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Strange musical sounds draw scientific scrutiny

July 14, 2006
By Maja Sojtaric, University of Tromsø
and World Science staff

An acclaimed Japanese violinist conjures sounds from her instrument that shouldn’t be possible, and scientists are investigating the puzzle.

Mari Kimura in an anechoic (echoless) chamber. Clips of her playing, including some low-pitched "subharmonics," can be downloaded at her website at http://pages.nyu.edu/~mk4. (Photo: Maja Sojtaric) 

Mari Kimura, a New York-based solo violinist who lectures at the renowned Juilliard School of Music, is one of a handful of people who can produce controlled violin tones known as “subharmonics.” 

This means she plays sounds that are of lower pitch than is normally possible for a violin, or written into musical scores for the instrument. The tones she plays are more typical of the lower-pitched cello.

The violinist, who plays modernist and contemporary music, has turned her ability to a signature trait in her own compositions and improvisations. But she is as stumped as anyone as to how she does it.

“I don’t really know what it is I do,” she said, because she learned it by “trial and error.”

A team of scientists at the University of Tromsø, Norway, is the latest to take a crack at the puzzle. They claim their unique combination of physics knowledge and musical interest will help them succeed where other researchers have stumbled.

“We have worked with strange and exotic sound systems,” said physics professor Alfred Hanssen.

Kimura said she has made the unique sounds for more than a decade. “I showed it to top researchers in U.S. and Japan. They have all been very enthusiastic.” Some of them tried to study the effect but gave up, she added. “Hanssen’s team is the one who is making the commitment.”

Violins and all stringed instruments follow the same principles. A string vibrates and produces a note whose pitch depends on the frequency—that is, speed—of vibration. Shortening the string leads to faster, smaller vibrations and a higher pitch. Violinists accomplish this by using a finger to clamp the string down onto the wood, reducing the length available to vibrate.

Halving a string’s length raises the pitch one octave, or one trip up the scale. So in theory, a violinist can produce a note as high as he or she wants. It just requires moving the clamping finger further and further along the string, in effect halving the length repeatedly.

But at the other end of the pitch spectrum, the low notes, the instrument has a natural limit: the lowest-pitched string, played fingerless. A player can’t normally play a deeper pitch because he or she can’t lengthen the string.

There are some tricks that enliven the palette of notes available. For instance, holding a finger at the middle of a string only gently—without clamping fully—produces a “harmonic,” or a distinctively bright-sounding note. The brilliant timbre comes from the fact that the whole string vibrates. But, because the finger places constraints on this oscillation, the pitch is the same as if the finger had been clamping.

The deep tones emanating from Kimura’s instrument are thought to be an unusual form of harmonics, which is why they are called subharmonics.

Hanssen and colleagues analyzed the sounds in an echoless chamber at the university hospital. By putting even pressure on the string through fine, steady bow movements, Kimura can conjure many different tones from one place on the string, the scientists noted. 

“Kimura makes a violin string vibrate in a totally new way. In physics we call this a driven and damped non-linear system, which we are particularly preoccupied with in our research,” Hanssen said. Driven and damped systems are, respectively, ones in which an outside force either stimulates or quashes a vibration. Nonlinear systems are ones in which there is no simple relation between a disturbance and the response to it.

Kimura said that if Hanssen’s team comes up with any answers, these may be useful to her, by suggesting yet new avenues to manipulate tones. “As an artist you are always searching for ways to expand the sound,” she said.

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