Didgeridoo and Well Being

February 20, 2017 Leave a comment

As one of the oldest and simplest instruments in the world, the didgeridoo has an enormous suggestive and emotional impact on the listener. From experience I can attest that all sorts of people have come to me after playing to talk about the effect that the sound had on them. From feeling strong vibrations in the stomach/pelvic region to being transported into a forest surrounded by a great calm, or wild forest animals. These and similar experiences often come from people who have heard the didgeridoo for the first time, without knowing anything about its origins, which I usually explain either during the concert or after I finish. As such they are direct and physical reactions to the music that they hear, and as we all know from when we were very young, music indeed has the capacity to induce such reactions.

Music has many roles in our life. From simple and joyful play, to the deep and solemn, meditative and emotive. Music has a directness that means that it mostly bypasses conscious processing and arrives directly in the human subconscious without encountering mental filters.

I believe that music possesses a great healing potential and as a consequence the modern/formalised discipline of music therapy has developed. However, it would not be audacious to say that music therapy has always existed in all cultures and since the first homo sapiens sapiens  and even our predecessors walked on this planet. Music therapy is thus an ancient therapeutic discipline. Encoded in play and ritualised for propagation of culture and collective memory. Music is therapy for those who play, those who listen, those who dance, and the didgeridoo as an organic instrument which has a direct impact on both player and listener, is an ideal instrument for this.

Categories: Uncategorized

12111098765 432 1 (or what is the frequency of middle C?)

October 20, 2016 Leave a comment

This post is really just a collection of facts, easy to check with basic mathematics and a little bit of physics, about the frequencies of musical notes and the misguided trend of assigning importance to the fact that some note has a particular frequency rather than a different one. 

We will begin with the easy part, the length of one second. Frequencies are measured in units of inverse seconds, and the universally accepted measure of a second is that of the SI measurement system. Originally a second was defined as 1/86400 of a day. This is easy to understand given that 24 x 60 x 60 = 86400, and it should also be clear that there is nothing terribly special about this number as it is the result of deciding to divide the day into 24 hours each consisting of 60 minutes each of which in turn is divided into 60 seconds. Using this definition and noting that the earth’s rotation is slowing down (albeit infinitesimally) at a rate of about 1.7 milliseconds per century, we see that this is not really a precise and universal definition of a second. Given that the precision of our understanding of the world around us requires increasingly accurate measurements it was deemed necessary to find an independent and universal definition of a second, which nevertheless is as close as possible to the traditional one. The current universal definition of a second is 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation emitted when an atom of Cs133 makes a transition between two hyperfine energy levels. This particular atom, energy levels and number of periods was chosen as it is relatively easy to measure and was the closest one could find to the traditional definition of a second to extremely high accuracy. This fixed universal definition requires that every so often a leap second must be added to our clocks so that their 24 hour cycle remains synchronised with the rotation of the earth.

 A frequency of 1Hz means that something oscillates once per second and of course musical notes correspond to oscillations in the pressure of air. As a consequence every musical note has a corresponding frequency. That sounds simple, but actually it is not really simple at all. The measure of a second is universally agreed on, the correspondence between musical notes and frequencies is not. There are two distinct sources of ambiguity in the frequency of a musical note: the reference frequency and the tuning system used to determine the frequency of all notes from the reference frequency. 

Reference frequency

This is usually the frequency of the musical note A4 (or la4, in the same octave as C4 or do4) and the standard value in use today is 440Hz although various alternative definitions have been used throughout the centuries some of which are still in use, for example 432Hz .

Tuning systems

It may come as a surprise to many but the crazy fact is that there is no perfect tuning system in which all musical notes are perfectly in accord with the others. Having said this, it is also true that one can usually find the best system for a particular application.

A tuning system is a procedure for obtaining the frequencies of all notes given the reference frequency. Due to a clear consonance in wave forms the notion of an octave is unique and also very easy to hear. Two notes an octave apart are such that the higher note has a frequency precisely double that of the lower one. The main divergence, and not just of opinions but also of necessity, is the relationship between the reference tone (which can be any note one chooses) and all the other notes. Here I will outline three tunings, equal-tempered tuning, just tuning  and Pythagorean tuning – there are many more.  

