a chord that really can break glass like in cartoons!?

i recently read in a music dictionary ( http://www.treasure-troves.com/music/MeanToneScale.html )about a chord called a wolf note that was banned from the medieval english churches because it had a nasty tendency to break windows and various other delicate objects. Supposedly, it’s based off something called a “mean tone scale” that is seeemingly is based off of fractions of notes. as a classically trained musician, i’ve never heard of such a thing. Is this wolf note and mean tone scale really true and how would i duplicate it?

“–soon they’ll invent microscopes so powerful they’ll begin to understand life is empty.”
-jack kerouac

The reason a window breaks: everything has a frequency it’ll resonate at. If you find that frequency for a window, and play that frequency at high volume, the window will vibrate and break. In reality, the volume has to be high enough that it isn’t likely in real life situations.

So, each window requires a different frequency.

Also, a relatively pure frequency is required, so a chord wastes energy on useless notes. (oh wait, I just noticed that you referred to both a wolf chord and a wolf note. If the word “chord” was a misprint, then ignore my chord comment.

Can opera singers shatter glass with their high notes?

Gypsy: Tom, I don’t get you.
Tom Servo: Nobody does. I’m the wind, baby.

Don’t know about the name of the note or what tone to try, but sure… it’s possible. Just find the right frequency, to vibrate a piece of glass, then crank up the intensity, and find yourself a broom and dustpan.

The sound waves carry energy that can be imparted to the glass. When each wave of energy hits the glass, the transfer of energy causes the glass to vibrate. The glass will vibrate with a specific frequency regardless of what frequency the note (sound wave) was. If the two frequencies (the sound wave frequency and the glass vibration frequency) don’t match, nothing will happen to the glass (nothing you can see anyway). This is because the initial glass vibration may be canceled out by the next sound wave, and there is no additive effect. If the frequencies do match, each successive sound wave will add to the vibration of the glass…. to a point. This is where cranking up the intensity comes in. Give the sound waves more energy, but maintain the same frequency (the frequency that is vibrating the glass), and you will vibrate the glass harder. At a certain point, the glass will break.

Let’s say you accomplish this task, and are pleased with yourself, but you have just broken a really nice wineglass. You were using this wineglass because you didn’t think it would really break, but it was cool anyway. It was also expensive. You want to do it again, but you don’t want to waste any more money than you have to, so you decide to use the sad little wineglasses your great aunt Merna gave to you last year. You set the glass up, and reproduce the note and intensity you used to break your nice wineglass exactly. What gives? Nothing happened to the glass. That’s because this glass vibrates at a different frequency from the first one. It’ll break, you just gotta find the right note.

Sound waves can do damage to more than glass. There are some sonic based weapons that cause seizures, loss of consciousness, incapacitation, death, etc… They were developed under the auspices of being used for non-lethal riot control. You know…. good intentions and all……

as for the chord/note issue, if you check the page i linked, i was wrong in both accounts. the technical term for the tone is a wolf fifth, though it is implied that it is a chord consisting of 12 5ths. see below. it’s rather hard to understand, so good luck.

“In the Mean Tone Scale, the C:E’ frequency ratio is defined to be exactly 5 instead of the expected (3/2)4 = 5.0625. The discrepancy between four Fifths and a Seventeenth is (3/2)4/5=81/80, known as the Comma of Didymus), and required that each whole step have a ratio of 51/4=1.49527 instead of the 3/2=1.5 of the exact Fifth. When the Scale was started at C and carried four such steps backwards and eight such steps forward (E, B, F, C, G, D, A, E, B, F, C, and G), the G-E interval consisted of 12 mean tone whole steps (51/4)12=53=125), whereas 12 Fifths would be (3/2)12=129.7463. This produced cacophony and was therefore known as a wolf fifth, also called a Quinte-du-Loup or Diabolus in Musica.”

one more thing…
i am aware that it is possible for sound to do all of the things mentioned previously. what i am looking for, though, is an explanation of what exaclty a wolf fifth and/or a mean tone scale is and is it possible to break glass with that fifth.

“–soon they’ll invent microscopes so powerful they’ll begin to understand life is empty.”
-jack kerouac

FYI (If you care),

Sound waves are also sometimes used to accelerate chemical reactions rather than using heat.

Blue Kalyx wrote:

First, a typo-correction. The correct steps are: Eb, Bb, F, C, G, D, A, E, B, F#, C#, G#. Very important for the math of this topic. Most musical students will recognize this list as a circle of fifths.

