It’s not surprising that sound itself can inspire one deeply if one thinks about what’s involved with the physics of sound: Musical instruments are far more than just devices which enable you to play sequences of “notes” to convey a melody, or to produce chords in support of a melody, or to provide percussive sounds to keep a rhythm. A single “note” produced by an instrument is really a very complex “signal,” a stereo signal typically, delivered to your ear in the form of rapid pressure variations on the surface of your ear drums that “oscillate” hundreds or thousands of time per second. Far from oscillating in a precisely repetitive way (that is, for most sounds), the sheer amount of information potentially conveyable for even one single note is far greater than all the notations on a musical score combined. A single “note” is a process that evolves in time, and usually does so in a very complex way, for example both in terms of it’s “spectrum,” that is, the array of harmonics into which it can be theoretically decomposed, and in terms of “loudness” or “overall amplitude.” We cannot consciously follow all of those rapid oscillations in time, but our ears can nonetheless break the sound down harmonically, and provide us with a whole plethora of signals to our brains – delivered in parallel by a complex bundle of nerves – conveying the harmonic structure and loudness of the sound. All of this rich information, together with the context of your listening at the time, processed by your brains neural network against the backdrop of all of your past listening experience, combines to create your mental experience of the “timbre” of the instrument, and subsequently your mental and emotional reaction to the music.
The complexity of all this is reflected by the fact that the very definition of the word “timbre” is still a matter of intense debate and research. Some researchers focus on the “physical correlates” in the sound itself than be correlated with particular mental impressions. Others focus more on how one’s past experience influences perception.
Whatever and all that timbre might really be, it surely is, to quote the title of a major conference that is held occasionally at McGill University on the subject, a “many splendored thing.” And in any case, it definitely possesses enormous power to inspire all by itself. And for this reason, we can understand why musical instrument makers have labored for many centuries, even thousands of centuries, to refine musical instruments into the exquisite tools they are today. More recently, the emergence of electronic synthesizers has opened the door to a truly vast universe of possible sounds, and made it trivially easy for musicians to explore that universe. We are now truly in an age of infinite sonic possibilities.
A deeply fascinating meta-aspect of this is the potential for mental feedback in the music making process: The player’s reaction to the sound results in actions by the player which then modifies the sound, which then modifies the reaction of the player, which then modifies the sound, and so forth. The potential for profound creativity from such a convoluted, nonlinear process is immense, and arguably has as much to do with the instrument or instruments involved.
The following provides a list of links to pages documenting my own adventures in making music whereby the sound itself played a major role, and often the major role, with inspiring the music.