Note from the Editors: While exploring the “Psychology of Tone” last month, we learned that digging into the mushiest part of any signal chain (the listener’s noodle) leads to a better understanding of the tonal journey involved. The journey itself may be more important than you realize. We continue this series dedicated to messing with your head with a look at the science involved with the creation of those tones. Everything can be explained with science, right?
amplifier. Of course, we all know that myriad
other factors influence the sound, as well.
Body shape, wood choice, string selection,
pedal effects, rack effects, humidity, amount
of people in the room, and the guitar
player’s recent fight with his girlfriend are
just some of the items that can alter a guitar
tone from performance to performance.
Can you scientifically prove the role of
these influencers? Lab geeks and gadget gurus can measure signal strength,
decibels, frequency distribution, gamma
radiation, and other ranges. They can
graph this data, create new data by creating logarithms, create even more data by
creating even more logarithims, but they
can’t decide what’s good or bad. Like it or
not, you simply can not use a computer to
prove that a ’ 63 Strat sounds “better” than
a cheap 1988 import.
The Musical Acoustics Department at the
University of New South Wales unequivocally
states on their website that, “Whether a
musical instrument is good or poor is a
question for musicians rather the scientists.”
That’s because scientists are primarily examining the effectiveness of an instrument.
Numerous sources, such as Physics by
John D. Cutnell and Kenneth W. Johnson,
state that the human ear can hear sounds
ranging from 20 hertz to 20,000 hertz. A
guitar is going to fall in this range because
it wouldn’t make good business sense to
produce an instrument that can only be
heard by dogs. From a scientific perspective, just about everything within the normal
human range would be considered effective,
since the instrument accomplishes its goal.
Beyond that, a researcher wouldn’t be able
to designate what’s good.
It’s important to note in this discussion that
loudness, generally measured with deci-
bels, could potentially be labeled “good”
or “bad” in so far as certain levels are
known to usually produce pain in humans.
For example, the United States govern-
ment’s Occupational Safety & Health
Administration (OSHA) regulates how
employers and workers behave around
noise levels that approach 85 decibels. As
music fans, we may boast about how the
Slayer concert caused our ears to bleed,
but sling a jack hammer or stand under
747 jet engines for eight hours a day and
see how fun those loudness levels are. But
that’s volume, not quality of tone.
With an entire industry surviving off musicians’ insatiable desire for the ultimate
guitar tone, it seems obvious that some
company would have cracked the code for
the greatness. After all, corporate chain
restaurants can quantify that if they use X
of fat, Y of salt, and Z of sweet in their latest enormo-burger, then consumers across
the country will salivate. Unfortunately, it’s
not that simple with music.