Just tuning. One begins with the natural harmonic series above a given base note, these are all the notes whose frequencies are multiples of the frequency of the first note in the series. This tuning is very natural for string instruments, especially fret less string instruments as the notes in a scale then correspond to placing the finger on points of the string corresponding to whole number ratios of the total string length. If the first note in the series has frequency f, then 2f is an octave, 3f is a perfect 5th above 2f, 4f is an octave above 2f, 5f is a major third above 4f, 6f is a perfect 5th above 4f, 7f is a diminished 7th above 4f and 8f is an octave above 4f (as once again it is double the frequency). As the title implies we are interested in middle C (C4 or la4) which is a minor 3rd above A3 (or la3, which has a frequency equal to half the reference frequency). The appropriate frequency ratio can be found from the above discussion by noting that the interval between 5f and 6f is a minor third leading to a ratio of 6/5. With a reference frequency of 440Hz for A4 this leads to a frequency of 6/5 x 220 = 270Hz. For a reference frequency of 432hz for A4 this would instead give a frequency of 259.2Hz. Certain schools of thought would like the frequency of middle C (C3) to be 256Hz which would require, with just tuning, that the reference frequency is 426,666….Hz as 6/5 x 213,3333…. = 256. Just tuning has problems however when transposing music due to the fact that a tuned instrument based around the harmonic series of C will not be in agreement with that based on the harmonic series of A for instance. Music that involves more than just simple harmonisation and with key changes  on an already tuned instrument will thus suffer from problems of discordance. 

Pythagorean tuning. In this case, as opposed to the just tuning, one finds all notes by considering only intervals of a 5th above the fundamental note. Going through this series one finds that the interval of a minor 3rd, between middle A3 and middle C  corresponds to a frequency ratio of 32/27. Thus a middle C is 32/27 x 220 = 260.7 for A=440Hz, or 32/27 x 216 = 256 for A=432. Pythagorean tuning however also has problems as the frequency of all 12 notes is found by multiplying the previous frequency by 3/2 and following this procedure 12 times one should get back to a frequency that is a multiple of the starting note, however 3/2 to the twelfth power gives 129.74 rather than the 128 that it would give if one returned to a note precisely seven octaves above the reference tone, meaning that all notes cannot be consistently tuned using this method giving rise to problems similar to those encountered above in just tuning.  

Equal-tempered tuning. This tuning was probably invented simultaneously in China and Europe in the 1500’s. It has the advantage that all intervals of a semitone are identical and equal to the twelfth root of 2. It has the disadvantage that all intervals, apart from octaves, are slightly out of tune compared to the more natural harmonic tuning. In this case the frequency ratio of a minor 3rd corresponds to the 1/4th root of 2 = 1.1892. For A4=440Hz this gives C4=261.63Hz while for A4=432 we obtain C4=256.86. 

The purpose of all of this discussion, which has only touched the surface of questions of tuning and musical notes, is that assigning a great importance to the fact that a note has a precise numerical frequency rather than a different one is misguided. As one can easily see from the above discussion one can always find a reference frequency and tuning system that will give you some particular numerical frequency for some given note. Music is beautiful for the sensations that it creates, of harmony or dissonance or melody, not because notes correspond to particular numbers….

Categories: Uncategorized

Resonant frequencies and spectrum, a comparison between different profiles

September 1, 2016 Leave a comment

In my previous post I mentioned the difference in timbre between a cylindrical, conical and generically shaped didgeridoo. To quantify this there is a simple and accurate mathematical construction that enables one to calculate the resonant frequencies of a didgeridoo of a given shape. It is not too difficult to implement this as a computer program and then plot the resonant frequencies to obtain a graphical representation of my qualitative statements about form and sound. Below we can see the internal profiles of four different didgeridoos. The four shapes have been chosen such that the generic didgeridoo lies between the two extremes of conical and cylindrical, while the fourth “radical” profile has been included to show the effects of more creative changes to the internal profile. 

