In the second instalment of our series on frequencies in music, we discuss the two major reasons why frequencies matter, and how sound can be understood, defined, and manipulated in terms of its frequencies.
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In the first part of this two-part episode we talked about where musicians encounter audio frequencies, what exactly a frequency is, and how they relate to musical sounds.
If you haven’t already heard that Part One please go check it out, we’ll have a direct link in the shownotes for this episode.
I’m going to assume you’re up to speed on what frequencies are and how they’re related to all the sounds we hear in music. And in this Part Two I’m going to pick up where we left off: why do frequencies matter to us as musicians?
Why frequencies matter
Now that we’ve covered what frequencies are and how they relate to sound – why does this matter to us as musicians?
There are a couple of major reasons and a thousand smaller, more specific reasons. I would say that the big two are these:
1. Sound can be fully defined in terms of its frequencies.
We’re used to thinking of sound as something that can be heard, or recorded – essentially the movement of air, or the changing of numbers in a data file that makes our speakers move to reproduce a recording. And that’s perfectly valid.
But what’s interesting is that all this frequency stuff we’ve been talking about – it’s not just a little addon to how we can describe sound. It’s actually a fully complete system for defining the sounds.
Meaning that when we hear or record a sound, literally everything about it can be defined in terms of which frequencies are present, how strong, and when. The changing of frequencies in sound isn’t just an aspect of sound – it *is* the sound.
Which means that every interesting question you can ask about a musical sound, such as:
- What pitch is it?
- What’s the timbre of the instrument? Is that an electric guitar or an acoustic one – or is it actually a banjo?
- How many notes are being played?
- What does the environment sound like, is it a small room or a concert hall?
- How is the singer pronouncing their words?
- What kinds of effect pedals or plugins have been used to alter the sound?
Every single one of those questions and more can be answered by analysing the sound in terms of frequencies. That’s not to say that frequencies are always the best way to answer a question like this! Sometimes the explanation in terms of frequencies is so deep and complicated that it’s good for a computer but not much use to humans. But in other cases frequencies provide a seriously simple and elegant answer to a question that’s really hard to answer without them.
In the example of the question about how many notes are present, you might remember from our interview with Jeremy Fisher this isn’t always a simple question and sometimes frequency analysis can reveal subtle effects like the extra “ghost notes” he was talking about, where two singers can actually produce a third perceived note.
But it means that if we’re analysing a sound, or thinking about how to produce a sound, frequencies should absolutely be part of how we approach it because they’re not just a different way to think about sounds – they are a fully complete and comprehensive way to think about sounds. And this is a huge rabbit hole which I would love to dive into, but we’ll leave it at that for now.
2. Sound can be manipulated in terms of its frequencies
The second big reason frequencies are useful and interesting to musicians stems from the first one: Not only can we analyse and think about and describe all musical sounds in terms of frequencies – it’s also a great way to manipulate those sounds.
You might have already been thinking this as I went through those questions. If frequencies hold the answer to “why does an electric guitar sound different to an acoustic guitar” then maybe they can also tell us how to make our acoustic guitar sound more like an electric. That might end up being about playing technique, or adjusting the pickup you use to record, or doing post-processing – but frequencies can give you the clue as to what needs to be done.
This also comes back to the example earlier of mixing desks and equaliser settings as a context for musicians interacting with frequencies – because when you’re recording your music or producing a live show it’s essential to think not just about which notes are played by who when, but the overall mix of the sound in terms of its frequency balance. Learning to adjust certain groups of frequencies is an enormous part of making a recording or a live sound system sound good and letting the music be enjoyed to its fullest.
So I would say those are the two big concrete reasons to pay attention to audio frequencies as a musician and maybe explore this topic a bit.
To circle back to our question at the beginning of why we’re talking about audio frequencies on the Musicality Podcast: Ultimately we at Musical U believe that musicality is about having the inner understanding of music – call it intuition or instinct or if you must you can call it “learned talent”. That understanding which empowers and enables you to do whatever you want to in your musical life in a free, creative, confident way.
In that spirit we should be open to any and every new way of thinking about music and exploring what’s going on, and I hope this episode has made a good case that audio frequencies aren’t just some scientific or mathematical thing – they are an intrinsic and deep part of every musical sound you hear – and that makes them incredibly interesting and useful to every one of us as musicians.
So as I’ve said several times – this is a huge topic we could do many more episodes on. Audio ear training is a whole area parallel to the kind of musical ear training we often discuss on the show. Would you like more episodes about the audio side of things and audio frequencies? Let me know, visit musicalitypodcast.com/contact
In the meantime if you’re excited about these ideas I’ve been sharing today I don’t want to leave you empty handed. We have a great free tutorial series on our website which you can check out called “Frequency Fundamentals”. You’ll find a link to that in the shownotes for this episode at MusicalityPodcast.com .