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Galileo on Musical Sound from Wine Glasses

From Two New Sciences, Galileo Galilei 1 (1564-1642), published in 1638.

In this passage Galileo is discussing pendulums, and digresses to discuss the "wet-finger-around-the-wine-glass" phenomoneon.

SALV. First of all one must observe that each pendulum has its own time of vibration so definite and determinate that it is not possible to make it move with any other period [altro periodo] than that which nature has given it. For let any one take in his hand the cord to which the weight is attached and try, as much as he pleases, to increase or diminish the frequency [frequenza] of its vibrations; it will be time wasted. On the other hand, one can confer motion upon even a heavy pendulum which is at rest by simply blowing against it; by repeating these blasts with a frequency which is the same as that of the pendulum one can impart considerable motion. Suppose that by the first puff we have displaced the pendulum from the vertical by, say, half an inch; then if, after the pendulum has returned and is about to begin the second vibration, we add a second puff, we shall impart additional motion; and so on with other blasts provided they are applied at the right instant, and not when the pendulum is coming toward us since in this case the blast would impede rather than aid the motion. Continuing thus with many impulses [impulsi] we impart to the pendulum such momentum [impeto] that a greater impulse [forza] than that of a single blast will be needed to stop it.

SAGR. Even as a boy, I observed that one man alone by giving these impulses at the right instant was able to ring a bell so large that when four, or even six, men seized the rope and tried to stop it they were lifted from the ground, all of them together being unable to counterbalance the momentum which a single man, by properly-timed pulls, had given it.

SALV. Your illustration makes my meaning clear and is quite as well fitted, as what I have just said, to explain the wonderful phenomenon of the strings of the cittern [cetera] or of the spinet [cimbalo], namely, the fact that a vibrating string will set another string in motion and cause it to sound not only when the latter is in unison but even when it differs from the former by an octave or a fifth. A string which has been struck begins to vibrate and continues the motion as long as one hears the sound [risonanza]; these vibrations cause the immediately surrounding air to vibrate and quiver; then these ripples in the air expand far into space and strike not only all the strings of the same instrument but even those of neighboring instruments. Since that string which is tuned to unison with the one plucked is capable of vibrating with the same frequency, it acquires, at the first impulse, a slight oscillation; after receiving two, three, twenty, or more impulses, delivered at proper intervals, it finally accumulates a vibratory motion equal to that of the plucked string, as is clearly shown by equality of amplitude in their vibrations. This undulation expands through the air and sets into vibration not only strings, but also any other body which happens to have the same period as that of the plucked string. Accordingly if we attach to the side of an instrument small pieces of bristle or other flexible bodies, we shall observe that, when a spinet is sounded, only those pieces respond that have the same period as the string which has been struck; the remaining pieces do not vibrate in response to this string, nor do the former pieces respond to any other tone.

If one bows the base string on a viola rather smartly and brings near it a goblet of fine, thin glass having the same tone [tuono] as that of the string, this goblet will vibrate and audibly resound. That the undulations of the medium are widely dispersed about the sounding body is evinced by the fact that a glass of water may be made to emit a tone merely by the friction of the finger-tip upon the rim of the glass; for in this water is produced a series of regular waves. The same phenomenon is observed to better advantage by fixing the base of the goblet upon the bottom of a rather large vessel of water filled nearly to the edge of the goblet; for if, as before, we sound the glass by friction of the finger, we shall see ripples spreading with the utmost regularity and with high speed to large distances about the glass. I have often remarked, in thus sounding a rather large glass nearly full of water, that at first the waves are spaced with great uniformity, and when, as sometimes happens, the tone of the glass jumps an octave higher I have noted that at this moment each of the aforesaid waves divides into two; a phenomenon which shows clearly that the ratio involved in the octave [forma dell' ottava] is two.

SAGR. More than once have I observed this same thing, much to my delight and also to my profit. For a long time I have been perplexed about these different harmonies since the explanations hitherto given by those learned in music impress me as not sufficiently conclusive. They tell us that the diapason, i. e. the octave, involves the ratio of two, that the diapente which we call the fifth involves a ratio of 3:2, etc.; because if the open string of a monochord be sounded and afterwards a bridge be placed in the middle and the half length be sounded one hears the octave; and if the bridge be placed at 1/3 the length of the string, then on plucking first the open string and afterwards 2/3 of its length the fifth is given; for this reason they say that the octave depends upon the ratio of two to one [contenuta tra'l due e l'uno] and the fifth upon the ratio of three to two. This explanation does not impress me as sufficient to establish 2 and 3/2 as the natural ratios of the octave and the fifth; and my reason for thinking so is as follows. There are three different ways in which the tone of a string may be sharpened, namely, by shortening it, by stretching it and by making it thinner. If the tension and size of the string remain constant one obtains the octave by shortening it to one-half, i. e., by sounding first the open string and then one-half of it; but if length and size remain constant and one attempts to produce the octave by stretching he will find that it does not suffice to double the stretching weight; it must be quadrupled; so that, if the fundamental note is produced by a weight of one pound, four will be required to bring out the octave.

