Mute (music)

From Academic Kids

A mute is a device which alters the timbre or reduces the volume of a musical instrument.

The use of a mute is indicated in sheet music by the direction con sordino (often abbreviated to con sord.). That the mute should be removed is indicated by senza sordino (or senza sord.).

Contents

String instruments

On string instruments of the violin family, the mute takes the form of some device attached to the bridge of the instrument, stopping it from vibrating so much and resulting in a "softer" sound. Usually this takes the form of a small three-prong implement which is attached to the top of the bridge with one prong between each pair of strings, although anything which stops the bridge vibrating will suffice, and sprung clothes pegs, for example, have been used.

A more modern invention is a mute which sits on the strings between the bridge and tailpiece of the instrument. This is slid into place right next to the bridge to produce the same effect as the detachable three-pronged mutes.

Heavy "practice mutes" are available for string instruments. These also fix onto the bridge of the instrument and reduce its loudness. They are not used in any serious context, but can be useful to reduce the volume of the instrument when practicing.

On the cello a wolf mute is often attached to the G-string between the bridge and the tailpiece. This does not change the timbre of the instrument on the whole, but helps to eliminate the wolf note which is found on many cellos around a sixth or seventh above the open G-string.

One of the earliest examples in the use of muted string instruments is found in Act II of Jean-Baptiste Lully's Armide, when the entire string section sporadically plays with mutes. However, the use of mutes did not become widespread in classical music until the 19th century when romantic composers sought new timbres from the orchestra. By the 20th century the use of mutes was common.

Brass instruments

A variety of mutes have been used on brass instruments, all of which fit into the bell of the instrument. The most common type is the straight mute, a hollow, cone-shaped mute that fits into the bell of the instrument. This results in a more metallic, almost nasal sound, and when played at loud volumes can result in a very piercing note. Straight mutes have small pieces of cork attached to the end that squeeze against the inside of the bell and hold the mute in place. In French horn technique, "hand stopping", where the player puts his hand right up the bell of the instrument, blocking it, results in a similar effect.

Another common brass mute is the cup mute. Cup mutes are similar to straight mutes, but attached to the end of the mute is a large lip that forms a cup over the bell. The result is a rounder, more muffled tone.

Trumpet players often use harmon mutes. Harmon mutes are hollow, bulbous mutes. In a hole on the front of the mute there is a cup that can be slid in or out, or removed completely. Harmon mutes are available for the trombone and other brass instruments besides the trumpet, but are seldom used. Miles Davis habitually used a harmon mute, giving his playing a distinctive timbre.

Occasionally, brass players will also use a bucket mute. Bucket mutes contain cotton or a similar substance, and result in a soft, muffled tone.

Wah-wah mutes, shaped like bowler hats and usually made of metal, are opened and closed over the bell of the instrument to produce the sound that gives the mute its name. Real bowler hats are often used in place of wah-wah mutes. The use of the wah-wah mute on brass instruments was common in jazz the from 1920s when King Oliver and others used it.

Plungers (yes, unused rubber toilet plungers) are often used in a manner similar to the wah-wah mute. A "closed" plunger gives a tone similar to a cup mute. The plunger is notable for its ability to help produce sounds resembling the human voice. In Duke Ellington's orchestra, trombonist Tricky Sam Nanton was notorious for his work with the plumber's friend. Another famous example is the teacher's voice in the animated Peanuts cartoons.

Brass practice mutes are similar to straight mutes. While straight mutes have small pieces of cork on the end, practice mutes have a solid ring of cork that prevents air from escaping from the bell. Instead, there are tiny holes in the sides of the mute that allow air to escape silently. Yamaha makes an electronic practice mute system, Silent Brass, that amplifies the sounds inside the practice mute and sends them through headphones.

Woodwind instruments

Muting woodwind instruments is very uncommon, and in the case of the flute is almost completely unheard of. In the 18th century purpose build mutes existed for the oboe and clarinet, but in the rare cases when one of these instruments is muted today a handkerchief is usually stuffed up the bell resulting in a muffled sound. Some bassoonists still use purpose built mutes, generally as a way of regulating volume at extremes of the instrument's register.

Percussion instruments

Percussion instruments require no specialist mutes. If a triangle, for example, is to be muted, this can be achieved by simply gripping the instrument with the hand, stopping it vibrating so much. Drums can be muted by laying a cloth over their skin resulting in a muffled sound.

The piano

The "soft" pedal of the piano, the use of which makes the hammers hit only two of the three strings for each note (or one of the two at lower registers) can be seen as a kind of mute. Indication that the soft pedal should be used is the instruction una corda or sometimes due corde with tre corde or sometimes tutte le corde cancelling it. On older pianos it was possible by use of the soft pedal to play only one, two or all three strings, making the distinction between una corda (one string) and due corde (two strings) meaningful, but this is no longer the case.

It also used to be common for pianos to be fitted with another kind of mute: a piece of felt or similar material which would sit between the hammers and the strings. This results in a very muffled and much quieter sound. It was not used in any serious context, but was useful to reduce the volume of the instrument when practicing. Few pianos, apart from some uprights, have this device today.

To confuse matters, the instruction senza sordino is sometimes used to indicate use of the sustain pedal on a piano, although this is more usually indicated by Ped. or just P. written below the staff.

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