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What's in your Music

The Hz's and the dB's of Real Music!

[Italian version]

Recently there has been quite a discussion on the TNT forum regarding bass performance. One correspondent asked whether a piano got down as low as 50 Hz and it made me realise that most of us don't really know what frequencies various instruments are capable of.
In my research I also found some interesting stuff on the intensity of sound and what we actually mean when we talk about decibels. Though the following is only a small selection it may help solve all those bar room (and forum) arguments...

Audible frequency range of musical instruments and the human voice.

These for obvious reasons are acoustic instruments and unamplified. The frequency refers to fundamental tones only. To give an extreme example a massive church bell such as 'Big Ben' will produce low frequencies you can feel in your gut and yet the harmonics will go way beyond the range of human hearing.

Instrument Frequency range Hz
Piano (concert) 27.50 - 4,186.00
Bass Tuba 43.65 - 349.23
Double Bass 41.20 - 246.94
Cello 65.41 - 987.77
Viola 130.81 -1,174.00
Violin 196.00 - 3,136.00
Clarinet 164.81 - 1,567.00
Flute 261.63 - 3,349.30
French horn 110.00 - 880.00
Trombone 82.41 - 493.88
Trumpet 164.81 - 987.77
Guitar 82.41 - 880.00

Human voice

These are the ranges demanded in classical opera, hence the decimal point accuracy...

Type of voice Frequency range Hz
Bass 87.31 - 349.23
Baritone 98.00 - 392.00
Tenor 130 - 493.88
Contralto 130.81 - 698.46
Soprano 246.94 - 1,174.70

Interesting that a sound system will produce almost all the musical fundamentals of an orchestra without bothering the tweeter... thank Heaven for harmonics!

Sound pressure levels

This is a simple scale based on every day observations similar to the beaufort wind scale. Remember that the decibel is a log scale so that a 3dB increase is a doubling of the actual sound energy, 10dB represents a ten fold increase. However to complicate matters the human ear is not linear and perceives a 10 dB increase as a very approximate doubling of volume.

Sound level (dB) approximate observed equivalent.

  1. Sound proof room, threshold of hearing.
  1. Rustle of leaves in a breeze.
  1. Whisper
  1. Quiet conversation
  1. Conversation at home
  1. Typical outside conversation
  1. Noise in a large shop (no musac ;-))
  1. City street
  1. Noisy office with typing (you need to raise your voice)
  1. Underground railway train passing
  1. Pneumatic Drill at 3 m
  1. Prop aircraft taking off
  1. Jet aircraft taking off - threshold of pain.

Remember that anything over 80 dB can damage hearing over time.

Audible intensity of musical instruments

This is a guide to the sort of sound pressure levels acoustic instruments produce unamplified. No distances were given but I'd guess pretty close - a couple of metres perhaps.

Instrument Range measured in dB
Bass drum 35 - 115
Cymbal 40 - 110
Organ (orchestral) 35 - 110
Piano 60 - 100
Trumpet 55 - 95
Violin 42 - 95

Surprises? Well I never thought a violin could produce more sound than a subway train, and the Piano seems surprisingly lacking in dynamics. It's also sobering to realise that few hi-fi systems will show the full dynamics of the first four on the list - but would you want to be in the room if they did?

Copyright © 1999 Geoff Husband - https://www.tnt-audio.com

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