How Music Works by David Byrne

David Byrne
David Byrne

How Music Works (2012)

Really good book.  I am enjoying learning so many things from this book.

Here is a sample passage on p. 86 on the topic of vibrato.

Vibrato, the slight wavering in pitch, is often employed by contemporary string players, and it is a good example of the effect of recordings, because it’s something we take for granted as always having been there. We tend to think, “That’s how violin players play. That’s the nature of how one plays that instrument.” It wasn’t, and it’s not. Katz contends that before the advent of recording, vibrato added to a note was considered kitschy, tacky, and was universally frowned upon, unless one absolutely had to use it when playing in the uppermost registers. Vibrato as a technique, whether employed in a vocal performance or with a violin, helps mask pitch discrepancies, which might explain why it was considered “cheating.”  As recording became more commonplace in the early part of the twenty century, it was found that by using a bit more by vibrato, not only could the volume of the instrument be increased (very important when there was only one mic or a single huge horn to capture an orchestra or ensemble), but the pitch – now painfully and permanently apparent – could be smudged by adding the wobble.”

He continues: “I  suspect that the exact same thing happened with opera singers. I have some recordings made at the very beginning of the recording era, and there are used vibrato so much, much less frequent than what is common nowadays. Their singing is somewhat closer to what we might call pop singing today. Well, not exactly, but I find it more accessible and less  off-putting then the fuzzy, wobbly pitching typical of contemporary opera singers, who sometimes exaggerate the vibrato so much you hardly know what note they’re supposed to be hitting the less you know the song already. ” . . . Again, it’s assumed now that wobbly is how opera is supposed to be sung, but it’s not. It’s a relatively recent – and in my opinion, ugly – development forced upon music by recording technology.”

p 100 Turns out that Bing Crosby financed tape recorder from German technology brought back after the war by Jack Mullin. Crosby’s motivation: to be able to play more golf!

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