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Review: The Science of Sound

Review: The Science of Sound

Thomas D. Rossing

637 pages

Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1982

$76.70 from amazon.com (1999)

Originally published in American Lutherie #3, 1985 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume One, 2000



If you missed reading Tom Rossing’s articles on guitar acoustics in the GAL Quarterly, you may not know that he is a professor of physics at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. His field of specialization is, as you may have guessed, acoustics and particularly musical acoustics. In fact, he has taught musical acoustics for over twenty years.

“This book,” says Tom in his preface, “is intended to be an introduction to acoustics written in nontechnical language, primarily for students without college level physics and mathematics.”

He notes that the word “sound” refers to two distinct phenomena: (1) the sensation of sound, that is, the conscious experience of hearing, and (2) vibrations in a physical medium which can cause the sensation of sound. (Making this distinction he points out, answers once and for all the old riddle: If a tree falls in a forest and there is no one to hear it, does it make a sound?)

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Review: The Science of Sound

Thomas D. Rossing

637 pages

Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1982

$76.70 from amazon.com (1999)

Originally published in American Lutherie #3, 1985 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume One, 2000



If you missed reading Tom Rossing’s articles on guitar acoustics in the GAL Quarterly, you may not know that he is a professor of physics at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. His field of specialization is, as you may have guessed, acoustics and particularly musical acoustics. In fact, he has taught musical acoustics for over twenty years.

“This book,” says Tom in his preface, “is intended to be an introduction to acoustics written in nontechnical language, primarily for students without college level physics and mathematics.”

He notes that the word “sound” refers to two distinct phenomena: (1) the sensation of sound, that is, the conscious experience of hearing, and (2) vibrations in a physical medium which can cause the sensation of sound. (Making this distinction he points out, answers once and for all the old riddle: If a tree falls in a forest and there is no one to hear it, does it make a sound?)

The Science of Sound covers both senses of the word, and it covers much more than musical acoustics. It is nothing less than a comprehensive overview of the entire field of acoustics (with the exception of hydro-acoustics, which is mainly of interest to the dolphins and the Navy). The book is almost encyclopedic in character, laid out in a very accessible way and richly illustrated. What I like especially was that I could open the book at random and follow the subject matter immediately. Each chapter and each section are complete in themselves and chock-full of information written in plain English. There is very little mathematics and what technical terms are used are clearly defined in vocabularies accompanying each chapter.

The book is designed to be studied: The very wide margins invite notes, pages stay flat, boxes set out material that goes deeper than the text, and ample references are provided for further study. Questions at the end of each chapter serve as a test of completeness of comprehension — if you can’t answer them, better go back and reread, and rethink what you have read.

The material is presented in eight major parts:

I. Motion, Energy, Waves, and other Physical

Principles

II. Perception and Measurement of Sound
III. Acoustics of Musical Instruments
IV. The Human Voice
V. The Electrical Production of Sound
VI. The Acoustics of Rooms
VII. Electronic Music
VIII. Environmental Noise

The musical aspects of acoustics clearly dominate, something luthiers are not likely to take issue with. Parts I, II, and VI should be required reading for all luthiers. Parts V and VII address directly the interests of the electric instrument makers.

If you know little or nothing about acoustics, this book is, as Tom intended, an excellent introduction to the field. And even if you do know something about acoustics, the breadth of the coverage is such that you’re very likely to find something in the book you didn’t know or forgot. I find it handy as a quick reference whenever a question or an idea related to acoustics arises and I’m not quite sure of my ground.

To give you an idea of the structure and detail of the text, the second part, on perception and measurement of sound, comprises four chapters dealing with hearing, sound pressure, power and loudness, pitch and timbre, and combination tones and harmony. The chapter on hearing has six sections dealing with the hearing function, structure of the ear, binaural hearing and localization, psychoacoustics, logarithms, and subjective attributes of sound.

In the third section, there is a chapter on string instruments. This chapter deals, in twelve sections, with the construction of the violin, vibrations of a plucked string, vibrations of a bowed string, vibrations of a violin body, tuning the top and back plates, other bowed instruments, new family of fiddles, construction of the guitar, guitar as a vibrating system, vibrations of the guitar body, the electric guitar, strings, frets and compensation. The harp is dealt with very briefly in the chapter on keyboard instruments. The banjo, the mandolin, the zither, the dulcimers (both kinds) seem to have escaped scientific attention.

However, this is not a book on organology or instrument construction. The breadth of coverage makes it impossible to dwell on any one topic beyond the basics. No luthier is going to learn much about the varieties of string instruments or about fine points of their construction from this book. Even the coverage of the acoustics of specific instruments is necessarily sketchy, though accurate as far as it goes. While a luthier may well find some important facts or references in the chapter on string instruments, this is not likely to be the chapter she or he will find most valuable. The chief value of the section on musical instruments is as an illustration of how fundamentals of acoustics apply in practice. The sections dealing with the fundamentals (I, II, IV, and VI) are the heart of this book as far as the practicing luthier is concerned and the ones he or she will refer to with most profit. The other sections are a good source of general information for the nonspecialist or someone with limited technical background.

In summary, The Science of Sound is a basic reference book on acoustics that covers it all in one handy volume. I keep mine in my workshop.

— Paul Wyszkowski (1985)