Reposted from my article in ACES Magazine

"Vibrations" 

-Ken Dunckley 

Vibration: “PHYSICS -an oscillation of the parts of a fluid or an elastic solid whose equilibrium has been disturbed, or of an electromagnetic wave.” 

At some point in his career, a musician should pursue the fundamentals not just of his techniques, tone, and performance but also the underpinnings of how other disciplines affect his/her vocation. I don't know when my interest in physics occurred (I was always terrible at math) though I'm convinced it began about the same time that I became interested in guitar tones. Electric guitars are great for beginners because if you find any kind of amplifier, you can bash out “Smoke On the Water” in roughly fifteen minutes. This was my initial attraction to the instrument. 

Once my interest turned into a passion, however, the science behind tone became more intriguing. Most guitarists who have played long enough to develop opinions about other guitarists all have that terrible memory of hearing their playing and their tone the way others hear it. Nothing is more humbling than the realization that the sound generating from your amp- which you thought was the second coming of Hendrix or Clapton or Van Halen- actually sounds like killer bees trapped in a transistor radio. 

But I digress. We were talking about vibrations. 

In trying to improve my guitar tone, I began to pay attention to articles and columns in guitar and music magazines in which the physics behind the interaction of guitar and amplifier was delineated. In the most simplistic way (and I mean the MOST simplistic way) to explain it, the sound coming out of anything is generated by vibrations. When these vibrations reach the human ear, some of them are interpreted as sound waves and these waves are processed as either noise or...well, whatever the opposite of noise is. The difference between Stevie Ray Vaughan's blistering tone and another player's screeching feedback is all in how the vibrations between air molecules collide. In the hands of Jeff Beck or Jimi Hendrix, we perceive it as music. In the hands of a sullen 13-year old, it is grounds for banishment to the garage. 

The more bits and pieces I garnered about physics' influence on sound (and thus music), the better a musician I became, and more importantly, the better a human being I became (I hope). These scientific principles have such impact that we even casually refer to them in any interaction where we pick up a “vibe.” Policemen use it to catch criminals, musicians rely on it to set a mood, the average person uses it to size up a stranger. Brian Wilson wrote one of his best songs about the phenomenon. The more deeply I understood this concept, the more the applications went beyond the physical. Learning about vibrations led me to understand Hertz and frequencies since any guitar tuner is useless without them. At the basic atomic level, everything is vibrating. 

So here is where the philosophical aspect of vibrations comes into play. Everything produces its own vibration but it's the interaction and relationships between them that move the universe. When they combine in forms that we perceive as pleasurable, we consider it harmony. Except...my music professor in college would have called that concordance. Discord, as it turns out, is also a form of harmony. It is simply a matter of vibration how we determine whether something is in key or out of tune but all of it is based on a learned preconception of what we think sounds “good.” 

Metaphysically speaking, this means that all of us produce our own vibrations and whether we create concord or discord with other people's vibrations is largely up to each of us. It is the space between the notes that really makes the music and those notes are all caused by vibrations. So, if you encounter someone who is committed to causing you discord, alter the frequency of your “vibe” and if that doesn't work, change the space between your vibrations. Perhaps it will lead to more harmonious relations, perhaps not. Try it, regardless. 

You might end up making beautiful music together. 

Or you might end up in the garage with a sullen 13-year old but hey, at least you tried!

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