How the Oboe Works
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How the Oboe Works
The oboe belongs to the group of instruments called the woodwinds. However, it can be further classifies as all instruments can. Instruments can be further classified by what vibrates to produce a sound. In the case of the oboe it is air that vibrates and so it is classified as an aero phone, or enclosed or free masses of air.
There are three essential parts to every instrument. 1-The essential vibrating substance. 2-The connected reflector, amplifier, or resonator. 3-Other sound altering devices. In the oboe these parts are the reed, the resonator, and the multiple keys.
The original source of air comes from the oboist blowing air into the reed. The oboe has a double reed. When air is blown it goes over and under the reeds and causes them to vibrate. When both of these reeds are vibrating they pinch together rapidly. This consequently disturbs the stream of air that is passing between the reeds. This disturbance causes air molecules to bunch up leaving an empty space behind them. The bunch of molecules is called a condensation, and the somewhat empty space of thinned out molecules is called a rare fraction. The condensation and rare fraction of the air molecules are characteristics of a longitudinal or sound wave. This process happens very rapidly, and is obviously followed briefly by the next puff of air, making the wave continuous.
This wave passes through the resonator. The resonator is an object that has a specific period of vibration. The air passes through the resonator. This creates a specifically ordered vibration, and a constant frequency. That is why resonators are often used in instruments to reinforce the sound of a pitch.
This specifically vibrating air enters the length of the oboe. The bore is the interior diameter of the oboe. It has a conical shape in the case of the oboe. The diameter at the top of the bore is smaller than the diameter at the bottom of the bore. As well as being conical the bore is also very narrow in the oboe. Therefore, when the air is in the bore it is at a higher pressure at the top than at the bottom, because the air passes from a smaller opening to a larger opening.
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Molecules Reed Bunch Disturbance Diameter Instruments Multiple Pitch Parts Wave
This causes the air to speed up as it exits from the bottom opening of the oboe. Therefore, the speeding up of the sound wave causes the frequency of the wave to increase. Changes in the frequency of the wave in a musical instrument result in a change in the pitch. So the oboe has a higher frequency sound wave and a resultantly higher pitch, which is characteristic of the oboe. It is the highest pitched member of the double-reed instruments.
As well as affecting the pitch of the oboe, the shape of the bore also determines the characteristic timbre of the instrument. The timbre of the sound is influenced by harmonics in the sound wave. Harmonics are a series of supplementary vibrations that go along with main wave vibration. The main wave can bounce off of the inside of the bore creating these supplementary vibrations. The angle with which they reflect will affect the length of the vibration. The conical shape of the bore reflects the subsidiary waves in a certain direction giving them a certain length. The shorter the waves become the faster the frequencies, and the higher the pitch. So the shape of the oboe determines the length of the subsidiary waves, thus the pitch, and thus the overtones. The mixture of overtones you here is called the timbre.
There are other ways to change the sounds of the oboe. This is through the use of keys. Throughout the bore there are holes of various size. These holes change the amount of air that is passing through the instrument all the way until the end. The keys are used to cover these holes. When different keys are pressed down the amount of air leaving the instrument changes. With these open holes, air can flow in and out of the instrument before actually exiting the real bottom of the instrument. This changes the oboe's "length". Even a small change in length can lead to a change in the vibration frequency. When more holes are open the frequency increases and the pitch is thus higher, so you hear a higher note. When their is no air exiting before the real bottom, all the keys are pressed down, the lowest note is heard, because the frequency isn't increased by any source.
This is how the oboe works.
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If Sergei Prokofiev had composed nothing except “Peter and the Wolf,” he would have left a sizable mark. The work has helped introduce generations of children to the instruments of the orchestra and the concept of telling a story through music, fulfilling the goal Prokofiev set for himself in 1936. Although this particular narrative, also written by the composer, isn’t entirely cheery — the wolf’s swallowing of an unfortunate duck comes to mind — the sonic side of things is so inventive and engaging that the whole thing seems somehow thoroughly uplifting. Even in the sometimes darker, moodier version of “Peter & the Wolf” brilliantly directed by animator Suzie Templeton being shown on GREAT PERFORMANCES, there is an affecting turn toward the light (moonlight, in this case) at the end. Since the score’s ingenious match of character to instrument enables listeners of practically any age to envision the scenes easily, the brief, original text gets the job done neatly. But chances are, Prokofiev would have loved the way Templeton opens up the story, providing such a rich world of imagery and action that no words are spoken at all, while the music is treated with total respect.
