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I was watching a play called The Contrabass and the actor stated that "the contrabass is different from other instruments in that, it is heard better as one moves further from it" (please note that this is my translation).

Unfortunately, I can not understand why is it so or if it is true. (Although I have a guess, which is posted in the answers).

To clear some ambiguities, let's assume that:

  1. There are other instruments accompanying the contrabass in a room temperature, atmospheric pressure concert hall. (If you like, you can also answer the question with assuming solo play which is also interesting.)
  2. Hearing better refers to being able to discern the contrabass more, to be able to follow the nuances of the player, to perceive the compared loudness better.
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    It may not be "true" or at least not universally true. The human ear does not respond to low frequencies very well, see Fletcher - Munsen curves for details. So even of bass travels farther before attenuating it may not trigger a good response in the human. This is, unfortunately, a very ill posed question. Given the number of competing factors it may be more interesting to ask at what distance will the human ear perceive two different instruments to have equal volume given that they are producing sound of equal amplitude (as measured by some device). – ggcg Jul 18 '18 at 17:33
  • Also note that atmospheric attenuation is highly non-linear and depends on local thermodynamics. There may be some cases where the bass does not propagate as well compared to cello, viola, while in other environments it may. – ggcg Jul 18 '18 at 17:35
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    This is a common experience when playing the contra bass. I have the same experience when playing the Contrabassoon. It is difficult to hear the low tones when playing yourself, a few meters off they are much easier to hear. Why it happens? I have never seen any scientific explanation. – ghellquist Jul 18 '18 at 19:00
  • @ggcg thanks for all the help but I do not see why it is illposed. The fact that I have used the term "better" is merely a generalization and it already generated a discussion as the word can refer to different phenomena of sound. – Oguz Jul 18 '18 at 21:35
  • About the linearity, the air is a nearly perfect linear environment in the temperature and pressure levels that I wanted to refer in. I can edit the question if it is unambiguous. – Oguz Jul 18 '18 at 21:38
2

Because the attenuation rate of a sound wave is proportional to the frequency of the wave(see related discussion How does frequency relate to attenuation and why?), in an orchestral music, the instruments with higher frequency components die out faster with distance but the contrabas having a low-frequency nature is less attenuated. Thus we can distinguish the contrabass better.

  • So, are you answering your own question? This does not mean that the bass gets louder as you get further away, just that it is more noticeable compared to the others. Of course your statement "heard better" is somewhat ambiguous. – ggcg Jul 18 '18 at 17:17
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    One problem with this theory is that a lot of what makes the bass itself audible are higher frequencies. Almost none of the instruments we listen to most often produce only their fundamental frequencies. String instruments like the bass are often quite rich in overtones. As I indicate in my answer, for the bass those overtones can be generated by different parts of the instrument's body, and with such a large body, being very close may emphasize some overtones more than others. Having some distance from the bass balances the intensities of the overtones for the listener. – Todd Wilcox Jul 18 '18 at 18:13
  • And yet that balance is somewhat defeated by this attenuation. – ggcg Jul 18 '18 at 19:32
  • The lovest sound produced by a contrabass is at 41Hz while the violin is at 196Hz which is nearly five times of the first and if we consider the highest notes in both instruments the factor goes up much higher. Consider the overtones also now. There are 2 main reasons I believe this phenomenon is related to attenuation, 1) If two sound waves have the same amplitude, we tend to hear the one with the higher freq. louder 2) The attenuation rate is proportional to the frequency. With the two combined, our ability to resolve lower frequency and thus hear them better increases with distance. – Oguz Jul 18 '18 at 22:03
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    That attenuation is immeasurably small in any reasonably sized room or concert hall. – Carl Witthoft Jul 19 '18 at 13:58
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This is partly a myth and partly due to the physical size of the bass.

Some people (even professional musicians) believe that low frequency sound waves "need room to develop". That's completely false. One thing that can happen with low frequency waves is they are more likely to form standing wave patterns inside smaller rooms. Those patterns will create spots where the overlapping waves reinforce or cancel each other out (anti-nodes and nodes, respectively). Sometimes a node is very close to the instrument and moving away from the instrument towards an anti-node makes the instrument sound louder. But in an open field or a large enough hall, the bass will sound loudest when you are right next to it.

The one way in which this is not a myth is that the resonating body of the bass is very large, and different aspects of the sound of the bass can resonate from different parts of the body. That means when you are very close to a bass, certain sound components may be much louder than others, and you might not be able to discern the quieter components (which are quieter because they are coming from the other side of the bass).

When you move away from the bass, all the sound components mix together appropriately and you can hear each aspect of the sound at its appropriate relative volume.


Also note that bass players have their ears in one of the worst possible places to hear their own instrument! The bass radiates a lot more from its face than from the fingerboard. Bass players will hear a lot more fingerboard noises and the vibrations of the neck more directly. They may also have some amount of bone conduction of vibration from the neck of the bass, and bone conduction distorts the sound a lot.

Without a space that effectively reflects the sound back to the player's ears, playing the bass is a bit of an act of faith. So the bass player in question is completely correct to believe that if they could only stand in front of their bass about 5 - 10 feet away (because of the angle of the face of the bass being pointed slightly upwards), they would hear it most clearly. That's more of a position thing than a distance thing. If a bass player could remotely locate their ears the exact same distance from the f-holes as usual but directly in front of the bass instead of up near the scroll, they would find it quite loud and full sounding.

