Friday, April 26, 2013

Multiphonics Dissected

I've been using multiphonic as part of my tone practice over a long period of time, and while I have always thought of them as an interesting extended technique, I'd primarily viewed their purpose as a tone building exercise. More recently I began to better understand their mechanics and, in result, gained the ability to use them in musical contexts.

Basic Mechanics of a Multiphonic Fingering

Multiphonic fingerings are actually rather simple. They create at least one open tone hole in the middle of the air column that allows the air to alternate between at least two different fingerings. I have understood this basic concept for some time, which has allowed me to create my own multiphonic fingerings. While creating some of my own fingerings I came to a more significant discovery, which was that if I started with a normal fingering, left an open tone hole, and closed some of the keys further down, I could in many instances create a multiphonic that included my original pitch. This discovery allowed me to create multiphonic fingerings which predictably included a desired pitch. DISCLAIMER: This doesn't work for every fingering, however it does work nicely for quite a few of the notes.

Here is a basic example. On the left is my multiphonic fingering on A. You can see the a fingering held down in the left hand with the g key left open. Then in the lower right hand you can see a number of other keys held down in succession. The open G allows the air column to alternate between the two fingerings. Of course it produces a number of different pitches, but A is clearly discernible, and that's what makes the fingering predictable and possibly useful! I have seen various analyses of multiphonic fingerings before outlining all their suggested notes, but I hadn't yet made a clear connection between the fingering and any of the actual pitches, so discerning this connection naturally made me more interested.

After some further experimentation I also realized that the lower fingering often predictably created a note as well, often at the 2nd harmonic, an octave and pefect 5th higher than original fingering. For example, the fingering on the left also produced a Bb an octave and a fifth higher than the low Eb fingering. Crazy sounding, interesting, and, happily, comprehensible. Not all multiphonic fingerings are this easily understood, but many are.

Classifying Multiphonics by a Single Pitch

From here I decided I could likely create a system of multiphonic fingerings that I could actually use. Most multiphonic produce sufficient pitches to make up complex 9th chords, so focusing in on just one (or sometimes two) of their pitches allows me to utilize the fingerings in a simpler and melodic way. In order to think this way, you do have to accept a lot of collateral damage however, meaning a lot of notes that have nothing to do with your desired note or even the scale, chord, or tonality you're dealing with.

At this point, I'm well on my way to constructing a chromatic scale, but I haven't quite put all the pieces in place, so, for the moment, below is a diagram of multiphonic fingerings for the C major scale. The G fingering appears to be the normal octave key G fingering, but if you relax your airstream slightly it produces a nasty multiphonic (beginners do this all the time). I should also say that the desired pitches don't always sound in the same octave in successive fingerings. For example, the A fingering's A sounds in the lower octave and the B fingering's B sounds in the higher octave. (For what it's worth, I'm not terribly satisfied with my B fingering. I'd like to find something where the B was stronger.)

Here is a clip of a C multiphonic major scale (It sounds terrible, which is pretty much default setting for multiphonics): Multiphonic C Major Scale.mp3


  1. YO the MP3 is CRAZY. I just had the thought the other day about coming up with some original fingerings and I find this. Very interesting stuff, Ben.

    1. Brian, I'm glad you're digging it. I still work on these a little at a time. I'm almost to the point where I can use them musically. They are pretty fun.