The Quest for Volume

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When I think about the variety of musical instruments among the world’s cultures, I can’t help but notice how one universal driving force behind the evolution of new musical technology has always been the search for louder sounds. The development of the modern piano—from its roots in earlier keyboard instruments including the harpsichord, clavichord, and fortepiano—is largely about how sturdier materials and construction techniques made possible a modern instrument with a full range of dynamics, from the most delicate pianissimo shimmer to a clangorous tolling of a low sforzando chord.

With these changes in the range of dynamics came accompanying variations of timbre—in the case of the piano, a more “struck” and metallic timbre replacing the “plucked” plain-wire strings of the older harpsichord. The modern convex violin bow gains volume and a more focused tone over the old baroque bows, but the entire playing technique of the instrument changed in the process: the baroque bow easily sustains chords found in the unaccompanied string works of Heinrich Biber and J.S. Bach, yet it’s very difficult to play fast bursts of single-line runs while crossing strings. So the modern violin bow actually inverts some of the challenges of the Bach partitas, making fast runs and roulades a relative breeze and rendering 4-voice fugal writing even more of a challenge.

The guitar is one of those instruments—steeped in folk music and large gatherings—that had a great need for a volume boost, with the twelve-stringed version of the instrument just one stop on the way to its inevitable amplification. As the most successfully and universally amplified instrument nowadays, the modern electric guitar can morph, chameleon-like, through an awe-inspiring terrain of timbres and effects. One of the results of amplification has been the development of an entirely separate technique and musical vocabulary for the solid-bodied electric instrument, to the point where a Fender Telecaster has about as much in common with a nylon stringed classical guitar as with a violin—a point that Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page would drive home quite literally while he bowed his guitar with a violin or cello bow during live shows. The capabilities of the modern amplified guitar are often better suited to the role of melody instrument (like a violin) than the guitar’s previously assigned role of strumming chords.

Of course the development of musical instruments is also about the quest for uniformity of production and increased accuracy, among other things; yet it strikes me that no other quality drove such radical change in the form and function of instruments as this urge to crank the amp up to eleven. That says a lot about us as a species—namely, that humans have an irrepressible desire to be heard and also to experience music at a sufficient dynamic that it can be felt in a visceral sense.

3 thoughts on “The Quest for Volume

  1. Daniel Wolf

    Ever-louder, yes, but… not a few composers are more focused in the subtleties at the other end of the dynamic scale (as richard Feynman put it, “there’s a lot of room at the bottom”.) I’m friends with at least half a dozen composers who have clavichords at home as their preferred studio instruments, with Gordon Mumma and Douglas Leedy both composing significant works for the instrument; others are exploring even more quiet instruments, like the qin, or working at new ways of getting traditional instruments even quieter via muting technologies (Mauricio Kagel was very fond of the Klangwolfe string mute) and there is that large contingent in the hardware hacking/circuit bending scene who are more than content with the battery-powered output of tiny loudspeakers or other transducers.

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  2. Pingback: Trying to Be Heard: Our Quest for Louder Instruments | Classical 101 - WOSU Public Media

  3. Mark N. Grant

    Dan, while I agree with you, I think there are two very separate if kindred issues here: sheer volume in decibels, and carrying power. They are different. The metal plates and string tension of pianos became stronger in the nineteenth century not just to increase the volume absolutely but to increase the carrying power of the sound of the instrument at whatever volume, so piano tone could project further into acoustical space. That’s how one can sit in the upper reaches of a 3,000 seat hall and hear a pianist’s vanishingly gossamer pianissimo with incredible clarity. Yes, the acoustics of the hall help carry the sound, but a clavichord’s pianissimo would not so carry. Similarly, the vocal vibrato of opera singers and the vibrato of bowed strings evolved as common practices out of the expressive need to thrust the sound of the voice/instrument further outward into larger acoustic spaces, at all volumes, including low dynamics.

    We don’t need to experience music at a sufficient dynamic in order to feel it viscerally. There is nothing more viscerally felt than a triple pianissimo bass drum roll in a quiet texture. It could be said, in fact, to be more felt than heard. Many subtle details of orchestration are not loudly heard but are viscerally felt similarly. The double bass section is felt viscerally in the concert hall at very low volumes. Even very high pitches, in string section harmonics, or individual high notes on the harp or antique cymbals, cut through pianissimo, and do so less in a pitched way than with an unpitched visceral feel.

    The development of “super-volume” through electronic amplification, while certainly introducing new voices, timbres and colors, confounds many undiscerning ears into thinking that more more more more volume is the only way to amp up expression and the only way to get to the viscera. Rather too often, the cult of decibels impoverishes expression and denies the window to the viscera uniquely afforded by delicacy, nuance, and carefully terraced dynamics.

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