all of these changes but that is because you are not attuned to them.  After you have worked from the collarbone to the jaw move to your tongue. 

The Tongue:   More specifically the back of the tongue.  As you may be aware the tongue is actually quite large and it has an enormous impact on everything we do to communicate either by word, song or horn, but I am not talking about articulation here (another enormous topic) just sound.  As with the throat, experiment with tongue positions and tension.  Often when people think there is tension in the throat it is actually the tongue which is tense. With the tongue it is very important to think of the vowel sounds while trying different positions.

The Palate:  To be more specific the "soft palate" (soft meaning flexible/moveable)  The easiest way to understand how your palate changes is to sing.  Try singing in the lower part of your range and then slur up to a very high note.  Concentrate on what happens inside your mouth, in particular your palate.  A very old teaching technique is to imagine that you taken a bite of something which is too hot.  That reaction is another version of this same effect.  "A hot potato in your mouth"  Now, I realize that more than just your palate is involved in these sensations, but it is a point of "visualization" or "sensation".  To understand what is happening it helps to feel your way bit by bit and analyze what is happening at each stage of the way.

Lip tension/movement:  I mention this part with trepidation because under no circumstances should you work on this part without express consent or assistance by your teacher.  Your sound may be changed enormously by changing lip tension and/or by rolling the lips in or out, but only seasoned players will be able to do this without taking the risk of changing their embouchure.  Younger students that are still training their muscles and installing muscle memory should not be trying this.

Getting back to my teaching.  My student came to me with a piece of contemporary music which required the player to use different vowel sounds on different notes.  These techniques are very, very subtle and would be lost in a large orchestral setting, but for a solo piece the effect can be quite stunning.  The point of the exercise is to become aware of these various parts of the sound equation and learn how they change what you do. (for better or worse)  Learning about this will make you a better teacher and a more thoughtful/adaptable player.

I am not talking about instruments in this discussion because it is a deep and bottomless pit which divides opinion as much as some religions.  Each instrument is but an amplifier of what we do before the lips vibrate.  The characteristics of each amplifier are different, but the techniques applied before your sound reaches that amplifier are the same for everyone.

Experiment and expand your color palette.

© Bruce Richards 2012-2019