In 1935, in addition to working on his stunning ballet score “Romeo and Juliet,” Prokofiev wrote several short pieces for children, a genre that suddenly seemed to be in demand. Fortuitously, during this same period, the composer attended a couple of events at the Moscow Children’s Musical Theater, taking his own kids along. The director invited him to write something for the theater, and Prokofiev quickly accepted. “In the spring of 1936,” he recorded in his diary, “I started a symphonic tale for children titled ‘Peter and the Wolf,’ Op. 67, to a text of my own. [Prokofiev had first rejected a text prepared by a poet recommended by the theater director, on the grounds that it was clichéd.] Every character in the story had its own motif played each time by the same instrument. … Before each performance, the instruments were shown to the children and the themes played for them; during the performance, the children heard the themes repeated several times and learned to recognize the timbres of the different instruments. The text was read during the pauses in the music, which was disproportionately longer than the text — for me, the story was important only as a means of inducing the children to listen to the music.”
Clearly inspired by the concept, Prokofiev finished composing in one week, taking just another week to do the orchestration. A measure of his devotion to the project can be seen in the fact that he agreed to accept whatever fee the theater could afford.
The scenario of “Peter and the Wolf” is straightforward. A boy (depicted by strings) wanders through nature, observing a duck (oboe), a bird (flute), and a cat (clarinet). The cat tries to catch the bird. Peter’s grandfather (bassoon) admonishes him for wandering in a place where a wolf might attack and makes him return home. From that safe place, sure enough, Peter soon sees a wolf (horns) arrive on the scene. The wolf wolfs down the duck and then threatens the bird and cat. Determined to thwart the aggressor, Peter sneaks back outside and manages to catch the animal, with the help of the bird and a rope. When hunters (lots of timpani and bass drum) arrive on the scene, anxious to kill the wolf, Peter urges them to let the animal be taken to a zoo instead. As they all head off in happy procession, the duck can be heard quacking inside the wolf’s stomach, “for, in his hurry, the wolf had swallowed her whole.”
As Harlow Robinson writes in his 1987 biography of Prokofiev, “If the story has a moral, it seems to be this: don’t be afraid to challenge established beliefs (Grandfather’s caution) or to take risks. It is Peter’s independence, shrewdness and courage that save the day; if he hadn’t disobeyed his grandfather by climbing over the wall, the wolf would never have been caught. Seen in this light, ‘Peter and the Wolf’ is a subtly subversive tract, encouraging children to rely on their wits and not on the greater experience (and inertia) of their elders.”
It’s entirely possible, of course, to view the piece as pure entertainment and music appreciation, devoid of any hidden message.
The first performance featured Prokofiev at the keyboard and was a hit with the young audience at the Children’s Theater. A formal, public performance a few days later “was rather poor and did not attract much attention,” the composer entered into his diary. But the fate of “Peter and the Wolf” quickly improved. Within a few weeks, yet another performance was given in Moscow, and this time, there was no mistaking the triumph. In short order, the work was charming audiences far beyond Soviet Russia. It clearly knew no geographic or demographic boundaries. And the educational element was grasped from the start; concerts for young people were not complete without it.
That Prokofiev should have created such a masterpiece isn’t at all surprising. Robinson explains it neatly: “Long after his own idyllic childhood, he continued to love children for their unfettered imagination, sense of play and inability to dissimulate. That he never forgot what it meant to be a child, and how children think, is evident in the playful but never condescending music he wrote for them, most of all the phenomenally successful ‘Peter and the Wolf,’ written when Prokofiev was a boy of forty-five.”
Over the decades, the work has been performed by virtually every orchestra and conductor and has also attracted an endless list of narrators, including an impressive number of A-listers from virtually every field, among them Sting, David Bowie, Patrick Stewart, John Gielgud, Sophia Loren, Sean Connery, Boris Karloff, Jack Lemmon, William F. Buckley, Captain Kangaroo, and the inimitable Dame Edna Everage (a.k.a. Barry Humphries). And, of course, there have been many comic takeoffs on the story as well, including those by the likes of Weird Al Yankovic, P.D.Q. Bach (a.k.a. Peter Schickele), and Allan Sherman.
Now comes Suzie Templeton’s provocative animated, wordless version, set in our own time and in a Russia that, on the surface, does not seem to have improved much from the bleakest Soviet days. But in that ominous world, the spirit of an inquisitive, sensitive, brave boy glows and grows as brightly as ever.
Prokofiev, Sergei. SOVIET DIARY 1927 AND OTHER WRITINGS. Trans. and ed. Oleg Prokofiev. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1992.
Robinson, Harlow. SERGEI PROKOFIEV: A BIOGRAPHY. New York: Viking Penguin, 1987.
Tim Smith is the classical music critic of THE BALTIMORE SUN. He has also written for THE NEW YORK TIMES, OPERA NEWS, and BBC MUSIC MAGAZINE, among other publications. His writing has won several regional and national journalism awards, including a first place in arts criticism from the American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors. He is the author of THE NPR CURIOUS LISTENER’S GUIDE TO CLASSICAL MUSIC (Perigee Books).