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Musical Space

Musical Space: Big And Low


The laws of physics are against musicians who play low notes. Any sounding medium - like a string or the air in a tube - vibrates at a frequency inversely proportional to its length; the longer it is, the lower the note. 

This has been known since Pythagoras in the sixth century B.C. For an instrument to be an octave lower, it has to be twice as big. Flutes are two times as long as piccolos.

Low notes mean long air waves. The lowest note of a string bass takes up 40 feet of air. The power required to move all that air presents all sorts of practical problems. Tuba players need a lot of lung capacity. Low strings have to be thicker than high ones. Woofers have to be much bigger than tweeters, and they need more powerful amplifiers to drive them. Twenty watts is plenty for a guitar amp—but as a string bass player, I have to haul a thousand watts to a gig. My case is over six feet long. I will never own a small car.

There’s no end to it. Composers have demanded the invention of lower, larger instruments for the bass range of each musical family. Twice as large as these are the grotesquely huge instruments of the contrabass range - contrabassoons, contrabass clarinets, contrabass oboes, even contrabass flutes. Some organs pipes are 64 feet long.

But I’m not complaining. I’ve made my peace with Pythagoras. Low notes make music sound better. Exponentially large instruments are worth the trouble. So when you see me carrying my gear to a gig, don’t ask me if I wish I played the piccolo.

(Music: Mingus Big Band, “Moanin’” (Charles Mingus),  Nostalgia in Times Square (1993)
Ronnie Cuber on bari sax)


Listening list: low wind instruments

Anthony Braxton, “Donna Lee” (Charlie Parker), In The Tradition, Vol. 2 (1976)
Contrabass Clarinet

Morphine, “Cure For Pain,” Cure For Pain (1993)
“The band themselves coined the label "low rock" to describe their music, which involved "a minimalist, low-end sound” Bari Sax, 2-string slide bass

Youngblood Brass Band, “Brooklyn,” Center:Level:Roar (2003), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xAb6tVGJaf0

They Might Be Giants, “Seven,” Here Come the 1-2-3’s (2009)
Featuring the humongous bass saxophone

Too Many Zooz, “Spocktopus,” (internet release 2015)
self-defined genre – brass house