And finally if the length and tension remain constant, while one changes the size* of the string he will find that in order to produce the octave the size must be reduced to 1/4 that which gave the fundamental. And what I have said concerning the octave, namely, that its ratio as derived from the tension and size of the string is the square of that derived from the length, applies equally well to all other musical intervals [intervalli musici]. Thus if one wishes to produce a fifth by changing the length he finds that the ratio of the lengths must be sesquialteral, in other words he sounds first the open string, then two-thirds of it; but if he wishes to produce this same result by stretching or thinning the string then it becomes necessary to square the ratio 3/2 that is by taking 9/4 [dupla sesquiquarta]; accordingly, if the fundamental requires a weight of 4 pounds, the higher note will be produced not by 6, but by 9 pounds; the same is true in regard to size, the string which gives the fundamental is larger than that which yields the fifth in the ratio of 9 to 4.

In view of these facts, I see no reason why those wise philosophers should adopt 2 rather than 4 as the ratio of the octave, or why in the case of the fifth they should employ the sesquialteral ratio, 3/2, rather than that of 9/4. Since it is impossible to count the vibrations of a sounding string on account of its high frequency, I should still have been in doubt as to whether a string, emitting the upper octave, made twice as many vibrations in the same time as one giving the fundamental, had it not been for the following fact, namely, that at the instant when the tone jumps to the octave, the waves which constantly accompany the vibrating glass divide up into smaller ones which are precisely half as long as the former.

SALV. This is a beautiful experiment enabling us to distinguish individually the waves which are produced by the vibrations of a sonorous body, which spread through the air, bringing to the tympanum of the ear a stimulus which the mind translates into sound. But since these waves in the water last only so long as the friction of the finger continues and are, even then, not constant but are always forming and disappearing, would it not be a fine thing if one had the ability to produce waves which would persist for a long while, even months and years, so as to easily measure and count them?

SAGR. Such an invention would, I assure you, command my admiration.

SALV. The device is one which I hit upon by accident; my part consists merely in the observation of it and in the appreciation of its value as a confirmation of something to which I had given profound consideration; and yet the device is, in itself, rather common. As I was scraping a brass plate with a sharp iron chisel in order to remove some spots from it and was running the chisel rather rapidly over it, I once or twice, during many strokes, heard the plate emit a rather strong and clear whistling sound; on looking at the plate more carefully, I noticed a long row of fine streaks parallel and equidistant from one another. Scraping with the chisel over and over again, I noticed that it was only when the plate emitted this hissing noise that any marks were left upon it; when the scraping was not accompanied by this sibilant note there was not the least trace of such marks. Repeating the trick several times and making the stroke, now with greater now with less speed, the whistling followed with a pitch which was correspondingly higher and lower. I noted also that the marks made when the tones were higher were closer together; but when the tones were deeper, they were farther apart. I also observed that when, during a single stroke, the speed increased toward the end the sound became sharper and the streaks grew closer together, but always in such a way as to remain sharply defined and equidistant. Besides whenever the stroke was accompanied by hissing I felt the chisel tremble in my grasp and a sort of shiver run through my hand. In short we see and hear in the case of the chisel precisely that which is seen and heard in the case of a whisper followed by a loud voice; for, when the breath is emitted without the production of a tone, one does not feel either in the throat or mouth any motion to speak of in comparison with that which is felt in the larynx and upper part of the throat when the voice is used, especially when the tones employed are low and strong.

At times I have also observed among the strings of the spinet two which were in unison with two of the tones produced by the aforesaid scraping; and among those which differed most in pitch I found two which were separated by an interval of a perfect fifth. Upon measuring the distance between the markings produced by the two scrapings it was found that the space which contained 45 of one contained 30 of the other, which is precisely the ratio assigned to the fifth.

