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Empirically, mainly watching Stephen Malinovwski's (smalin) music visualization videos on YouTube, I have noticed that several instruments playing together sound better when they roughly cover the spectrum evenly. (This is probably not the right language).

I mean the following. Suppose I have two instruments playing in perfect harmony, the same note several octaves apart, say C1 and C5. I have seen that if the space in between is also played by other instruments, say playing C2 and C3 or other notes in between the sound is more pleasant, to me. So, if there are no big gaps the music sounds like it has more body, or depth, or seems more robust. It is hard to describe the perception of it as it might be personal.

I am, for the moment at least, focused in writing music that sounds that way. Since I don't read the score very fluently I often use Malinowski's software to check that what I wrote doesn't have those big gaps between instruments as a way to get the quality of the sound I am seeking.

My question is: Can this property of having 'full body', 'depth', or 'being robust' be obtained even having big gaps between instruments?

Clearly the property I want is very subjective, but perhaps you have your own idea of what it is and it coincides with what I mean. I would like mainly to see examples in which big gaps between instruments exists but still the orchestra sounds with this 'full body' sound in your opinion. Then I can decide if it also sounds to me like that.

I am trying to learn what properties of the composition contribute to this quality of the sound I am looking for to then apply is consistently and not obtain it just by accident.

Important: Take as the meaning of 'robust' your own interpretation of it. Otherwise if you take as definition (The sound you get when the instruments cover evenly the spectrum) the question is not interesting because it becomes the negation of a tautology.

Edit: An analogy that came to my mind to try to explain the quality of the sound I am trying to describe. When drawing with pencil, for example, sometimes the drawing looks smudged if there are lots of area with a similar shade of gray. I don't want that in the sound. It is like getting the right white balance and not too much and not too little contrast in a photography. What to aim when composing for an orchestra to try to get the analogous property in the sound?

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2 Answers

In four-part choral or instrumental music, for instance an SATB chorus or a string quartet, you get a full sound with the upper three voices covering somewhat more than an octave (what's called "open harmony", vs. "closed harmony" when the three voices are all within an octave) and the bass a fifth to a tenth below the tenor.

A piece like this (for instance a Beethoven string quartet) can be difficult to play on the piano. For chords you are stuck with a range of an octave or so in the left hand and an octave or so in the right hand. Some composers (Messiaen, in my opinion) have trouble achieving the full, rich, balanced piano sound that seems to come naturally to Beethoven and Liszt.

For orchestra, as a general rule, the notes should be spaced evenly by frequency rather than evenly by pitch. Not A, C#, E, A, C#, E, A, C#, E, A but A-110, A-220, E-330, A-440, C#-550, E-660, A-880. (Frequencies in Hz.)

Pipe organs get a full sound by having ranks of pipes that correspond to the overtone series. This is the same principle; fewer low notes, more high notes.

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There's some logic to your question: there's more "balance" in the orchestral sound when the sound is distributed unevenly throughout the orchestra. Although the effects created by bunching up instruments or spreading them out can be very intriguing—see the end of the Verdi Requiem as an example of the former, and the "Hostias" from Berlioz's Grande Messe des Morts for the latter—the effect can be someone unsettling.

I think there's a number of reasons for this—the primary being that when there are huge gaps in the sound, there are wider gaps in the overtone spectrum. This "gap" can lead to the impression of emptiness in the sound; by contrast, "bunching" instruments together can lead to conflicts in the overtone series, leading to a more congested sound.

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Interesting. In Berlioz's example there is a moment in which some brass instrument plays low and a flute plays some high notes. Nothing else is playing. So, I suppose that would be a gap. On the other hand, the sound has 'depth'. I will add an analogy with painting that came to my mind right now. Maybe that conveys better the quality of the sound I mean. –  ABC Mar 9 '13 at 1:10
It sounds like you're referring more to the clarity of the sound than the "fullness" of it. Could you suggest a musical example of the contrast you're interested in exploring? –  aeismail Mar 9 '13 at 8:25
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