Pip Eastop, Horn player, Photographer, Trumpet player

Horn player, Photographer, Trumpet player

The starts of notes

I’d like to try to explain why the quality of the starts of notes is so important and I’ll start off by saying something which may sound surprising, or even silly:

After you start the note, nobody is listening any more.

They are still hearing you – but they’re not hearing what you are playing right now because they are still hearing the start of the note – its very first instant. That is the way human ears work. There’s no escaping it.

Try this:
Pick a note somewhere comfortably within your singing range and sing one of these (it doesn’t matter which one), lasting a few seconds:


The interesting thing here is that although the consonant at the beginning lasts only, say, one hundredth of the duration of the sound, it pervades the whole thing. In other words, the sound at the start, and its meaning, pervades the entire length of the sound.

To test this, try the same sound again, this time without the consonant at the beginning, for example:
Compare “POOOOOOOOOOOOOOO”, (sing it out loud) with “OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO”.

Despite the fact that the difference is absolutely minute (in that only the first fraction of a second is different) the meaning is quite different all the way through.

The same thing happens when we play the horn. If you play a note with a perfect start, the whole duration of the note sounds great. Whereas if you fluff, crack, split or even slightly wobble at the start of a note, this effect is perceived throughout its duration. In other words the entire note is permeated by whatever evil happens right at the beginning.

What this means is that the quality of the first instant of any note is crucially important. In fact, it’s the only thing people will hear. Whatever you do to the remainder of the note, you cannot fix a bad start.

In other words, you cannot hear “POOOOOOOOOOOOOOO”, as, “OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO”, or vice versa. Try it.

So if you crack a note and it’s a long one, the crack stays there all the way through the note.

So, in terms of investment of precious practice time, that first fraction of a second is where to do some serious work.

6 Responses

  1. Roger Harvey

    I’ve been telling my students for years about an acoustics book I had at university – it included a plastic record with examples of various acoustical things. One of the sets of examples was of a similar note played by a number of instruments (trumpet, flute, violin, oboe etc) with the beginning taken off. It was almost impossible to tell which instrument it was. I’ve used it to try to encourage them to pay particular attention to the character of the sound that is created by the initial production. Good to see that I am not alone in this.
    Best wishes


    Dec 11, 2009 at 12:42 pm

    • Hi Rodger,
      I heard about that experiment many years ago but have often wondered whether it was real or some kind of false memory. Not being sure, I didn’t want to refer to it in the above. I wonder if it’s possible to find any documentation about this. Do you know if it exists on the www anywhere?

      Dec 11, 2009 at 6:20 pm

  2. Roger Harvey

    (Roger not Rodger)
    It definitely existed – I remember being fascinated by the discovery and, as I say, often refer to it. I’m not sure if I still have the book but I’ve got to clamber into the loft to get the Christmas decorations out tomorrow so I’ll see if I can find it amongst the books I’ve had for many years, never looked at but haven’t thrown away because they might come in useful sometime. This might just be the long-awaited justification for carting them from house to house, or should I say, loft to loft.
    Failing that, I suppose, with the technology available today you could easily reconstruct this for real – play some notes into Garage Band or whatever you have and clip off the first half a second.
    Best wishes


    Dec 11, 2009 at 11:24 pm

    • Well, funny you should say so. I’ve often thought of doing just that. I would be so easy now: just invite a few musicians around with their instruments – say, an oboist, a trombonist, a viola player and an organist… and get them to play, say, A (=440), into a microphone. Then I’d have to whip out Audacity to chop off the attacks. I’m absolutely confident that every instrument would sound pretty much the same. I’ so confident that I won’t even bother with the invitations.
      It makes a lot of sense, in terms of the evolution of our hearing mechanism, that we process the very starts of sounds to get as much information about them as we can, and then ignore what comes next. The growl of a sabre-toothed tiger, for example – everyone knows how it starts, but nobody has heard the development section. Either they ran away or got sabred.
      Do let me know if you find the book.

      Dec 12, 2009 at 12:43 am

  3. Roger Harvey

    Good news and bad news: It was the first book I saw in the first box I opened! The disc is not with it. You are welcome to borrow the book though – I’ve just flicked through a few bits and it is a very good physics based introduction to numerous aspects of musical acoustics. ‘The Physics of Musical Sounds’ by C. A. Taylor
    Are you in with the LPO soon? I could send it with Anne.

    PS Could you send me an ordinary e-mail so I don’t have to check your site for replies?

    Dec 12, 2009 at 1:07 pm

  4. Tony Pay

    Very good, Pip! I read this here before, but a reminder-tweet was welcome.

    In addition, of course, the beginning of a note or phrase is where the relationship between:

    the CONTENT (of what you’re now playing) and

    the CONTEXT (of what others — and perhaps you yourself — have just been playing)

    …is most evident.

    (As an aphorism: “It’s where the content hits the context”:-)

    Effective performance, a large part of which is the creation and management of context — atmosphere, mood, or what you will — is therefore crucially dependent on beginnings.


    Jul 8, 2010 at 11:03 am

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