But now before proceeding any farther I want to call your attention to the fact that, of the three methods for sharpening a tone, the one which you refer to as the fineness of the string should be attributed to its weight. So long as the material of the string is unchanged the size and weight vary in the same ratio. Thus in the case of gut-strings, we obtain the octave by making one string 4 times as large as the other; so also in the case of brass one wire must have 4 times the size of the other; but if now we wish to obtain the octave of a gut-string, by use of brass wire, we must make it, not four times as large, but four times as heavy as the gut-string: as regards size therefore the metal string is not four times as big but four times as heavy. The wire may therefore be even thinner than the gut notwithstanding the fact that the latter gives the higher note. Hence if two spinets are strung, one with gold wire the other with brass, and if the corresponding strings each have the same length, diameter, and tension it follows that the instrument strung with gold will have a pitch about one-fifth lower than the other because gold has a density almost twice that of brass. And here it is to be noted that it is the weight rather than the size of a moving body which offers resistance to change of motion [velocità del moto] contrary to what one might at first glance think. For it seems reasonable to believe that a body which is large and light should suffer greater retardation of motion in thrusting aside the medium than would one which is thin and heavy; yet here exactly the opposite is true.

Returning now to the original subject of discussion, I assert that the ratio of a musical interval is not immediately determined either by the length, size, or tension of the strings but rather by the ratio of their frequencies, that is, by the number of pulses of air waves which strike the tympanum of the ear, causing it also to vibrate with the same frequency. This fact established, we may possibly explain why certain pairs of notes, differing in pitch produce a pleasing sensation, others a less pleasant effect, and still others a disageeable sensation. Such an explanation would be tantamount to an explanation of the more or less perfect consonances and of dissonances. The unpleasant sensation produced by the latter arises, I think, from the discordant vibrations of two different tones which strike the ear out of time [sproporzionatamente]. Especially harsh is the dissonance between notes whose frequencies are incommensurable; such a case occurs when one has two strings in unison and sounds one of them open, together with a part of the other which bears the same ratio to its whole length as the side of a square bears to the diagonal; this yields a dissonance similar to the augmented fourth or diminished fifth [tritono o semidiapente].

Agreeable consonances are pairs of tones which strike the ear with a certain regularity; this regularity consists in the fact that the pulses delivered by the two tones, in the same interval of time, shall be commensurable in number, so as not to keep the ear drum in perpetual torment, bending in two different directions in order to yield to the ever-discordant impulses.

The first and most pleasing consonance is, therefore, the octave since, for every pulse given to the tympanum by the lower string, the sharp string delivers two; accordingly at every other vibration of the upper string both pulses are delivered simultaneously so that one-half the entire number of pulses are delivered in unison. But when two strings are in unison their vibrations always coincide and the effect is that of a single string; hence we do not refer to it as consonance. The fifth is also a pleasing interval since for every two vibrations of the lower string the upper one gives three, so that considering the entire number of pulses from the upper string one-third of them will strike in unison, i. e., between each pair of concordant vibrations there intervene two single vibrations; and when the interval is a fourth, three single vibrations intervene. In case the interval is a second where the ratio is 9/8 it is only every ninth vibration of the upper string which reaches the ear simultaneously with one of the lower; all the others are discordant and produce a harsh effect upon the recipient ear which interprets them as dissonances.

SIMP. Won't you be good enough to explain this argument a little more clearly?

SALV. Let AB denote the length of a wave [lo spazio e la dilatazione d'una vibrazione] emitted by the lower string and CD that of a higher string which is emitting the octave of AB; divide AB in the middle at E. If the two strings begin their motions at A and C, it is clear that when the sharp vibration has reached the end D, the other vibration will have travelled only as far as E, which, not being a terminal point, will emit no pulse; but there is a blow delivered at D. Accordingly when the one wave comes back from D to C, the other passes on from E to B; hence the two pulses from B and C strike the drum of the ear simultaneously. Seeing that these vibrations are repeated again and again in the same manner, we conclude that each alternate pulse from CD falls in unison with one from AB. But each of the pulsations at the terminal points, A and B, is constantly accompanied by one which leaves always from C or always from D. This is clear because if we suppose the waves to reach A and C at the same instant, then, while one wave travels from A to B, the other will proceed from C to D and back to C, so that waves strike at C and B simultaneously; during the passage of the wave from B back to A the disturbance at C goes to D and again returns to C, so that once more the pulses at A and C are simultaneous.

