How Are Balance Problems in Music Remedied?

2011Symposium_1_2Whether you’re a band, orchestra or choir director, or a musician in one of these ensembles, you have probably had to deal with the problem of having too few basses in your ensemble. There never seems to be enough players for tubas and double basses, nor do their ever seem to be enough boys to fill out a bass section in the choir. Even when we think we have a good number of basses, they probably don’t produce enough sound to be in balance with the higher voices. Why don’t five tubas balance five trumpets? Before you go investing in new instruments, or recruiting the football team for a powerful bass section, consider the science that is in operation. Loudness is the way the human ear perceives amplitude. Amplitude is the degree of change in atmospheric pressure caused by sound waves. Greater changes in pressure at a constant frequency are perceived as louder sounds, and smaller changes in pressure at a constant frequency are perceived as softer sounds. Relatively small amounts of pressure are perceived as silence, though there is still some pressure present when no sound is perceived. These observations were reported in what is now known as the Fletcher-Munson Curve of Equal Loudness, and updated in 2003 by the International Standards Organization as ISO 226. Notice the phrase “at a constant frequency.” I used this phrase because frequency affects our perception of loudness. Higher frequencies are perceived as louder than low frequencies. This is because it takes more pressure at lower frequencies than at higher frequencies to produce equal amplitude. This means that if a tuba is going to sound equally loud with a trumpet, the tuba must play louder, so the sound will create an equal change in pressure compared to that of the trumpet sound. Considering this science, two approaches to good balance in an ensemble are theoretically possible. First, all musicians play or sing at an equal dynamic Musical-Balancelevel and more musicians play or sing lower parts fewer play or sing middle parts, and fewest play or sing the highest parts. This will produce an ensemble where all parts are heard at the same dynamic level. The second approach is that there are an equal number of musicians playing high, middle, and low parts, and the ones playing or singing low parts do so louder than the ones on middle parts, who in turn play or sing louder than those on high parts. This too will result in all parts being heard at the same dynamic level. Of course we frequently don’t want all parts to be the same dynamic. It is usual for melodic or moving lines to be performed louder than sustained harmony parts, so balance also includes making these adjustments. But the point here is that a deficient presence of lower parts is remedied with more musicians on those parts, and/or those musicians playing louder. Notice I used the word louder, not the word loud. Asking musicians, particularly young school musicians, to play or sing louder than they ought results in poor tone and intonation, creating more problems than it solves. If the players or singers of low parts are performing as loud as can be reasonably expected, then the rest of the ensemble needs to play softer, so that the low parts are louder compared to the high parts. On the other hand, if the high parts are playing as softly as can reasonably be expected, asking them to play softer will often result in insufficient breath support leading again to poor tone and intonation. So all players need to be allowed to play within a manageable dynamic range. That is why having a good number of musician on each part is important—it allows everyone to play at a higher standard, making the ensemble experience more enjoyable for all involved. For this reason, it is worth having students who play higher pitched instruments such as flute and alto saxophone switch to lower pitched instruments, such as bassoon or baritone saxophone, and taking care to have every choir student with a low enough tessitura sing lower voice parts; either second soprano or alto for girls, and baritone or bass for boys. The goal is to have fewer high soprano voices than alto, and more basses than any other part. If this is not possible, electronic amplification of lower parts is an option.

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