Musical Frequencies and the Human Body

Sometimes, I think clarinet and saxophone players really have it the best. I’m not saying that because clarinet is my major instrument but because there’s something different about the clarinet (and saxophone) than other wind instruments; the top teeth touch the top of the mouthpiece which sends the vibration of the note directly into the bones (via the teeth). No other wind instrument has direct contact with the teeth on the instrument. Brass, double reeds, recorder, and flute all require the lip to be between the mouthpiece and the teeth.

Body VibrationsWind players will generally tell you when hearing recordings of themselves that the recordings don’t sound anything like they expect. My explanation for this is basic – because the musical tones are vibrating from inside the body, wind players “hear” the sound from within as well as from the outside. Complete “outside” hearing can only be done when listening to a recording. Why does this even make a difference? My thought here is that wind players (especially those who play clarinet or saxophone) are going to “feel” the vibrational frequency of a note from inside their body more so than other instruments. String players, pianists, and percussionists may feel some vibrations through their bodies because the instrument comes in contact with the body but probably not to the extent of a wind player.

Why does this even matter? I’m not sure that it does but, it is an intriguing thought and might help wind performers understand how the music from “within” sounds so they can more accurately assess tone production and tuning. As a clarinetist, my head resonates differently for good and bad tone as well as when something is in or out of tune. I would even throw out there that this is a good indication that musical frequencies probably have a variety of effects on the physical body.

While doing research for a survey of music course, I ran across a video of Evelyn Glennie being interviewed by CBS News. Unfortunately, that video seems to have disappeared from YouTube, where I first found it. For those who are not aware, Evelyn Glennie is deaf. She’s also one of the most sought after classical percussionists of our time. In the interview, she’s asked how she can stay in tempo with an orchestra or even know what note she’s playing. She performs barefoot so the vibrations of the instrument (and the orchestra) go through her feet and into her body. What’s most intriguing about this interview was when the interviewer asked her if she could feel the notes. She emphatically replied that she could! Basically, her body acts as a resonator, allowing her to know which note is being played because every note corresponds to a different place in her body. She demonstrated by playing notes on the xylophone and immediately pointed to the spot in her body that resonated for each note. Resonant Frequency

Being intrigued by what Evelyn had to say, I was led on Google searches with no idea of where I would end up. Eventually, I found several websites that listed resonant frequencies for the various parts of the body. This in turn led me on further rabbit trails where I discovered many musical artists are now creating music with specific notes (frequencies) in mind that are supposed to bring healing to the body. Eventually, I recorded my own music with the thought of it being used as a form of music therapy. (CLICK HERE for audio samples)

Going back to my first topic of clarinet and saxophone players being able to feel the frequencies through their teeth and directly into their bones – as mentioned previously, I can tell when a note is played with a good tone and is in tune. My entire head begins to “resonate” due to the frequency of the air moving around in my mouth matching the frequency of the note itself. I first learned about this phenomenon while working on my dissertation, which involved viewing the inside of the mouth (with a laryngoscope) while playing clarinet. In working with a group of physicists in Australia, I began to understand how this is possible (a topic for a later discussion). I can also feel the vibrations of specific notes throughout my body because I now pay attention to that. With this knowledge, I see how a deaf person could play a musical instrument and do quite well.

The long and short of this short article is: 1) The musical frequencies of notes can be felt within different parts of the human body, 2) Wind players are more than likely going to feel this better than non-wind players, 3) Deaf people could do quite well playing a wind instrument, and 4) It’s probable that musical frequencies affect our bodies in some manner. How? That seems to be a major topic of discussion across the Internet right now.

Armed with this information, I would like to suggest that because musical tones appear to be felt in a variety of places throughout the body, maybe there really is validity to claims that specific musical frequencies can be helpful. There are frequencies flying all around us (radio waves, microwaves, Schumann resonances, etc.) that can either feel dissonant or consonant to our bodies. As a clarinetist, I can always tell by the vibrations in my body when something is out-of-tune or my tone quality is not very good. I can feel the “beats” of various dissonances and bad intonation, which really drives me nuts! I can also feel my body tense up when I listen to musicians that’s are out of tune.

My final comment… Maybe it’s time to begin looking more into how frequencies really do affect us.

Copyright by D. Hungerford, October 2015