What makes sounds ‘musical’

The site “What Music Really Is” doesn’t explain how ears work or what makes a great artist. It does offer a close and detailed look at the science behind musical tones.

“What Music Really İs” wishes to be: The idiot’s guide to what is music. Music explained. Everything about music. The definition of music. The science of music. Truth-Based Maths. The truth, and nothing but the truth about music. Forensic Musicology. Music Theory 101….

The site is a work in progress. Recommended for anyone interested in how their favorite instrument “works”, in sound design or synthesis, in building or tuning instruments, in acquiring a unique tone for their performances. (My favorite example is the guitar tone Brian May had built for use in Bohemian Rhapsody and other Queen hits.)

Just as white light is made of all colors, so what we commonly think of as “one sound” is made of many other simple sounds. And just as we can split white light into its color components with the help of a glass prism, so can (a complex) sound be split into its simple components with the help of modern technology.

MMML#3 – the MusE sequencer (in progress)

Simple LInux MIDI sequencers may be adequate for many users. But it takes a while to get used to any sequencer interface, and when users find that a sequencer can’t do everything they need to do, they’re forced to learn a whole new interface.

In MMML#1 and #2 I checked out the QTractor sequencer. It’ll do a lot of useful stuff. What it doesn’t do, though, is let users access ALL CC (continuous-controller) messages for editing. For those who want to be able to record pitchbends, filter moves, LFO moves, patch-changes, pedals, or the output of MIDI-controller hardware … and save and edit ALL of that input … a more versatile sequencer is needed.

The MusE sequencer has been around for a while (more than 10 years). It’s still being maintained and improved. “It was originally written by Werner Schweer and now is developed by the Muse development team.” I’ve seen it referred to online as ‘the best MIDI editor available for Linux’. One thing it certainly does is give complete access to CC-editing.

the MusE Sequencer website
the MusE Manual

The manual page called Window Reference Guide shows lots of images along with descriptions of most sequencer operations. The section called “The Pianoroll Editor” gives a glimpse into how CC’s (velocity in this case) can be edited.

One other thing: while MusE handles audio tracks as well, that capability may not be needed. It can be started without loading audio support by opening a terminal window and typing $ muse -a.

more MusE Sequencer resources

• the Recorders and Sequencers forum at LinuxMusicians
• There are several MusE tutorial videos on Youtube.

Look at all the biggest companies in the world, they are all based on the internet. Look at what they are selling: nothing. Facebook has no product. Airbnb, the biggest hotel chain in the world, has no hotels. Uber, the biggest taxi company in the world, has no taxis whatsoever.

Peter Sunde, 2015

MMM#1 – Timbre (part 1)

This post is the first in a series called Making Music with MIDI. What I’ll be talking about applies to all MIDI instruments (including hardware) and much of the software that includes MIDI, regardless of the computer platform, no matter how old or new.

This series is not called “Making MIDI music”.
First of all, MIDI doesn’t make any sounds at all. Like a telegraph key used to send Morse code, or e-mail, MIDI just sends characters over a wire – no audio.
Second, if “MIDI Music” exists at all, it’s not very musical. A lot of the stuff out there might be called “MIDI music”, but it’s not very musical. Just playing notes without ever changing the timbre isn’t very musical. Think of cheap handheld-game “music” or early chiptunes … every note’s the same volume, the same tone. Strictly beginner stuff. Like playing the piano without using the pedals!

If MIDI instruments don’t sound as good as acoustic instruments, that’s not entirely MIDI’s fault. It’s not Morse’s fault if the dude pounding the key can’t keep time or swing his dits and dahs. MIDI has been and is used to make scores for major films. You might not have known, because the composers really knew MIDI.
High Quality Midi soundfont demonstration


Acoustic musical instruments playing the note “Middle C” all sound different. That’s because none of them generate a simple sine wave. When you play a piano key or bow a violin, pluck a guitar string or mallet a xylophone bar, they all produce a different “Middle C”. What’s different between them? The timbre (whether you say tam-ber or tim-ber or tom-brr).
What ‘timbre’ is exactly is a complicated subject. Let’s start with two important parts of “a” note:
1. Attack, Decay, Sustain, Release
2. Which harmonics (aka partials, overtones) are present, which aren’t, their relative volume levels, and how that changes over time … all summed up in the term “spectral envelope.”

Basics of timbre at Hyperphysics

“Artistry” or “expressiveness” is part of what sets musicians apart. Timbre is another part. Whether they play strings, keyboards, winds … players select their instruments with care to ‘get a sound’ that pleases them and suits the music they play.

How to listen to the harmonics of a particular timbre

Trumpet note’s overtones evolve.
(Rotten old-school graphic, looking for better)

It’s hard to find good diagrams showing the overtones/harmonic series of a single note.

It’s a lot easier just to hear it if you have a synth with a FILTER.

Choose or make a patch that plays a sustained note that uses a PULSE waveform (the richest kind). Set the filter for lowpass mode. Set the filter cutoff so that it’s “wide open” … you can hear the whole sound. Now slowly turn the knob of (or otherwise adjust) the cutoff filter. As you do so, the sound will slowly become “less rich”. As the lowpass “reaches bottom” it will erase even the fundamental pitch, and you hear silence.

If you switch to using a SINE waveform, you’re listening to the simplest possible timbre … made of only ONE frequency playing at a constant volume. The lowpass filter will reduce the loudness of that one frequency, but that’s all.

Most basic synths have Oscillators that produce at least 4 simple waveforms. The other two are usually TRIANGLE and SAW. Their “richness” (number of overtones) is between a SINE and a PULSE. For such synths, that’s the entire basic sound palette you have to paint with. (Others may add a NOISE waveform.)

Square, saw and triangle waves at Hyperphysics

BANDPASS: If your synth has a bandpass (“frequency window”) filter that can be set to a really narrow bandwidth, you can sweep the “window” across a sound and hear each individual harmonic.

FM: In 1977 John Chowning got a patent for a new kind of synthesis called FM (frequency modulation). It creates many more kinds of waves, and made the DX-7 possible … a synthesizer people didn’t have to sell an arm for.

Sound synthesis at Hyperphysics (short)

Of course, other kinds of oscillators can produce other waveforms (eg WAVETABLES). And then, there are waveforms recorded from actual acoustic instruments (found in eg SOUNDFONTS or “ROMplers” – collections of samples MIDI can control). Today’s SOFTSYNTHS can be more versatile, but often lack the ‘character’ of classic hardware synths.

Basics of sound synthesis article at Pro Audio Files (longer)
Sound Synthesis article at SOS (longest)

In part 2 of this post, we’ll explore a few of the -many- ways MIDI can be used to control timbre … while playing/performing or afterwards with an editor.
In the meantime …


If you need to just catch up on the terminology here, Wikipedia will probably be enough for you.
If you really want to dig down in detail, there are many books; the one I like best is Charles Dodge and Thomas Jerse, “Computer Music” (I have the 2nd edition from 1997. ISBN 0-02-864682-7) Some other things to look at: ADSR and CCs (continuous-controllers). If you want to know A LOT about MIDI, I’ve never found a finer book than Robert Young, “The MIDI Files” (mine’s from 1996. ISBN 0-13-2620403-6)

Helpful Youtube videos (Dec. 2015)

IMPMOOC Timbre class
Partials, Overtones, & Harmonics Explained
Overtones, harmonics and Additive synthesis
Frequency Modulation Synthesis (part 1 of 2)