Figure 1. The profile of four different possible didgeridoos all tuned to have a fundamental tone at 60 Hz.

The acoustic impedance, plotted in the diagram below, provides information on the resonant frequencies of an instrument (corresponding to the peaks of the spectrum) and also on the backpressure (related to the relative magnitude of impedance at a given frequency).  Below we see the superimposed impedance spectra of a conical, generic, cylindrical and radical didgeridoo, all tuned to have a fundamental frequency of 60 Hz.

Figure 2. The impedance spectrum showing the resonance peaks for the four different instruments of Figure 1. The vertical lines correspond to the harmonics over the common fundamental frequency of 60 Hz (at 60, 120, 180… Hz). The vertical dashed line corresponds to a note that would be a musical interval of a 10th above the fundamental frequency, in this case it is at 150 Hz. 

Observing this figure we see clearly that the greatest spacing between resonances occurs for the cylindrical form and closely follows the odd harmonics of 60 Hz as one expects. The smallest spacing is for the conical profile with the second resonance being close to a musical interval of a 10th above the fundamental.  The generic shape has a spectrum that lies between these two extremes while the  radical profile has a less regular behaviour. This enables one to have a general feeling for the spectrum of an instrument given its internal profile. Clearly one could make strange expanding and contracting internal forms that can have greatly varied spectrums although for a completely generic form the quality of the resonances can be seriously degraded. For example one can see that for the radical profile didgeridoo the third resonance (second overtone or “toot”) at around 270 Hz has a lower impedance when compared to nearby resonances for the other three profiles. As a consequence the second toot will be more difficult to play on this instrument in comparison to the second toot on more conventional instruments.

The final figure shows a zoom on the impedance close to the fundamental frequency and here we can see that in general a conical instrument has lower backpressure than instruments with more cylindrical profiles. The radical instrument probably has a higher backpressure also as a consequence of the constriction in the first part of the profile. From figure 2. on the other hand, one sees that the conical instruments have a slightly higher back pressure on overtones than the other instruments (apart from the anomalous second toot of the radical instrument already discussed above).

Figure 3. A zoom in on the impedance spectrum of the four instruments around the fundamental frequency (at approx. 60 Hz). 

 One can also learn more about the actual timbre of the notes played from the impedance spectrum. The peaks also correspond to frequencies that are easier to accentuate while playing the drone and modifying the shape of the vocal cavity. The general timbre of the instrument, when playing the fundamental tone, is determined by the amount in which the various resonances of the instrument are excited by the harmonic overtone series above the drone. For example, when playing the fundamental tone on the radical instrument one should hear a strong accentuation at about 480 Hz as a consequence of the alignment between the instrument spectrum and the harmonic series at that frequency as is clear from figure 2.

An additional interesting observation is the first toot of the generic, conical and radical instruments, which is between a musical 10th and a musical 12th above the fundamental – a fact which any didgeridoo player with some experience on different instruments has surely noticed while playing.  

To obtain the actual audio spectrum of the instruments, meaning the frequency components of the actual played sound, one needs to combine the above results with the vibrations of the players lips. This will be the issue of an upcoming blog post.   


Categories: Physics

The sound of a Didgeridoo 

March 8, 2016 Leave a comment

The didgeridoo is a musical instrument that, for thousands of years, was known and played only by the Australian aboriginal people. I have already written much about this instrument on this blog, but since I have not written anything here for a long time I thought I should reintroduce the instrument and explain why I find it so fascinating.

The didgeridoo, which actually has various names coming from the different languages of the many aboriginal groups that share it, is a simple tube of wood or sometimes bamboo or hollowed pandanus palm trunk. In the case of wooden instruments they originate from termite hollowed eucalyptus trunks. They are instruments that are found in nature. The work of the artisan is in the discovery of appropriately hollowed trees, the cutting down of the tree, cleaning of the interior and sculpting of the exterior to follow the internal shape. Clearly the sound of every instrument is different although each artisan generally searches for instruments that have a characteristic timbre.

