Framing the Void: Part III

In the West, we generally conceptualize time as running along the horizontal dimension, from left to right. Having previously touched on the ways that music lives in this dimension, let us turn our attention to the vertical.

In parts I and II of this series we explored the ways in which music frames and manipulates our experience of time. Music creates these boundaries through its definite starting and ending points and though the phenomenon of rhythm, whereby the repetition sound events give us a sense of the rate of time’s passing. In the West, we generally conceptualize time as running along the horizontal dimension, from left to right. Having briefly touched on the ways that music lives in this dimension, let us turn our attention to the vertical.

Most music students are taught that melody occurred before harmony. For the sake of argument, I will contend that humans recognized harmony first, but maybe without knowing it. We can loosely define harmony as the simultaneous sounding of different pitches. As we move about in our world, we are constantly bombarded by ambient sounds, ticking clocks, ringing telephones and bells, wind moving through the trees and people’s voices. We describe these sounds as high or low, harsh or mellow, and so on. Unless you are listening to a sine wave, you are very rarely hearing only a single frequency in any sound. Almost every sound has its own most-audible frequency called the fundamental, but without getting too nerdy, we also hear all the other frequencies, called overtones, “above” it and some “below.” I think that humans experience harmony first because the combinations of pitches (fundamentals and their overtones) along with the way they are attacked give different sounds their identifiable quality.

A fundamental pitch is the note you sing or the note the bell rings or the note the instrumentalist plays. We describe “high” pitches as those that are closer to the “top” of the audible range and “low” pitches as those closer to the “bottom.” A fundamental pitch divides the negative space of the total range into two parts, whatever is above and below. Low pitches give us a sense of lots of space above them while high notes do the opposite. You can picture fundamental pitches as drawing horizontal line through the vertical audible range, just like the beginning of a piece draws a vertical line through the horizontal experience of time. Every fundamental pitch creates overtones above it that are arranged in the harmonic series. These overtones play with our sense of space just like rhythm does with time. Musicians describe harmony with words like close, tight, spread, open, even and so on, further affirming the concept’s relationship to negative space. If you are alone in the room or if those around you don’t mind if you make some noise you can experience this phenomenon yourself.

Sing any note on the syllable “Ah.” Make sure you are getting a nice, resonant sound. Your face should feel like it’s vibrating a little. Now try to “look around” at the sound with your mind’s ear. Depending on how high or low your fundamental pitch is you will be able to hear at least one other note sounding somewhere above the one you are singing. That note will probably be an octave, a minor seventh, a fifth or a third above the fundamental. Musicians call these numbers intervals and they measure the space between sounding pitches relative to notes in a scale. Starting with “Ah,” hold the same pitch but make an “Oh” and then and “Oo” sound. If you listen closely you will notice that the loudest overtone sounding above your fundamental pitch will move “downward” as you change vowel sounds. It should sound something like this…


Notice that, towards the end, when I make the Ooo-est possible sound, more, even higher notes jump out at the top. Clearly I am not a singer and this is not some special vocal technique or digital effect. What you are hearing is just a slowed down version of what happens when we use vowels in speech. Hopefully you can now hear how combinations of pitches (harmony) give meaning to our aural experience.

The above example was just myself on my lap-top microphone. Here’s the real thing from the Tuvan tradition. Notice how the singer keeps the fundamental pitch mostly constant while creating melody with the overtones.

Steppe Kagyraa sung by Sevek Aldyn-Ool


You will find this phenomenon out in the inanimate world as well. If you are near a land-line phone, pick it up and listen to the dial tone. It is really at least two tones, an F and an A. Oddly enough, I’ve heard a lot of commercial air conditioning units resonate at a Bb, with an Ab hanging out somewhere far above it. The way these overtones spring to life at the attack of a note when spoken, sung or played tells us who is talking, what instrument is playing or to get off the railroad tracks. We can now hear how harmony (the interaction of fundamentals, overtones and negative space) plays a huge role in orienting and giving meaning to our experience.

Here are a few examples of how composers and improvisers manipulate our experience of harmony to create timbre, color, texture and myriad other effects in music

Notice the open, shimmering intervals used by Radiohead on the track, Hunting Bears, from the album, Amnesiac. Listen for the overtone phenomenon that was present in the above vocal example.

Hunting Bears by Radiohead


On his version of Creole Love Call, trombone legend Albert Mangelsdorff sings along with himself, alternating between harmonic and melodic statements.

Creole Love Call by Albert Mangelsdorff


Listen to oscillation between “bright” and “cloudy” harmonies in Igor Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments.

Symphonies of Wind Instruments by Igor Stravinsky


The final installment of Framing the Void (coming in June) will deal with the combination of horizontal and vertical space, namely, musical line.

Bryan Hooten is a trombonist, composer and educator living in Richmond, VA. He plays with Ombak, Fight the Big Bull, No BS Brass, Verbatim, and various other groups. He teaches Music Theory and Small Jazz Ensembles at VCU and directs the Jazz Band at James River High School. He also serves on the faculty of the Governor’s School for the Humanities and Visual and Performing Arts. He can be seen every Wednesday at Cous Cous (900 W. Franklin) performing with either Ombak or Fight the Big Bull. Ombak‘s debut album, Framing the Void, can be purchased at

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Bryan Hooten

Bryan Hooten performs with No BS! Brass, Matthew E. White, and other Richmond-based groups. He teaches Music Theory and Jazz Orchestra at VCU.

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