2015 Class #2: The Physicality of Sound

A Class in Nine Short Videos
Instructor: Steven Schick
Time: About 52 minutes

Class #1 – Beat of the World]
[Class #3 Stories in Sound]
[Class #4 Hitting Things: A Vocabulary]

What makes something a musical instrument? A piano is a piano, a violin a violin. But a percussionist creates and recreates his instrument unique to every piece and performance and how it relates to the space around it. Moreover, the sound produced is dependent not only on what you hit, but how you hit it.

Percussion isn’t just about rhythm. It creates color, texture, melody, harmony. Percussionists often get their sounds from non-traditional uses of ordinary objects. So can anything become a musical instrument? If so, how do you define its “proper” use in a piece of music? How do abstract sounds become “music”? How do percussive instruments “fit” together?

The class consists of the nine short videos below – six  lessons by percussionist and 2015 Ojai Music Festival director Steven Schick, and three examples of sounds and music. In all, they should take less than an hour to watch and you can view them one after the other or bookmark this page to come back later.

Lesson 1: Understanding Music as a Physical Act [3’19” long]

All sound is physical. That means all music is physical. So you build and shape sounds into a piece of music just as a sculptor takes material and creates a piece of art. This idea of sound as building blocks of music is liberating; as a percussionist, your vocabulary of sound and thus the materials of your art, is virtually unlimited.

Further – understanding sound as something physical means that the making of that sound starts with a physical act by the performer, the musician. The choreography of how you make music, then, is crucially important, and is an essential part of the performance of music. Want to understand music better? Start to understand how music starts as a physical act.

Lesson 2: “It’s the Sticks for Steve” – How I Became A Percussionist (and what that means) [5’16”]

Most musical instruments have a specific vocabulary of sounds and notes they can make. This makes for a defined and coherent language. But percussionists make sounds from a vast array of objects – and having so many instruments is in fact to have no real “instrument” at all. So perhaps being a percussionist is a metaphor for a way of thinking about sound and musical language.

Lesson 3: So Music has Texture? [4’10”]

How do you describe the quality of sound? We need a language to explain music – what it sounds like, how it feels. The easiest way to talk about percussion is “beat” or “pulse”. But the musical language of percussion is as much about its texture or color as it is about rhythm. And perhaps most interesting is to consider the less obvious sounds and ways of producing them that a performer can get from an instrument.

Lesson 4: How Varese Changed the Language of Music [2’02”]

Given that one of the most basic ways of making a sound is to hit something and that one could think of hitting things as the first “music” humans made, it’s interesting to consider that in Western music percussion has an astonishingly brief history as a solo medium.

For much of musical history, percussion has had an amplifying or supporting role in music. It helped set a beat, reinforced a musical line or emphasized important moments in a piece of music. Edgard Varese was one of the first composers in Western music to write a piece in which percussion was the whole show, defining melody, rhythm, and harmony. The piece – Ionisation  – written in 1929-31,was a shocking idea. And it expanded how musicians and composers thought about percussion and what roles it might have in music.

Example 1: Ionisation by Edgard Varèse
Pierre Boulez conducts the Ensemble InterContemporain playing Ionisation by Edgard Varèse.


Lesson 5: So anything can be an instrument… [5’14”]

Percussion is the art of hitting things. And it so matters what the quality of the things is and how you hit them. When a composer writes a part for “flower pot” or “rubber hose” or “stones” it matters very much which pot or which hose or which stones. So not only does a percussionist need to choose his objects carefully, he also needs to figure out how to coax out the perfect sound for the job.

And unlike a violinist or pianist or horn player whose quality of instrument usually goes up the more money he has spent on it, some of the best-sounding instruments for percussion are cheap everyday objects from which one can produce amazing and unexpected sounds.

Example 2: John Cage’s Child of Tree [8’14”]
John Cage wrote Child of Tree for found objects, and specifies that one of them should be a cactus. The performer “plays” the spines of the cactus. The piece also uses the I Ching to determine the number of instruments, the order in which they’re played, and the length of performance.

Lesson 6: Getting Stoned – Listening as an Active Participant [11’26”]

Not only does Lei Liang‘s “Trans,” a solo percussion piece written for Steven Schick’s 60th birthday, use simple everyday stones as one of its instruments, the piece also enlists the audience as performers. Sixty members of the audience hit stones together to make a choir of sound. Sometimes that sound is tiny, the clink clink of one rock hitting another. At other moments the stones strike a mighty tattoo, sounding like a fierce rain storm.

The audience involvement in the piece changes the relationship between the audience and the performance and the audience and the performer (Steven). It reminds us that any performance is, at its most fundamental, an interaction with responsibilities on both sides. Listening can be a passive act. But should it be? Being an active, participating listener can make a richer experience not only for the listener, but also for the performer.

Example 3: Just for Fun – Rowan Atkinson’s funny performance on invisible instruments [5’14]

Discuss/Participate/Next Class
Want to discuss this week’s class? Take a look below in the comments section and make an observation or ask a question. If you subscribe to the comments feed, you’ll be notified when someone weighs in. Want to invite your friends in? Tweet @OjaiFestivals and use the hashtag #OjaiU2015. Next week’s class – Telling Stories with Sound will go live Monday at noon.

Class #1 – Beat of the World]
[Class #3 Stories in Sound]
[Class #4 Hitting Things: A Vocabulary]


  1. At 1:37 in video #1 Schick claims that Cage himself played 4’33” at Woodstock. This is simply incorrect. It was Cage’s collaborator David Tudor who premiered the piece. Tudor also did not ‘poise his hands at the piano’ as is claimed. He demarcated the individual movements of 4’33” by opening and closing the piano lid.

  2. Mike Weaver says

    Wonderful! You make me appreciate and understand the richness of percussion instead of what many times is considered as just background noise to the real music. I particularly enjoyed the Lei Liang piece and, of course, what a great way to end the class with Rowan Atkinson. Well done.