Appreciating the bouncy bluegrass banjo beat

From celebrating of the paranormal and the celestial these past couple of days, we’re getting back to more a tangible topic today – 5 May is International Banjo Appreciation Day. And while I may lean towards the sceptic side when it comes to the paranormal, and I’m definitely a believer when it comes to the banjo.

Despite being a string instrument, the banjo is often used in a percussive, rhythmic capacity. With the body consisting of a thin membrane stretched over a circular frame as a resonator, the sound of the banjo is typically quite loud, strong and vibrant. It started off as a part of African-American traditional music, but was soon adopted into traditional western music, particularly American old-time music, including country and bluegrass.

The banjo - if you like the way it sounds, you're bound to like it's looks too. (© All Rights Reserved)
The banjo – if you like the way it sounds, you’re bound to like it’s looks too.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Someone once said it’s impossible to be depressed when a banjo is playing. Inherently bouncy and upbeat, it is often used to provide a driving, energetic accompaniment to songs. It is, however, more versatile than that – using different playing styles, the banjo has proved a valid instrument for a wide range of musical genres, from blistering bluegrass to sad country ballads to dixieland jazz to serious classical works.

Despite being such a multifunctional and widely used instrument, the word ‘banjo’ still makes many people think only of the duelling banjos scene in the movie Deliverance, and end up associating the instrument with a somewhat backward mentality.

Luckily the banjo is gaining ground, even in popular music, with bands like the Dixie Chicks a decade or so ago, and Mumford and Sons these days, introducing a younger pop-oriented audience to the driving banjo sound. And for those looking to explore further, the options are endless – from the neo-traditional brilliance of the Punch Brothers (who’s music have been quite succinctly described as ‘the sound of synapses firing’) to the prog-jazz stylings of the amazing Bela Fleck.

Go on, seek out some banjo music – and join me in celebrating this wonderful instrument.

Hitting the high notes on the Birthday of the Saxophone

On this day 166 years ago, the saxophone, darling instrument in much of jazz and blues music, was patented by its Belgian inventor, Adolphe Sax. The saxophone combines the single reed and mouthpiece used in a clarinet, with the wider bore of the oboe. Despite usually being made from brass, it is classified as a woodwind instrument, because the sound of a saxophone is created by an oscillating reed rather than the vibration of the player’s lips against a brass mouthpiece.

The combination of features from the woodwind and brass families make it quite unique – while it has the volume capacity of a brass instrument, it possesses the timbre and dexterity of a woodwind. The shape of the saxophone also results in a complex wave packet compared to other woodwind instruments.

Science shows its about the musician, not the instrument.
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It seems the saxophone not only fascinates music lovers, but scientists as well. A group of acoustics researchers from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, set about trying to determine exactly how jazz masters like John Coltrane achieve the piercing high notes they are famous for. More specifically, they studied how the shape of the saxophonist’s vocal tract influences the notes he can achieve.

There has long been debate about the role that the acoustics of the vocal tract has on the notes saxophonists and other reed instrumentalists can play. The assumption under investigation in the research was that professional saxophonists achieve “impossible” notes by shaping their vocal tracts in different ways to amplify the high-pitched notes. Of course the challenge lay in the methodology – how do you directly measure the acoustics of a vocal tract in mid-note without interfering with the player’s sound?

What acoustician Jer Ming Chen and his colleagues did, was to modify the mouthpiece of a saxophone by adding a device that emits different tones into the vocal tract of the player, and then records the intensities of the tones bouncing back into the mouthpiece. From this information, they could calculate acoustic resonances in the vocal tract.

The reseach showed that, when playing “normal” notes, the acoustics of the vocal tract seemed to have only modest effects on how notes sounded, but the moment professional players broke into the altissimo, a clear result emerged – the resonance in the vocal track aligned with the note being played, thus serving to amplify and strengthen the note.

What is interesting is that many expert players were unaware of the ways in which they “tuned” their vocal tracts while playing. They knew they “did something” to their throats, but weren’t able to explain exactly how it happened. It does, however, seem to be a skill that can be learnt, and not something certain players are simply born with.

However they do it, it seems blowing that sax not only gives your lungs a workout, it exercises your mind as well.

(Source: Scientific American)

International Jazz Day

Jazz – a creative brain activity

Today is International Jazz Day – a day to celebrate the beauty of this improvisational art form.  But besides being and auditory delight, it turns out that jazz also has scientific significance.

Dr. Charles Limb, a hearing and ear surgeon at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and an accomplished saxophonist, has invested more than a decade in the study of the brain activity of improvising musicians.  As part of his research, the brains of jazz players were studied in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine to see how their brain activity changes during a jam session.

Dr Limb’s research showed that, when jazz musicians were improvising, activity in their brains’ inhibition centers slowed down.  There was also  increased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, in the center of the brain’s frontal lobe – an area linked with self-expression and individuality.

“Jazz is often described as being an extremely individualistic art form. You can figure out which jazz musician is playing because one person’s improvisation sounds only like him or her,” says Limb. “What we think is happening is when you’re telling your own musical story, you’re shutting down impulses that might impede the flow of novel ideas.”

Dr Limb’s research paper on the fMRI study of jazz improvisation can be found here.

(Source: TIME Healthland)

A jazz musician giving his medial prefrontal cortex a workout.
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