When Jimi Hendrix performed The Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock in 1969, the American public was shocked by his rendition. Hendrix, a veteran of the 101st Airborne, performed the nation’s anthem with precision and passion—if not quite in the vision of John Stafford Smith’s original 1780 tune. Aside from its instrumentation on solo electric guitar, what really made Hendrix’s rendition of The Star Spangled Banner different from the original?
It was its sound, its style – its color.
A year before Jimi Hendrix made headlines at Woodstock, Puerto Rican musician José Feliciano played The Star Spangled Banner at Game 5 of the World Series. His performance was also met with heavy criticism. (Wikipedia)
Scales, chords, and modes are fine and all, but what determines color scientifically? What in the world is going on with instruments on the most basic level? If they’re playing the same note, why does a trumpet sound different than a violin?
In order to figure this out, we first have to understand that every musical note is actually made up of many different little notes, the same way a chord is. Let’s dive right into a metaphor—think of a musical pitch as a cocktail.
It's a cocktail of frequencies! (GQ)
Every pitch is made up of a series of vibrating frequencies (or cocktail ingredients), measured in hertz. The first and lowest frequency is called the fundamental and the higher frequencies are known as overtones. Without the presence of overtones, you’d be left with only a bass-heavy, plain pitch. You could think of the fundamental as the alcohol of our drink, and the overtones as our bitters, lemon zest, and olives, etc. Drinking plain gin is fine, but drinking it mixed is a lot better!
So pitches are delicious cocktails of frequencies, but the reason why sounds have individual color—why trumpets sound different from violins—is a bit more complicated. Since we’re talking about gin, let’s take a look at the pitch of G (G2 to be exact). G’s fundamental frequency is 100Hz, and its overtones follow as multiples of that fundamental – 200Hz, 300Hz, 400Hz, 500Hz, etc. All of these frequencies ring out almost simultaneously, creating a harmonious collection of pitches that we hear as a single G. However, these frequencies are not created equally. Depending on the size, quality, and shape of an instrument, the intensity of the individual frequencies will differ, and it’s this magic combination of soft and strong frequencies that gives an instrument its coloristic identity.
Synthesizers like the Yamaha DX7 dramatically expanded the color range of many Progressive Rock artists in the 1970’s, including Elton John, Yes, King Crimson, and many more. (Wikipedia)
If you can individually alter the strength of these frequencies, you can change the color that you hear, or in the case of gin, the kind of martini you’re making. A dash of 600Hz, a twist of 300Hz, and three ounces of 700Hz, and all of a sudden you might hear a muted saxophone playing a G, or a 12-stringed guitar, or a musical saw. The range of coloristic possibilities is endless. But while it’s easy to get wrapped up in the scientific possibilities of color, the plain sound of instrumentals aren’t the only way you can produce coloristic effects.
As you may have noticed from our musical cocktail metaphor, music, stripped from its fanciful symphonies and horse-haired bows, is really just a bunch of sounds thrown together in ways that we enjoy. Although that may sound obvious, the idea of music being the simple art of sound was a revelatory one for composers of the early twentieth century, and this was nowhere more evident than in the music of Claude Debussy.
“Works of art make rules; rules do not make works of art.” – Debussy (Last FM)
Living in the shadow of Germanic figures such as Beethoven, many French composers like Debussy looked for ways to establish their own musical identity. Debussy in particular was inspired by the French symbolist poets of the era, whose work focused more on the pleasurable sounds of language than on the literal meaning of words. Similarly, Debussy created music that was shaped by compositional color and not traditional classical forms.
Leonard Bernstein and the Boston Symphony Orchestra performing Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, 1973.
In pieces like Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, Debussy throws musical urgency out the window. Beethovenian melodic development and harmonic structure couldn’t be further away. The melodies are short and static, repeating themselves across the different timbres of the orchestra, if they reappear at all. The piece is so entrenched in chromaticism that you can barely even keep up with what key it’s in, let alone recognize any harmonic goals in its progression.
Debussy pushes and pulls the expectations of the listener in every direction. In avoiding obvious, more Germanic elements of anticipation and resolution, Debussy leans on compositional color to give his music a different sense of development. In creating works like these, Debussy and his contemporaries realized that form didn’t have to be music’s cornerstone – it could be its result, and they saw this emphasis of sound over structure as the future of music.
Distinct from strict compositional form, technical performance instructions and choices also determine musical color. In other words, style! This can make all the difference in the performance of a piece, because while you may be playing the correct notes on the correct instrument, your technical style can still produce different colors. For example, Flight of the Bumblebee on a cello without the use of a bow is still very much Flight of the Bumblebee, but it’s an unusual choice of color considering its composition.
A bow-less, plucked performance of Flight of the Bumblebee.
While extended instrumental techniques and performance notation were around for hundreds of years prior, it was Hector Berlioz’s 1830 work Symphonie Fantastique that brought coloristic techniques to the forefront. Berlioz chose varying technical colors to service the programmatic elements of this symphony: muted strings signal the act of dreaming, English horns evoke shepherds’ pipes, and violins playing with the wood of their bows sound like rattling skeletons.
Berlioz wrote Symphonie Fantastique in order to impress the actress Harriet Smithson. Although his wooing of Harriet proved successful, their relationship eventually fell apart. (Wikipedia)
But composers don’t get all the credit for stylistic color. When the instruments are chosen and the score is printed, the only possibility for additional color lies in the hands of the performer and the special flavor only their interpretation can provide. In recognizing this we can understand how different versions of the same piece, played with the same instrumentation, can have such a varied sound: Fritz Reiner vs. Serge Koussevitzky conducting Beethoven, Benjamin Grosvenor vs. Lang Lang performing works by Chopin, or Ryo Fukui vs. Bill Evans playing Autumn Leaves.
So what would a composer like Debussy have thought about Jimi Hendrix’s performance of The Star Spangled Banner? I think Debussy would have loved it. Steeped in the chromaticism and stylistic color that only Hendrix’s virtuosity and the technology of the time could provide, his performance perfectly encompassed not only the literal patriotic message that the music was composed for, but the musical atmosphere and emotion that surrounded the entire decade.
It was the color of the era, captured perfectly in a single guitar solo.
Excerpt from the rockumentary Jimi Hendrix, 1973.