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    @ggcg I can understand finding the question a bit vague, and of course the question is about an assertion made by a third party. Having heard this kind of thing before about contrabass viols and other instruments, I felt like I had enough understanding to address it, but perhaps I misinterpreted the question. If so, I hope the asker will comment to that effect so we can get a better understanding of the question. – Todd Wilcox Jul 18 '18 at 17:35
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    @ggcg I guess I feel like the question is clear so I have answered it. Only the asker can confirm whether or not I have understood their question correctly. – Todd Wilcox Jul 18 '18 at 17:42
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    @ggcg I deliberately left out the ear's response and atmospheric attenuation because I don't understand either of them to be related to the question. I doubt the assertion that the bass is heard better at a distance is referring to distances where atmospheric attenuation is much of a factor (e.g., at 30 degrees C and 50% rH, 8 kHz is attenuated less than 1 dB at 10 meters). Laurence Payne's answer suggests a distance of 2 meters is relevant. And the ear's different response at different frequencies is not a function of distance from the sound source. – Todd Wilcox Jul 18 '18 at 18:06
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    @Oguz Uhhh.. what part of anything ggcg has written is misogynistic? Note that misogyny means "dislike of women". – Todd Wilcox Jul 18 '18 at 22:10
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    ...... thats what happens when you watch American Shows without captions. Poor word choice, my bad. I wanted to refer to bad intentions as he accused me of "intellectual clikbaiting" – Oguz Jul 18 '18 at 22:19
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If the sound 'developing' includes adding some reverb, I can see what they're talking about. But this isn't unique to bass instruments.

There's a rule-of-thumb in 'classical' recording that you shouldn't mic an instrument any closer than its length. 4½ft for a trumpet, 9ft for a trombone, 6ft for a string bass. Partly so as not to emphasise mechanical noise, partly because a bit of 'room sound' helps most instruments. Not always possible, as separation can also be an issue. But it's what the BBC engineer at Madia Vale did when recording my brass group several years ago, and was happy to explain the reason. Those guys don't do things that don't work!

The actor may, of course, have intended humour. For instance, it's a well-known fact that the best distance to hear bagpipes from is several miles. From the next county is even better.

Standing waves are something else. We try to design concert halls (and recording studios) NOT to encourage them. There is sometimes a misapprehension in the audio world that big speakers with a low bass response are pointless in a small room, because it 'could not contain a wave of that frequency'. Easily disproved by the observable fact that we CAN hear low notes when using headphones.

  • If the purpose of miking at those distances is to make sure there's a little room sound, then the reason is only because of the raw intensity of each instrument. The trombone puts out more acoustic Watts than any other single member of the orchestra (if I recall correctly). That means you will have to mic farthest from it to get the same balance of direct versus ambient sound. In practice, all of those instruments are commonly miked much more closely in both classical and non-classical settings, depending on the needs of the recording and the style of the producer. – Todd Wilcox Jul 18 '18 at 18:40
  • The trombone CAN be very loud. Or very soft. The player adjusts to the music's requirements, and to balance with the other instruments. Don't quite see why you'd have to put the mic further into the reverberant field for a louder source, explain, please? And yes, I mentioned that ideal sound often had to be sacrificed for separation - also when the room sound is less than ideal. – Laurence Payne Jul 18 '18 at 19:43
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    "Those guys don't do things that don't work": People do things that don't work all the time, usually because of a mix of faith in the "old ways", a lack of understanding, or directives from higher up. – isanae Jul 19 '18 at 5:51
  • Yes, people do things that don't work. But on the list of 'people who know their stuff' I put BBC staff engineers pretty high up. – Laurence Payne Jul 19 '18 at 13:24
  • This seems a bit odd, given that any number of instruments can be and are recorded via embedded piezo (or equivalent) microphones. – Carl Witthoft Jul 19 '18 at 13:57
-1

The lower frequencies carry better over distance, so you hear them better in relation to other sounds.

If there is some music event a few kilometers away in an otherwise quiet place, you basically hear the lead voice (without being able to hear most consonants and vowels being mostly indistinguishable since mainly the fundamental arrives) and the bass and bass drum.

A canal in some distance makes itself heard by the rumble of the ship engines which are almost felt more than heard. A car arriving in a lonely place in the night is first heard via its low vibrations before the picture of the sound becomes more differentiated.

Others pointed to the physics of this phenomenon but these are real-life experiences.

Now regarding the contrabass, concert halls are built in a manner where you can expect a reasonable balance of different sounds throughout the venue.

However, in Süßkind's play, the player is talking about the qualities of his instrument in relation to his neighbors, namely not as much its qualities in a musical setting but for noise pollution. And there its effects are among the last to die down (I doubt it can beat large kettle drums but those do not deliver continuous notes).

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    “lower frequencies carry better over distance”, though it's technically correct because air slightly attenuates high frequencies all by itself, is not true or at least not relevant on the scale of a concert hall because that damping is very weak. It's also not the reason why you hear mostly low frequencies from a faraway concert: that is because of diffraction, which means low frequencies can “go around” solid obstactles, but higher frequencies can't. And the reason many rooms reverberate low frequencies longer is that the surface reflections attenuate high frequencies more. – leftaroundabout Jul 19 '18 at 9:30

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