[JPL] The Physics of Coltrane’s Technique: How Pros Hit the High Notes

r durfee rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com
Mon Feb 11 21:25:13 EST 2008

February 12, 2008
Hear The Music
The Physics of Coltrane’s Technique: How Pros Hit the
High Notes 
The saxophone, invented by Adolphe Sax, the Belgian
instrument maker, and patented in 1846, is a curved
tube of brass with holes. Its vibrations can reach
high-pitched wailing notes, particularly when played
by jazz musicians like John Coltrane.

The vocal tract, including the mouth and upper throat,
is another vibrating tube, and for some years,
scientists and musicians have wondered how important
the one is to the other. 

But it is not so easy to jam a microphone or camera
down a saxophonist’s throat. In addition, the mouth is
also not the easiest place to make precise

“It’s highly variable,” said Jer Ming Chen, a physics
graduate student at the University of New South Wales
in Sydney, Australia. “It’s wet. It’s moist. It’s also
very loud in there. It’s incredibly loud in there.
That’s been the main challenge that prevented direct

Writing in the current issue of the journal Science,
Mr. Chen and two colleagues describe a measuring
device they were able to build in the mouthpiece of a
tenor saxophone to determine whether saxophonists use
their vocal tracts in making music.

Their answer: yes and no.

The researchers’ device, embedded in the mouthpiece,
does not interfere with the saxophonist’s ability to
play. It injects a specially designed sound, a mix of
224 frequencies, into the saxophonist’s mouth. 

A microphone listens to the echoes bouncing off the
mouth and vocal tract, detecting which frequencies are
amplified by the shape of the vocal tract.

Five professional saxophonists and three amateurs went
to the laboratory to play a saxophone outfitted with
the device. 

The researchers found that over standard
lower-frequency notes in the saxophone repertory, the
resonant frequency of the vocal tract varied between
players and did not matter much to the note being

But in the very high notes, called the altissimo
range, the professional players tuned their vocal
tract — adjusting their tongue, jaw, pharynx, larynx
and glottis, the middle part of the larynx where the
vocal chords reside — to the note they played. 

Amateurs, not capable of this trick, could not play
these notes.

 Here is a clip of a professional saxophonist playing
a note in the standard range followed by one in the
altisimo range. (mp3)
 An amateur tried the same notes with the same
fingerings could play the first note properly, but the
inability to tune the vocal tract results in a much
lower tone for the second note. (mp3)
 A professional saxophonist can play passages that
straddle the standard and altissimo ranges.  (mp3)

“It seemed pretty clear there was something happening
in the vocal tract,” Mr. Chen said. “In hindsight, it
really makes sense now.”

 Here is a sample of John Coltrane playing altissimo
notes in the composition, 'Venus.' (mp3)

The researchers expect the same effect for other wind
instruments — they are now testing clarinets — and
perhaps also brass instruments like trumpets and


Roy Durfee
P.O. Box 40219
Albuquerque, New Mexico 87196-0219
rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com

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