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It strikes me that it is not so easy to produce very short notes - like thirty seconds and sixty fourths - on the wood winds (it is merely my guess, I don't know for sure). Perhaps, it has to do with the fact that wind musicians can't quickly start and stop exhaling. On the other hand, I've noticed that brass winds, like trumpets and trombones, are quite good at producing short notes (so maybe it doesn't have to do much with exhaling but with something else that brass have, but woods don't). Perhaps, the easiest instrument to produce a short and relatively loud note is a xylophone. Is my guess correct?

Scope of the question: In my question I am inquiring only about natural instruments, that is, the saxophone and those instruments that were invented before electricity was discovered. Also, please, exclude the piano from the scope.

EDIT: Please, exclude any unpitched instruments, too.

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  • Triple tonguing will feature in answers here! But the winner is surely snare drum?
    – Tim
    Mar 1, 2023 at 9:28
  • Are we allowed percussion? Wagner used an anvil once, I've seen a performance and it was pretty loud...
    – AakashM
    Mar 1, 2023 at 9:30
  • 1
    Are we allowed synths and sequencers ?
    – Tom
    Mar 1, 2023 at 9:39
  • 1
    This is an open-ended question with very vague criteria. What is short, what is loud? What is the problem you are actually trying to solve. The criteria for the instruments are unclear too: saxophone is not natural (it's man made) and it's invented after the discovery of electricity. Note, musical instrument classification is a well-developed area: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Musical_instrument_classification This could be a good question if these issues were fixed. Mar 1, 2023 at 15:34
  • 1
    You also can find musical boulders in some places of the world... Anyway, the point is, I don't know what do you mean by "natural". Mar 1, 2023 at 16:07

3 Answers 3

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We have to differentiate short notes and fast notes. And with fast notes we have to differentiate slurred and articulated notes. Woodwinds are extremely good at playing fast slurred notes. Playing articulated notes is a bit more complicated, as you need to articulate them using your tongue (which is also the way brass does it). But still skilled players can go quite fast there. I mean, just listen to this:

If it is about shortness on the notes then wind or string instruments are not your choice (because these just need some time to build up the vibration), but rather percussion, as these will deliver the energy on impact and can be muffled quickly (also they can consistently play very loundly).

Your pick of Xylophone is definitely a good candidate there: Piercingly loud, but extremely short even without muffling (and with muffling as short as you want it to be). Can also be played quite fast, but if your aim is to produce a single short loud note this is a good pick.

Generally the higher pitched your instrument the easier it is to play really short notes, so piccolo flute or piccolo clarinet can also produce nice short notes.

There is also a ton of other pitched percussion instruments that also allow very short notes and allow quite a bit of impact.

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  • Very informative for me. Thank you! (The video you've provided is just amazing!)
    – brilliant
    Mar 1, 2023 at 11:19
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I don't have hard data, but I'm going to take a punt on pipe organ. To get volume you need power, and pre-electricity you don't have many choices. Looking at the wikipedia page I note that there has historically been a lot of wind power pushed through some big organs:

In England, "The first organ of which any detailed record exists was built in Winchester Cathedral in the 10th century. It was a huge machine with 400 pipes, which needed two men to play it and 70 men to blow it, and its sound could be heard throughout the city."

The Halberstadt organ ... had twenty bellows operated by ten men, and the wind pressure was so high that the player had to use the full strength of their arm to hold down a key.

By the mid-19th-century bellows were also being operated by water engines,[67] steam engines or gasoline engines.

For your other criterion: there is no 'hardware' limit on the shortness of note - you can trill on an organ as fast as your fingers allow.

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  • Although the instrument is capable of rapid articulation, usually pipe organs are installed in really reverberant spaces that blur the articulation.
    – Theodore
    Mar 1, 2023 at 16:43
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Maybe it's not quite as fast as a world-class clarinetist like Martin Fröst, but it is fast and it can be loud, and it can do chords: Accordion with Bellows Shake.

https://www.youtube.com/shorts/fAV-UrjH7cQ

There are many other demonstration videos, but these are some of the fastest (while still being musical).

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