Vuvuzilla: The Science of a Musical Monstrosity

In the midst of the chaos, mania and staggering bolshiness of the World Cup is an instrument that is chaotic, manic and bolshy.  The marmite of the horn family, the dreaded vuvuzela.

The vuvuzela (I prefer vuvuzilla), let’s face it, is a monstrous instrument.  And those that say they like it, are actually enjoying the effect it induces in others rather than loving its intrinsic sound.

Why does it sound so horrendous? Well firstly, it is loud, a staggering 120dB(A) at the bell-end. Can you imagine having to stand right in front of that bell-end, while someone is blowing it hard? That big bell-end? The horn of the bell-end is really impressive! Blowing a big impressive bell-end. Can you imagine? Bell-end.

But a trumpet is equally loud, but does not elicit such an eargag reflex, so what’s the problem?

Firstly, it produces only one note with any consistency, a B-flat (Bb3 just below middle-C on the piano, around 233Hz). Technically, monotonous.  However there is a microtonal wobble on this note so that it actually wavers around 210-240Hz range, Actually I’ve heard, presumably in the mouth of a particularly exuberant bell-end, the pitch drop up to a perfect 4th below. (See figure 1)

Figure 1. A particularly pissy vivuzela caught fucking around the 233Hz mark.
Note its untrustworthy slow glides and sudden pitch disruptions. Bastard.

This, en-masse, contributes to the siren-like, ominous swarming drone, however the fluctuating pitch is not where the irritation lies.The big problem, my bell-end blowing friend, is the overtones.

What are overtones? Well… every sound is actually made up of not just a fundamental pitch but a series of higher pitches called overtones, that make up its particular tonal character, or timbre. (The only sound with only a fundamental with no overtones is the sine wave, that pure test-tone sound, to which a tuning fork comes close to emulating)

Some overtones are harmonic, they exist at regular frequency intervals to the fundamental. Like 2/1, 3/2. 4/1, 5/2 etc. These make up ‘musical’ intervals above the fundamental pitch like octaves, fifths, major 3rds and so on. Musical instruments that are pitched tend to possess mainly harmonic overtones.

Overtones that have no simple relationship to the fundamental are non-harmonic and contribute to a noisy timbre. A crash cymbal for example, has a smear of close intervals heading up to the top of our hearing range. The most non-harmonic, or noisiest sound is white noise, which is like a random waveform containing all overtones at random amplitudes. Think the sound of constant static, or in nature, a noisy seashore.

Actually musical instruments contain a complex, dynamic combination of overtones. A piano for example has a smattering of non-harmonic overtones at the initial ‘click’ but quickly settles into a regular harmonic pattern. A violin has beautifully regular overtones heading up into the stratosphere, mixed with a bunch of crazily chaotic non-harmonic high overtones.

The vuvuzela, however is an odd frog. It has a simple and regular pattern of overtones but they don’t match harmonic overtones.  So it masquerades as a ‘musical’ instrument but is actually noisy, without the decency of being part of the percussion family (a highly respected family, incidentally, despite you know, the rumours) So what you get is the impression of musicality but the effect of irritation. (Figure 2) It’s like false advertising. We are trained to expect a musical timbre when you hear regular intervals but we get is the death-knell rasp of 10,000 kazoos in a giant blender.

Figure 2. Look at those sneaky regular intervals, pretending to be harmonic.
Bloody Charlatans. And look how fucking high they go.

So what good is the vuvuzela other than giving a clear “Hey look at me blowing my bell-end!” message. Can it be used musically?  Well I leave you with some half-hearted attempts to depict a parallel musical universe where the vuvuzela holds equal esteem to the violin, piano, cello, trumpet and human voice. Enjoy.

So in a ballad, perhaps? (Led Vuvuzeppelin)

Or more dramatically: (Vu-thoussand-and-one)

Alas, I have found but one place where it really works. (Voot’s Theme)

Any requests?