Next let the vibrations AB and CD be separated by an interval of a fifth, that is, by a ratio of 3/2; choose the points E and O such that they will divide the wave length of the lower string into three equal parts and imagine the vibrations to start at the same instant from each of the terminals A and C. It is evident that when the pulse has been delivered at the terminal D, the wave in AB has travelled only as far as O; the drum of the ear receives, therefore, only the pulse from D. Then during the return of the one vibration from D to C, the other will pass from O to B and then back to O, producing an isolated pulse at B -- a pulse which is out of time but one which must be taken into consideration.

Now since we have assumed that the first pulsations started from the terminals A and C at the same instant, it follows that the second pulsation, isolated at D, occurred after an interval of time equal to that required for passage from C to D or, what is the same thing, from A to O; but the next pulsation, the one at B, is separated from the preceding by only half this interval, namely, the time required for passage from O to B. Next while the one vibration travels from O to A, the other travels from C to D, the result of which is that two pulsations occur simultaneously at A and D. Cycles of this kind follow one after another, i. e., one solitary pulse of the lower string interposed between two solitary pulses of the upper string. Let us now imagine time to be divided into very small equal intervals; then if we assume that, during the first two of these intervals, the disturbances which occurred simultaneously at A and C have travelled as far as O and D and have produced a pulse at D; and if we assume that during the third and fourth intervals one disturbance returns from D to C, producing a pulse at C, while the other, passing on from O to B and back to O, produces a pulse at B; and if finally, during the fifth and sixth intervals, the disturbances travel from O and C to A and D, producing a pulse at each of the latter two, then the sequence in which the pulses strike the ear will be such that, if we begin to count time from any instant where two pulses are simultaneous, the ear drum will, after the lapse of two of the said intervals, receive a solitary pulse; at the end of the third interval, another solitary pulse; so also at the end of the fourth interval; and two intervals later, i. e., at the end of the sixth interval, will be heard two pulses in unison. Here ends the cycle -- the anomaly, so to speak -- which repeats itself over and over again.

SAGR. I can no longer remain silent; for I must express to you the great pleasure I have in hearing such a complete explanation of phenomena with regard to which I have so long been in darkness. Now I understand why unison does not differ from a single tone; I understand why the octave is the principal harmony, but so like unison as often to be mistaken for it and also why it occurs with the other harmonies. It resembles unison because the pulsations of strings in unison always occur simultaneously, and those of the lower string of the octave are always accompanied by those of the upper string; and among the latter is interposed a solitary pulse at equal intervals and in such a manner as to produce no disturbance; the result is that such a harmony is rather too much softened and lacks fire. But the fifth is characterized by its displaced beats and by the interposition of two solitary beats of the upper string and one solitary beat of the lower string between each pair of simultaneous pulses; these three solitary pulses are separated by intervals of time equal to half the interval which separates each pair of simultaneous beats from the solitary beats of the upper string. Thus the effect of the fifth is to produce a tickling of the ear drum such that its softness is modified with sprightliness, giving at the same moment the impression of a gentle kiss and of a bite.

SALV. Seeing that you have derived so much pleasure from these novelties, I must show you a method by which the eye may enjoy the same game as the ear. Suspend three balls of lead, or other heavy material, by means of strings of different length such that while the longest makes two vibrations the shortest will make four and the medium three; this will take place when the longest string measures 16, either in hand breadths or in any other unit, the medium 9 and the shortest 4, all measured in the same unit.

Now pull all these pendulums aside from the perpendicular and release them at the same instant; you will see a curious interplay of the threads passing each other in various manners but such that at the completion of every fourth vibration of the longest pendulum, all three will arrive simultaneously at the same terminus, whence they start over again to repeat the same cycle. This combination of vibrations, when produced on strings is precisely that which yields the interval of the octave and the intermediate fifth. If we employ the same disposition of apparatus but change the lengths of the threads, always however in such a way that their vibrations correspond to those of agreeable musical intervals, we shall see a different crossing of these threads but always such that, after a definite interval of time and after a definite number of vibrations, all the threads, whether three or four, will reach the same terminus at the same instant, and then begin a repetition of the cycle.

If however the vibrations of two or more strings are incommensurable so that they never complete a definite number of vibrations at the same instant, or if commensurable they return only after a long interval of time and after a large number of vibrations, then the eye is confused by the disorderly succession of crossed threads. In like manner the ear is pained by an irregular sequence of air waves which strike the tympanum without any fixed order.

1 Dialogues Concerning Two New Sciences, Galilei, Galileo; trans. Crew, H. and de Salvio, A; Dover Publications, New York; ISBN 0-486-60099-8