Saturday, February 13, 2010


Organ and electric keyboard players select what tone they want by pulling stops or pushing buttons and then by depressing keys that tone is turned on and off for various pitches. How they go about depressing the keys has no effect on the tone quality. For just about everybody else making music, how they physically go about playing has a lot to do with the quality of the tones they create.

To my mind, your tone is the most primal aspect of your music making. It's how whatever you have to say musically is made manifest in sound. If you play in perfect rhythm with perfect intonation and get all the articulations right, but with a tone that is off-putting, your music will be off-putting as well. In some ways it's similar to the way we tend to form opinions about people by the sounds of their voices.

Good instruments have better tone than not so good instruments, but a good player can usually make a poor instrument sound pretty good, and a poor player can be unable to get good tone out of a great instrument. 

Musical sounds are very complex, and one way of thinking about good tone is that it is a sound which is in tune with itself. A vibrating string or air column is vibrating in many different ways at the same time as the simple animation at this link begins to show. In the real world things are much more complicated as this slow motion video of a bowed string illustrates. It's not humanly possible to physically create a vibration as perfect as the one in the animation, but vibrations creating beautiful tone are closer to that end of the spectrum than the various squeaks, honks and hisses at the other end.

Different tone qualities are called for in different styles of music, and there can be various opinions as to what kind of tone is called for when. All I want to stake out in this post is the fundamental importance of tone in music making and to have this general definition to build on in future posts


  1. With the possible exception of some keyboard instruments, getting a good tone is absolutely fundamental to musicianship. It doesn't matter how well you understand the phrase you are playing if you can't translate that understanding into a sound that is pleasing to the ear.

    And that happens to be even more important for the horn than for some other instruments, because tone is the most important thing the horn has - the horn doesn't have the agility of the clarinet or any of the stringed instruments. A horn player is judged by his tone and his clams. (Everyone is judged by their clams!)

    Because most people don't understand what I mean by "musicality" or at least aren't able to put it into words, I regard being told that I was playing with beautiful tone in a concert as about the highest compliment somebody in the audience can pay me.

    The phrasing and articulation, the crescendos and diminuendos probably all contribute to their enjoyment of the music, but most people don't have the vocabulary to describe it. What they hear and notice is tone, easy on the ear and in appropriate volumes.

    Different kinds of tone are required for different kinds of music, and part of playing appropriately is knowing what tone is required when. For instance, for a horn player, Bruckner requires an entirely different sound from Shostakovich. Bruckner is round and mellow, Shostakovich is bright and needle-sharp.

  2. Jonathan - I deeply appreciate this comment. It lets me know I'm not completely off base. There are times I think music educators are missing the mark and there are times I think maybe it's just me being the weird outlier one more time. Have a post on the back burner about how tone has pretty much been ignored by all the directors we've had of our community band and how frustrating I find that to be. Probably won't go into it in the post, but there's probably a psychoanalytic case to be made that not helping the players find their voice musically feeds all into all the chatter in rehearsals. People want to be heard one way or the other. But I can't really get my mind around that, and I'm guessing Mr. Sceptic might have issues with that line of argument ;-)

    Again, thanks for this comment. It's the most validating of what I think I'm up to of all the ones you've made. And I'd love it if you would do a post of your own on how to achieve good tone on the horn, or how to get the different kinds you talk about in that last paragraph. (And my sense is that tone is so important for the horn because it is capable of such a greater variety of tone qualities than any other instrument besides the human voice.)

  3. Is it really tone that is ignored by the band directors, or is it balance?

  4. As a rule, I've not heard the directors talk about tone, but they often have asked other sections to listen to the one playing the melody and not overpower them. Also, there's the request for 2nd and 3rd players to bring up their note in the mix to make the harmony better. Both of which I understand to be balance issues.

    Of course, the way the world works, tonight there was implicit talk of tone. The director commended the flutes on their sound. They were low in their register and the notes were slow. Usually it's high and fast and they don't have time to think about tone.

    Again, much to say about all of this and am trying to put together a coherent set of posts, each getting at one point.

