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I am working with a simple sound generator, which can simultaneously produce multiple sine waves plus white noise. The sine waves can have their frequency and volume modified over time, and the white noise can vary in volume.

As I understand it, when this generator is used to play a musical piece, the correct term for the part of the piece produced by the white noise generator is "percussion".

Similarly, the parts of the piece produced by the sine wave generators are "melody" and "harmony". Is there a single term for the combination of these two - a single term for the parts of the piece that can be reproduced as sine waves? Perhaps the "tuned" or "pitched" parts?

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  • Read about sound synthesis. It is actively developed since many tens of years, and very much in use presently. You will learn both about language conventions as well as the actual techniques of generating sound. – user1079505 Jan 14 at 15:37
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    Side note: the view of noise generators versus waveform generators presented here is a reasonable first approximation, but it is possible to create pitched sounds (melody and/or harmony) starting with a noise generator, and it’s possible to create unpitched percussion sounds with waveform generators. One wildly famous example of the latter is the hugely popular 808 kick sound, which starts with a simple sine wave. – Todd Wilcox Jan 14 at 22:03
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The use of the terms pitched and unpitched is perfectly adequate to distinguish between these types of material.

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    Also this keeps pitched percussion included in the melody and harmony, which is appropriate. – Todd Wilcox Jan 14 at 22:01
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I don't know if there's an accurate term in English language.
I'm assuming that you want something that can be a label (for a program or a physical electronic instrument), and the matter is very UX related, so you're probably looking for a single word or short group of (short) words.

If that's the case, you should consider these aspects: a "label" should always be short, but also descriptive, intuitive, easily identifiable and unambiguous.
Do note that the name choice always depends on the context (including other objects that appear next to it) and the destination: if it's going to be on a title of a group of parameters, it can be longer, and you could always add a short descriptive text under it to specify what those parameters refer to; if it's a small control (like a knob) that is right next to the other, it has to be short and clear.

Depending on the situations, you may also decide to not use "Percussion", so, here are some possibilities:

  • "melody/harmony": extensive, but also clear
  • "lead": widely used in synthesizers, it generally refers to a monophonic or lead voice, but not only (it "leads" the music)
  • "texture": somehow vague, but still valid
  • "sine" | "noise": yes, exactly as it is
  • "pitched" | "unpitched": maybe a bit more technical, but also correct
  • "notes" | "drums" (or "percussion"): slightly imprecise (fellow percussionists, don't hate me, I'm a percussionist too and I know what you may be thinking), but effective
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When one sine wave generator produces a series of pitches that is a melody. In regard to solo versus ensemble instruments you can refer to it as a voice or part. I think in the context of a synthesizer they are called oscillators.

If you have multiple of those generators producing melodies simultaneously the combined voices are called harmony. Depending on how the parts are combined you might use the term counterpoint but that connotes certain composition methods. The generic term is harmony.

Melody plus chords (harmony) can be called homophonic, but I don't think that is really the term you're after. Melody plus chords specifically without percussion has no special term I know of. Pitched and unpitched would be appropriate terms given your description of the generators.

I wouldn't call any of the generators a percussion instrument per se. Percussion instruments are struck to make sound. Your instruments are synthesizers. @topo's answer gives a nice overview of percussive or noisy as general descriptive terms for your case.

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As I understand it, when this generator is used to play a musical piece, the correct term for the part of the piece produced by the white noise generator is "percussion".

Not really - 'percussion' refers to sounds that are produced through something being hit. Of course when you are synthesizing sounds, nothing is really being hit, but a percussive synthesised sound might mean something with a fast attack. You can have percussive sounds that are still pitched, such as a xylophone or glockenspiel.

As an everyday word, I would just say noise/noisy or noise-based sounds. That's generally understood to refer to a sound that contains energy spread over the frequency spectrum (or part of it), rather than being concentrated in particular partials/harmonics.

The problem with saying 'unpitched' for these noisy sounds is that you can have sounds with definite, non-integer multiple partials that still don't sound pitched, and yet don't sound noisy either (and wouldn't be generatable with a noise generator). These often sound clangy or metallic - not pitched, but not noisy either.

Similarly, the parts of the piece produced by the sine wave generators are "melody" and "harmony". Is there a single term for the combination of these two - a single term for the parts of the piece that can be reproduced as sine waves? Perhaps the "tuned" or "pitched" parts?

If you are using your sine waves to produce harmonic spectra, then you are indeed producing sounds that will be perceived as having an identifiable pitch, so pitched is a good term to use.

However, you can use sine waves to produce clangy/metallic unpitched sounds, and if your sine generator is efficient enough to produce a large number of sine waves, it will be possible to generate noise-like sounds (including white noise sounds) only with sine waves - no noise generator needed.

Another way of looking at this is that actually the separation of sounds into these categories of pitched / unpitched / noisy is a little bit arbitrary, and the more you look into the nature of real sounds, you can't really draw clear lines between them. We tend to draw those distinctions because it's easier to think about sound like that from a beginner perspective, and if an additive synthesizer is not very powerful, it makes sense from a practical point of view to help it out with a noise source. But there's really no clear dividing line between a sound made of sines and a noisy sound: 'noise' is the equivalent of lots of sine waves at different frequencies, and a sine wave isn't so different from very narrow-band noise.

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    To my knowledge, we still can it unpitched percussion even if someone with absolute pitch can figure out what notes they're roughly playing (yes, I do occasionally find that some drum soundfont preset notes conflict with the music I'm composing or the rest of the piece they're in). The closest I've found to an exception for this case is the unofficial (and seemingly rarely used) term "semi-pitched" for instruments like wood blocks. – Dekkadeci Jan 14 at 13:11
  • @Dekkadeci Part of the point I was trying to make in my last paragraph is that there isn't really a clear line between these categories - many real sounds might, as you say, have a perceptible pitch, but still have non integer partials making the basic waveshape aperiodic, and might have some of the energy in their spectrum more easily thought of as noise rather than a set of partials. Of course when you are synthesizing sounds, you can go right up to one end of the axis and make a sound that is entirely periodic, or that has no sharp peaks in the energy spectrum at all (i.e. is 'pure' noise). – topo Reinstate Monica Jan 14 at 13:56

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