Education Resources



We are musicians, not physicists! Even so, all of us need to have at least a passing understanding of the basic physics of sound production. Only then can we decide how to approach the technical and intonation problems specific to the instruments we are playing.

Mathematicians have known the simple ratios that govern the structure of Western music for centuries.
Because sound relationships in music are regular ones, they can be described mathematically.  For those with strong interest in mathematics and physics, the subject can be really fascinating. Mathematicians and physicists have known about the simple ratios that govern the structure of Western music for centuries. However, it is only in recent decades that the physical laws regarding the manufacture of high quality musical instruments have become the subject of serious scientific study. [For those interested in investigating this subject in greater detail, I suggest Neville Fletcher and Thomas Rossing’s The Physics of Musical Instruments, Springer-Verlag, New York, 1991]

My aim here, however, is far more modest. This section is just concerned with introducing a few basic concepts that will help you understand some of the general intonation and other problems facing musicians and music instrument designers. After reading this section you should be able to answer questions such as the following:

  • What is the difference between noise and what we generally regard as musical tones?
  • What gives the various musical instruments their characteristic timbre (sound), even when they are playing at the same pitch?
  • Why do cold wind instruments tend to play flat whereas cold stringed instruments tend to play sharp?
  • Why does the interval of a minor second sound harsher than that of a major second?
  • What are flutter echoes and how might their effects be minimised?
  • And many more