  5. Hi Lyle

    I suspect that the issue is that the ability to control one's tone and adapt it to circumstances involves really quite advanced mastery of the instrument. In the UK I wouldn't expect much from anybody who hadn't reached Grade 8 standard. So we're talking music student or advanced amateur standard here.

    I'm not talking about the changes in tone that are almost inevitably associated with playing louder and softer, I'm thinking more in terms of the kind of tone control Simon Rattle asked for from the brass in the course I wrote about last year.

    In a less advanced group, you have two issues that tend against discussions of tone. First, the conductor might not know enough of the capabilities of the various instruments to know what it is reasonable to ask for. And second, the layers may not have the degree of conscious control over their instruments to be able to deliver it, even if they are asked.

  6. Jonathan - Thanks for that comment. It sort of surprises me, though. Might quote it in a new post after thinking about it a while. I understand what you're saying, but surely reminding players of the importance of tone can begin at the beginning of their study?

    And your "degree of conscious control" hints at the notion that there's an unconscious element present that might be accessed just by heightened attention and awareness.

    Sort of goes back to that discussion we had way back about how music can sometimes be successfully performed by the players just getting the right notes at the right time without a deep awareness of purpose.

    Also, if you've got the time, how in the world did you embed that link in a comment? I've wanted to do that from time to time but couldn't figure out how.

  7. To embed a link in a comment, proceed as follows. The following text uses curly braces instead of angle brackets, so it will appear as text. You would use angle brackets instead.

    {a href=""}Simon Rattle asked for from the brass{/a}.

    Note that the link address is enclosed in quotes, and the highlighted text is terminated with the closing /a tag. Similarly you can make words bold or italic using b or i tags.

    With the better amateur groups and of course with professionals, the conductor usually will make specific requests about tone from time to time.

    In orchestras this is most frequently directed at the strings. The word "tone" isn't often mentioned, but the request is made in terms of instruction as to whether to use the heel or the tip of the bow, how close to the bridge the bow should be, what width and speed of vibrato should be used, which string should be used and what combination of bow speed and pressure should be used to achieve a certain volume.

    All of these are fairly common instructions to string players, and conductors are usually fairly familiar (and are trained) in what effect these variations in technique have on the tone.

    But with wind instruments, in my experience conductors are far less confident about specifying tone. I think this is partly because the technique varies so much between instruments and the conductors simply don't know what variation can be made, and don't have the vocabulary to describe it. Also conductors are less confident around the wind players of an orchestra - compared to what the strings do the strings) every wind player in an orchestra is a soloist - almost every individual wind player will be heard as a distinct voice at some point in a concert, in ways that only the string principals will sometimes share. Conductors treat this as a greater degree of expertise are are accordingly more respectful of the wind.

    In fact, playing a solo doesn't reuire greater technique, it merely requires nerve. Simon Rattle once described the horn players as the stuntmen of the orchestra, by which he seemed to mean that you just let them get on with their dangerous thing and don't distract them while they are doing it.

    Thinking back on it, I can only recall perhaps 3 or 4 occasions when a conductor has made a specific request made of me concerning tone. That might of course be because I have successfully anticipated the conductors' wishes, but I think it is more that they don't know what to ask for.

    As for "conscious control", I didn't mean to suggest that there was an unconscious element. I simply meant to convey that (on wind instruments at least) deliberately making variations in tone colour is something which only gets taught at a fairly advanced level, and that with less advanced players, you simply get the one tone they are capable of providing.

  8. Jonathan - Thanks so much for this. Appreciate the coding tip, and really appreciate the tone comments, as they've alerted me to how much I don't know. Hope to follow up with another post on this, building on what you've said. Starting to think that it's a difference in kind, rather than one of degree, between high level playing and folks just playing for enjoyment.

  9. You've got me thinking about tone. I suspect that thinking will result in an article on my blog in the not too distant future!

  10. Wonderful!!! A few stray thoughts - I've mostly helped folks with voice and guitar, where it's easier to vary tone) which is why your last comment was so helpful). - Still think directors should at least mention it to remind people making the right note isn't all there is (everyone can vary between poor and better tone) - At the risk of a skeptical challenge, may suggest that good tone is, at least in part, contagious - one way to learn it is simply to hear and sing/play with it.