[JPL] The Physics of Coltrane ¹ s Technique: How Pros Hit the High Notes

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Thu Feb 14 10:13:17 EST 2008


February 12, 2008
The Physics of Coltrane¹s 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 saxophonist¹s
throat. In addition, the mouth is also not the easiest place to make precise

³It¹s highly variable,² said Jer Ming Chen, a physics graduate student at
the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. ³It¹s wet. It¹s
moist. It¹s also very loud in there. It¹s incredibly loud in there. That¹s
been the main challenge that prevented direct measurements.²

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 researchers¹ device, embedded in the mouthpiece, does not interfere with
the saxophonist¹s ability to play. It injects a specially designed sound, a
mix of 224 frequencies, into the saxophonist¹s 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 played.

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)

³It seemed pretty clear there was something happening in the vocal tract,²
Mr. Chen said. ³In hindsight, it really makes sense now.²

 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

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