Le Confident

Ideas tête-à-tête

Doppler, Trumpets and Horns

If you live in Vienna or Salzburg, people interested in the history of european music will often ask you: how does it feel to live in the country of music?

Honestly, you don’t think about this question until someone asks it and even then you need a few seconds staring into its strange face to think of an answer. I think most people in Vienna are about as close to Beethoven or Brahms as any other person, except that they could more easily visit their graves if they wish. The classical and romantic music is an achievement of the past and generally, if someone pounds on his knowledge of and affinity to this kind of art, it is the result of a narrow horizon, that doesn’t allow to know other things, that are more than three steps away from their doorstep. It’s the same in Egypt for example, where Abu Simbl, Gizeh, Saqqara, Kom Ombo and all the other places are certainly a part in the world of the modern, moslem Egyptian,  but will he easily, readily identify with the polytheistic, rough culture of the past? I think that interest alone determines the ways of ones mind and geographic proximity should only account for a tiny part of your interests.

But maybe I’m wrong, and if there is a thing like Austrian affection to music, Christian Doppler would be a great example.

Surely you all know his name. In the 40’s of the 19th century he postulated, that double stars could be discerned by viewing the color of their light. They would be at approximately the same distance, but one would rotate towards the earth, the other one in the  opposed direction. The lightwave of the approaching star, he said, would show more ondulations, a higher frequency, a color nearer to violet, just like a ship has to face more waves from the direction to which it is moving.

Then, it wasn’t possible to see this. Sound however is also carried by waves and 1845 Doppler together with Ballot had the great idea to put musicians on a train and let other musicians with perfect pitch measure the differences in frequency of the advancing and departing train. Ballot used horn players, Doppler trumpeters and in both experiments, the trained ears at the stations jittered in agony over the dissonances. In the 20th century, Doppler might have chosen this same day to start a carrier as experimental composer…

I like how art has the ability to change the world from time to time. Naturally music is for me, living in Vienna, the strongest of all arts in this respect and I also like paradoxes. In any case the chain of ideas is impressive. A few years after these experiments Fizeau, who already had a glimpse of the speed of light and better equipment, was able to use the doppler shift to measure movement of stars. Some 60 years later, Edward Hubble will show by means of the doppler shift, that the universe is expanding fast and Einstein formulates the twin paradox, which states that you will age considerably slower, when traveling at the speed of light, because all information that swishes in waves will reach you more slowly. So in way, those lucky long-living bastards of the future, will resonate some of the brass music that set in motion the chain of ideas, that led to their existance.

Einstein played the violin, loved Mozarts e-minor sonata and was not Austrian. But he worked here briefly and that is enough to inspire the essence of music in every soul. It seems that it feels pretty good to live in the country of music after all but let me tell you two last, utterly important facts:

Gustav Mahler made frequent use of the doppler effect in his symphonies, where he prescribes that horns should be blown either upwards or to the ground. Also, you will seldomly see, that brass is blowing directly into the face of the audience. The doppler effect is one reason. Secondly, a “Doppler” in Austrian means a green glass bottle that contains two liters of wine, which can inspire wholly different effects, if you aren’t a musician, of course.

The Doppler Effect

Mozart K 304 e minor;

Mahler Symphony 3, 1st Movement


One comment on “Doppler, Trumpets and Horns

  1. Atreyu Crimmins
    June 10, 2012

    Very thought provoking post. I’ve always been secretly jealous of Austrians for the reason you note; and my last trip to Vienna was an exercise in ‘cultural’ retail (I’m sipping tea from a Klimt mug as I type!). I live in London and hear the same thing from tourists. The grass, ever greener. 😉 Wonderful links, especially Mahler.

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This entry was posted on May 31, 2012 by in Music, Natural Sciences and tagged , , , , , , , , , .
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