To play the didgeridoo one produces a basic, or fundamental, tone by sealing the mouthpiece with pursed lips that then vibrate as air flows through them thus producing standing waves that resonate with certain frequencies depending on the geometry of the tube.  This basic tone is predominantly of a low frequency between about 65 and 90 Hz, between a C and an F. Traditionally slightly higher and lower fundamental frequencies are also used though they are not as common.

My initial and continuing fascination with this instrument is related to the richness of its sound and the personal expressiveness available to every didgeridoo player. The supreme expressive musical instrument is arguably the human voice. The didgeridoo displays many elements of this expressiveness that interact with the intrinsic musical characteristics of the instrument being played. 

To understand better this claim it is useful to consider the acoustics of the instrument. Of course at a basic level the didgeridoo is simply a tube with resonant frequencies and playing it with vibrating lips will cause this air-column to vibrate with these frequencies which are determined by the physical characteristics of the instrument. Obviously the most important resonance is the the fundamental one, the basic note that the instrument plays and this is roughly dependent on the length. The actual timbre of the instrument is then determined by the series of higher resonances and they can vary dramatically. To understand this point in a little more detail it is useful to have a basic understanding of the harmonic series.. 

The harmonic series is most intuitively understood as the frequencies of vibration of a taut string of fixed length. The lowest frequency harmonic has frequency f. The subsequent harmonics then all have frequencies that are simply multiples of f, i.e. 2f, 3f, 4f, …. In musical terms, if the lowest frequency corresponds to the note A, then the higher frequencies in the harmonic series correspond to another A (an octave above the first), then E then another A (two octaves above the first), then in order C sharp, E, G, A,…

Getting back to the didgeridoo, a perfectly cylindrical didgeridoo has as resonances only the odd-harmonics, i.e. f (A), 3f(E), 5f(C sharp), 7f(G) ..etc.. whilst a conical didgeridoo has resonances corresponding to flattened harmonics of the cylinder (depending on mouthpiece radius and how conical it is). In a typical  traditional instrument one does not have any of the frequencies of the harmonic series above the fundamental frequency f. 

Up to this point there is nothing in particular that distinguishes the didgeridoo from other musical instruments. Actually it seems to have a very big disadvantage as it can produce a series of notes that have no particularly nice musical relationship to each other. Like a badly out of tune alphorn. 

Physically the crucial difference is easily observed. It is the mouthpiece! Of course in size it is just like the mouthpiece of say a trombone or a bass tuba, but there is a crucial difference. Brass instruments have mouthpieces that have the form of a small cup with a hole in the bottom, didgeridoo mouthpieces have almost parallel walls and although in some cases there is a slight narrowing in the first 10-20cm (typically yidaki have mouthpieces of this form) it is negligible compared to the extreme narrowing of brass instrument mouthpieces. The cup shape of the brass mouthpiece is necessary to align all of the harmonics of the instrument into a full harmonic series, without the mouthpiece the instrument does not have a nice harmonic series, and this is one of the almost magical properties of the cup (effectively a Helmholtz resonator). This cup with small hole also quite effectively isolates the player’s vocal cavity from the instrument while it is precisely the coupling of the player’s vocal cavity to the didgeridoo sound column that allows the player to produce incredible variations in the sound of the instrument. I like to think of the didgeridoo as a resonant extension of the vocal/oral cavity and the sounds produced are a consequence of the acoustic properties of the instrument plus vocal cavity of the player.

At a very simple level this coupling between vocal cavity and didgeridoo means that when you use your voice in the instrument it can easily be heard together with the notes of the didgeridoo. The voice thus is a second sound generator and when the sung note is in is not the same as the didgeridoo note one begins to create interesting effects akin to ring modulation used in in synthesisers. However the more interesting effects are related to the beats and vibrations that one can hear when making certain tongue movements. The simplest tongue movements produce simple sounds, tongue movements like ta, da, ki, ka together with the simplest tongue and cheeks movements used during the inbreath phase of playing. The more unique didgeridoo sounds are those produced by the turbulent and pulsing movement of air inside the mouth, a little like waves that bounce around inside a breakwater compared to waves that travel freely in the sea. These produce all the additional pulsations and embellishments of the basic sound and the true masters of control of these effects are the aboriginal Australian custodians of this instrument. For them the basic tongue movements are more complex than those mentioned above, coming from their spoken language, often incorporating also the tongue movement for breathing. These movements create often drastic changes of pressure inside the players mouth which in turn modulate the sound of the didgeridoo producing the complex characteristic sound of the instrument.  

