Musical Sound and Tone

Music is one of form of sound and tone. Musical sound and tone results when a vibrating string, reed or vocal cord set air molecules or particles in motion, the molecules bump or lap one another and each setting the next in motion. The chain reaction continues until it strikes the eardrum, where the nervous system picks up the impulses and transmits them to the brain.

What mark the difference between musical sound and a noise is their wave pattern. The musical sound waves are regular in patterns and have established pitch. On the other hand, the waves pattern of a noise is not regular and unpitched. This irregular wave pattern generates unwanted sound for auditory experience and classified as noise in musical world, though this claim is a subjective. However, the musical sound is known to be pleasant and have good aural experience, this makes it to be acceptable to both performers and listeners.

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Music is one of the glories of sound. Any sound becomes music when it is artistically arranged so as to make it pleasant to the listener. Otherwise it becomes a noise. Note that all unpitched sounds are classified as a noise. But when they are well arranged and sound at regular interval, they will sound musical. This really says a lot about percussion instruments and their sounds.

Drums conceptual image. Drums and drumsticks lying on snare drum. Retro vintage instagram picture.

People compose music using sounds of different pitch. When sounds are timely arranged linearly in sequence we have a melody. Likewise, two or more sounds of different pitch are horizontally put together to form a harmony.

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Also we can form a scale out of the musical sounds by simply arranged them in relation to their rank in pitch. That is from a lower pitch to higher pitch and vice versa.


This is the physical property of all musical sounds. It is a sound produced by regular vibration of air. Sound produced by whistling, humming, plucking a tant string or blowing into a brass or reed instrument are tones because their vibration is regular. A tone with only one frequency or a single pitch is known as a simple tone. Although this type of note may have a varied intensity. On the other hand, a tone that comprises of two or more simple tones or overtone is a complex tone. The intensity of a complex tone is the total sum of every single pitch it contains.

The musical tone with the lowest frequency and usually the most audible is called the fundamental tone (or note). In addition, musical instruments sound at several frequencies known harmonics in relation to one another and the one with highest harmonics is called overtones. And because a combination of harmonic tones is pleasant to hear we called it a musical tone. Tone is a concept peculiar to music and it’s important to producing variation and quality in music.

Properties of a Tone

All musical tones consist of four properties. These are:

i.  Duration

ii.  Pitch,

iii. Intensity/Volume, and

iv. Timbre

(a.) Duration

This is referring to as the length of time a tone is sounded. It is how long or short the sound lasts before it stops sounding. All musical tones are subjected to variability in duration; that is a tone may be sustained for varying length of time.  

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Certainly, duration let us acknowledge a tone as being either long or short, based on the context. This property of tone becomes one of the basses of rhythm. In fact, several durations that occur one after another is the aspect of music that create the rhythm of a piece

(b.) Pitch

This is the height or depth of a time as related to other tones in the scale. The pitch also known as high or low aspect of a tone is created by any vibrating bodies and is directly a product of vibrational frequency of that body. The number of vibrations per second generated by a specific sound is used to determine the accurate pitch. And the faster the rate of vibration, the higher the pitch of a tone.

All other things being equal, a shorter string produces higher tones than a longer one. Also, the same is applicable to a column of air in wind instruments. This explains why the tones of violin are higher than those of a cello and why the tones of piccolo are higher than those of a flute.

Sound that has a definite pitch is referred to as a musical note. For example, when we pluck the string of a guitar, strike the key of a piano or blow wind in a flute, a sound that has a definite pitch is produced (a musical note is produced). There are certain sounds or tones that have no definite pitch e.g. the clapping of the hand, the sound of a rattle, of a cymbal and that of a certain drum.

(c.) Intensity or Volume

Intensity is also known as Dynamics. This is referring to loudness, volume of tonal sound, or fullness of a tone. The intensity of a sound is independent of its pitch. Amplitude of a tone determine its intensity or loudness. Amplitude is the extent to which the vibration occurs or the rate at which the air particles are displaced in a vibrating body.

Intensity of musical sound and tone

Note that a tone with the higher pitch can be loud or soft and also a tone with the lower pitch. The intensity of any note depends solely on the amplitude or strength of the vibrations producing the sound.

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For example, a piano string will vibrate gently and produce a soft sound if its key is struck softly. However, with the greater striking force on the keys you hear louder notes. In short, the greater the force, the larger the amplitude and the louder the sound. It is fundamental to musical rhythm (as accent).

(d.) Timbre

This is also known as a tone colour and is the quality of a tone that allows us to identify or recognize specific instrument or voice. In timber or colour, no two musical instruments are equal. This is so because each instrument has different timber. In fact, this result in different way we perceive note of the same pitch when produced by different instrument. Therefore, middle C produced by a violin will not be perceived the same way when produce by a trumpet or flute.

Timber of musical sound and tone

The violin and clarinet tones are dissimilar because their articulatory “buzz” are absolutely different. Also their overtone contents are not the same, even when they play note of the same pitch and interval.

The timbres of music enjoy an even less accurate and established ranking; other than the ambiguous classifications like shrill, mellow, full, and so on. In fact, there is no standard or actual nomenclature for this tone quality. Most often, musicians used colour or texture analogy to describe the timber of a sound. For example, bright tone, dark sound, rough tone, smooth sound and so on. In other words, the cello is said to has a darker, richer timbre than that of the violin.

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Above all, timber of tone, even the same instruments, differ according to their size, shape and the quality of materials. Although, the skill of the performer or great artistry is required to bring out the true timbre of a fine instrument.

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