On Cymbals, Music, And Nonlinearity


nonlinear – not sequential or straightforward; (physics) involving a lack of linearity between two qualities such as input and output; (mathematics) – involving measurement in more than one dimension

One day a few weeks ago, while nowhere near any musical instruments, I found myself thinking about the sound of cymbals—how their infinite variety of pwssshhh sounds are a kind of chaotic white noise that is both interesting and sometimes annoying. Cymbals are metallic percussion instruments, specifically self-sounding idiophones that are related to gongs and bells. Sometimes cymbals have clear pitches to them, but usually they produce indefinite pitches. It’s for this reason that we don’t usually play melodies on cymbals, but instead use them to accentuate or add color to a musical texture. That’s what the drummer is doing when she plays a drum fill around the tom toms and then hits a crash cymbal to mark the beginning of the big chorus. Cymbals are excitement generators! But the reason I was thinking about cymbals is that there’s a lot going on in them sound-wise. Because of the way they’re tuned— hammered by hand or by machine—cymbals are full of overtones that are not even multiples of a fundamental frequency. This is what gives them their “shimmering” pwssshhh sound.

Thinking about the cymbal’s chaotic sound led me to thinking about how the instrument is the perfect representation of the power of nonlinearity in music. Nonlinearity is a term from mathematics and the physical sciences that describes a situation in which the change in a system’s output is not proportional to the change in the input. In other words, nonlinear is how we describe a situation in which small changes can have huge effects. Cymbals are like this in that they don’t have a single sound the way say, a piano does. A cymbal can be played anywhere along its top, bottom, or sides, and every playing location produces a different sound. The briefest of cymbal strikes can trigger an unpredictable sound shape that hovers, lingers, and decays like no other instrument’s sound can.

From the nonlinear qualities of a cymbal’s sound we can move to the implications of nonlinearity for thinking about creativity in music generally. For instance, any good music performance is a nonlinear system in which the smallest details of action can lead to momentarily wonderful or dreadful results. A performance is a complex system of many inputs and outputs whose unfolding depends not just on the performer but on the audience’s willingness to go along—or not—as well as factors having to do with the performance space, sound system, and so on. Improvising and composing are also nonlinear: here, insightful moments almost always seem to happen when one makes an unexpected leap for which there is no adequate explanation except “it felt right” at the time or “my hands just knew.” Like the cymbal crash, the performative, improvisational, or compositional moment is a brief shimmering opening into the dynamics of how creativity works.

Resonant Thoughts: Ulf Olson’s “Listening For The Secret” (2017)


“There is…an interesting dialectic of tradition and Avant-Garde at the heart of the Grateful Dead’s music, a dialectic that might be generated by the larger dislocations taking place on a worldwide scale, but enacted within a community, forming around a group of musicians, that would gradually grow until it would become a national, and to some degree even an international, phenomenon, albeit one limited predominantly to the Western world.

“Improvisation is one form of intentional dislocation, a musical one, but one that also works on a more general cultural scale, if understood as a non-programmatic approach to trying out different ways to gain control over one’s life” (21).

“Improvisation will never get there; it is always too late or too early…Improvisation denies closure, and instead destroys…in that it refuses to acknowledge such a basic assumption of Western music as even the song format” (119).

Long Tail Listening


In music, we pay a lot of attention to the onset of sounds—the point at which the sound begins its audible life. The onset of a sound is its attack point where the stick hits the drum, the bow grabs the string, the finger presses the key, and so on. From a sound’s attack we can surmise quite a bit about how the musician is doing, time- and dynamics- and timbre-wise: Are they playing in time? Are they playing loud or soft? What is the quality of sound they’re making?

But what happens after a sound’s onset point of attack is equally revealing. With some instruments, such as strings or winds, a sound’s attack is the beginning of a longer sustaining that must be maintained over time through continuous bowing or breathing. Other instruments, such as percussion, produce sounds that for the most part are attack-focused: you hit the drum and its sound disappears almost immediately after it has sounded. The only way to sustain a sound on a percussion instrument is to rapidly repeat it in the form of some sort of roll. Of course, some percussion instruments like cymbals and gongs have a more sustaining sound, but they are still attack-focused.

This situation encourages the percussionist to be a long tail listener who tracks what happens after the attack point of the sound as it either disappears immediately or else gradually diminishes to nothing. Long tail listening is about focusing on what happens next: strike a marimba note and it vanishes after a half second; strike a gong and it decays into silence over a half-minute. Either way, long tail listening shifts your attention to the effects of what you just hit, not the hitting itself, as if you’re learning to be your own GPS machine, using your location in time to look back at what just transpired to understand where you are now and where you’re going. In this way, long tail listening encourages us to slow down our music making: as we hear backwards we have time to feel the effects of those onset points of attack now gone that would otherwise have passed by unnoticed.