In future blog posts I would like to return to this discussion and carefully analyse a couple of the simplest traditional sounds, and also the wobble – a contemporary technique nevertheless originating from aboriginal players Mark Atkins and Alan Dargin – as examples of the above described effects.  

Gravitational Waves

March 3, 2016 Leave a comment

The announced detection of a gravitational wave signal arriving from the inspiral of two black holes resulting in their inglobation into a final more massive black hole has now travelled around the world.

We all have an enormous practical experience in the detection of waves. Actually, almost all of the information that we receive about the surrounding world arrives to us in the form of waves: Sight – our eyes are extremely sensitive detectors of electromagnetic waves; Sound – our ears can detect a large range of sound waves; Touch – our body detects certain frequencies of electromagnetic radiation coming from the sun (it warms our skin).

Each of these waves is detected as a function of the way that it travels through an elastic medium. The medium of electromagnetic waves and also of gravitational waves is the vacuum. To observe the universe more completely science has developed detectors to extend the range of seeing and hearing well beyond the range accessible by our body, and this has enabled us to observe a huge variety of events in the universe.  These detectors have extended our range of vision in electromagnetic waves well beyond the visual ight of our everyday experience – and this has led our investigation of the properties of matter and spacetime deep into the microscopic and cosmological realms. As a consequence of this extended vision the theory of quantum mechanics was developed and refined.

Gravitational waves are a simple prediction of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, a theory that celebrated its 100th anniversary in November of 2015, and which continues to be confirmed as a spectacularly successful theory of gravity with no close contenders. The construction of gravitational wave detectors began in the early 1970’s but up until last year they were never sensitive enough to detect the gravitational waves that we expected should arrive from cataclysmic events in remote regions of the universe. The construction of gravitational wave detectors is extremely demanding due to the incredible weakness of the gravitational field and it is only with the dedication of experimental physicists continually refining the detectors that we have finally arrived at the actual observation of at least one, and probably various other, gravitational waves.

The magnitude of this discovery is completely out of reach or our everyday experience. The difference in strength between the gravitational force and the electromagnetic force is on the order of forty zeroes. Forty zeroes. This number is really beyond imagination. If we take a huge number, for instance the distance to the big bang is on the order of twenty zeroes in seconds, then it is still excruciatingly small compared to a number with forty zeroes.

What will the future bring now that we have opened a new window of perception on our universe? The most evident lessons are related to black hole physics. The observation of this gravitational wave is the most direct evidence of the existence of black hole like objects almost all the way to their horizon – the famous point of no return and the source of all the subtleties of black hole physics.

Black holes, like gravitational waves, we’re first discovered as solutions to Einstein’s equations almost 100 years ago. It is beautiful to ponder that these two predictions are finally coming into view at the level of observation and are amongst the more profound confirmations of Einstein’s theory and at the same time the most likely to lead to the further evolution and extension of this theory into the quantum world.

Categories: Physics

Some photos – December 2010

January 15, 2011 1 comment

At the winter gathering for didge players, that I organise together with the people at the Agriturismo “Ai vecchi ippocastani” in Joannis, Italy.
The medusa had a good showing.

Medusa and Me

Medusa Mixing

Categories: Uncategorized

Names – Feynman Diagrams and Didgeridoos

December 4, 2010 Leave a comment

So, after some comments by a couple of friends of mine about a photo of the latest medusa, a very geeky physics joke (well, joke is maybe stretching it a bit as I am not sure how funny it really is) came to mind. Usually I just keep such things to myself but somehow this one got out. Anyway, here is another picture of the instrument,

Medusa model November - December 2010

Medusa model November - December 2010

and here is a picture of a Feynman diagram.

A Medusa Feynman diagram

Feynman diagram

So… What do you get when you cross a didgeridoo with a Feynman diagram?? My mate Florio suggested that it is a Feyndidge, a cute name indeed. So I am now confronted with a dilemma. Is my new musical instrument an Electric Medusa or a Feyndidge, or both, or neither. ..

Maybe the Feynman diagrams without closed circuits lead to Meduse (the Medusa diagram!). I still have a project to try some tunings with loops in the circuit and in that case the Medusa story (Electric Medusa = Collection of electric Serpents) does not really work anymore. They would certainly be Feyndidges:)

Categories: Opendidge

Medusa and Yidaki. Toma at Natibongo

September 7, 2010 Leave a comment

A few photos of me playing one of the latest versions of the medusa, and one of a big Djalu yidaki,
during the concert of my band Toma, at the Natibongo festival.

Medusa with Toma

Electric Medusa and Toma!

Toma at Natibongo



Categories: Uncategorized

Mouthpiece noise..

August 19, 2010 Leave a comment

I have had a long standing problem with the electric medusa and also electric didge due to the
extreme sensitivity of the piezo pickup to sounds other than the musica ones. The worst of
these is the noise of the players mouth on the mouthpiece. This may of course seem like the
most irrelevant of sounds, but when the pickup is two or three centimetres from the mouthpiece
every little scratch is pickedup and amplified. Mouthpiece noise creates a scratchy annoying
static like sound.

I have thought of many unsuccesful or too expensive and impracticable solutions but yesterday
the most simple idea popped into my head. Wax mouthpiece! Now of course lots of didges have
wax on the mouthpiece, but since I play mostly traditional yidaki for which it is not terribly
common to find large gobs of wax on the mouthpiece (most do not have any), I had sort of
forgotten about it (although fortunately I still have a good supply of wax at home from my old
non-trad days).

Yesterday evening I stuck a ring of wax on the medusa mouthpiece and plugged it into my
multieffect unit and had a good listen with the headphones…….
the noise has been reduced to an irrelevant level!! :)))

Categories: Uncategorized

Electric Didgeridoo

February 12, 2010 2 comments

I finally managed to record a little bit of didge with piezo-mouthpiece pickup attached. Actually the instrument is a yidaki from North-East Arnhem Land and the pickup is a simple doorbell buzzer that you can find in electronics stores for about 1 euro.

Fishing through the questions that Dubravko had sent me and that I had promised to reply I realised that the next two questions were actually waiting for me to make this video and write this piece. The moment is auspicious and thus;

Question 5. Why do you use an amp, and don’t straightly go to the mixer?
Actually, I now go through a mixer. One can plug the pickup directly into an amplifier however it does not necessarily give a great sound due to the high (greater than 1MegaOhm) impedance. I have found that if you plug it into the high pickup of an electric guitar amp the results are not bad. I guess I should make a video of that too..

The actual setup in this video is – cheap pickup into Soundcraft mixer with gain at half maximum – zoom b2.1u at insert point of mixer – mixer output to SR Jam 150 amp. The mixer and amp have equalizers in neutral positions while in the zoom the high and low frequencies had 0dB gain whilst mid frequencies were boosted. All gains in the pedal were also at mid positions. The only effect used is chorus.

Unfortunately the sound quality of the video is not fantastic as I was in a bit of a rush when recording. The actualy sound is quite decent with this setup though with some more tweaking I am sure that it can be considerably improved.

Question 6. What kind of changes did you get with varying pickups? Is there a point of putting a high quality pickup?

The photo below is of a pickup on a mouthpiece extension similar to that used in the above video. This pickup is a K&K pickup and has a somewhat smoother sound than the cheap pickup. It requires more gain due to the smaller size of the disk, 22mm compared to the cheap one that comes in at 28mm. This pickup is used in the recording of the piece Metamorfosis that you can listen to on my myspace/martinoloughlin
I am sure that there is a point in using high quality pickups. The immediate problem that I have with this solution is that I also believe that the 28mm pickups are more adapted to the didge than the 22mm ones but I do not know of any manufaturer who produces professional (musical) quality pickups of that diameter.

Piezo-pickup mouthpiece extension

Categories: Instrumentation, Yidaki