The western doh-ray-mi scale has had several itterations over the years. The current scale, called the “equal temperament” scale takes an octave, and divides it into twelve exactly equal portions, each called a half-step. In previous years, there were minor variants of this, and the “mean-tone temperament” scale is one. I won’t go into the math here (see here for a good description), but basically, several of the notes are slightly sharp or flat from our currently accepted scale.

There’s no magic here, and nothing that’ll break glass with any other means than as described already in this thread.

You asked for “exactly what a wolf fifth is,” and the answer is: if you break an octave into 1200 exactly equal steps, a wolf fifth is 696 steps above the base. What is played on a standard piano (or any other stock western instrument) is 700 steps above the base. So a wolf fifth is barely flat, by today’s accepted definition of a fifth.

Why don’t these old columns have dates?

For instance, in the column in question Can opera singers shatter glass with their high notes?, Cecil mentions a five-year time frame for the debunking of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge resonance collapse. Five years from when? I saw the old articles by McKenna–they were a long time ago, weren’t they?


This site has a pretty good overview of the current theories of the Tacoma Narrows collapse:


I think that, to get an authoritative answer, you may have to wait for a professional musician (I am not one) to stop by here, or you may have to research this yourself. Having said that, here’s my amateur opinion.

You might visit a library and read the New Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicians for a good place to start. This page refers to this tome as saying the tritone (an interval of three whole steps) is the diabolus in musica. I remember my high school music teacher saying this. Also I remember Leonard Bernstein saying this when his Harvard lectures were broadcast on PBS years ago.

The tritone interval is also called a “diminished fifth” (such as C to F#, whereas a fifth would be C to G). The “diminished” part (also meaning “flattened”) may be the general connection to the “wolf” tone.

blue kalyx, I checked the reference you gave, but I didn’t see any mention of any damage done because of the wolf note. Maybe that’s an example of a medieval urban legend.

There is also a “wolf note”. This seems to be basically an off-key resonance in string instruments. It can be alleviated in a number of ways. Some references found with a Google search: http://www.violinviolacello.com/wolf.htm http://www.msen.com/~violins/tech/journal_vsa/principles.html

But where were the Spiders?

Hmmm, I thought my explanation was pretty good. Perhaps I need to brush up on those communication skills.

The Wolf tone is not the tritone. The Tritone (aka diminished fifth, aka augmented fourth) is 6 half-steps above the base. It’s rarely heard, since it’s ugly, and right between the fourth and the fifth, which sound nice. One place you can hear it is in the first three notes of the Simpsons music, where the heavenly voices sing, “The Simp-Sons”. The distance between “The” and “Simp” is a Tritone. The distance between “Simp” and “Sons” is a half-step, so the distance between “The” and “sons” is a perfect fifth, which makes it sound nice.

As I said in the previous post, the wolf note is a slightly diminished fifth. But it was set at it’s frequency by design; it’s not a flaw that needs alleviating.

The link I posted previously has a good and straight-forward explanation of the math, but I could post it here if necessary.

No, the fault is mine. My apologies if my post seemed to question your explanation or the link you provided (which I did read). Clicking on a link for the “Wolf Fifth” on the OP’s link brings up a page that says the diabolus in musica is the “Wolf Fifth”, whereas my (amateur) knowledge said the D.in M. was the tritone. I was trying to say that perhaps this particular link was not authoritative. Of course, neither am I.

I did not say it was. I was theorizing that the tritone was the connection between the “wolf fifth” and D. in M.

Apparently the phrase “wolf note” is used both as you say and also as described by the links I posted, so we are both correct. It isn’t a flaw and it is. :slight_smile:

But one could say that the wolf note is definitely a flaw, even though it is there by the design of a particular scale, and it was alleviated as much as possible by the equal tempered tuning.

But where were the Spiders?


Rarely used, perhaps, but famous long before “The Simpsons.”

The tritone is also heard in “Maria” from “West Side Story.” “Ma-ri-a, I just met a girl…” From “Ma-” to “ri-” is a tritone. It’s also used in Tchaikowsky’s “Romeo and Juliet Overture.” In these cases, the “yearning” tritones resolve to “fulfilled” fifths.

A biography of Bernstein said that people advised him against using the tritone in “Maria” because it was so unusual in a pop song, and especially because it was so exposed. Lucky for us he didn’t listen to them.

But where were the Spiders?

Zygstardust’s remark about the violin wolf note refreshed a violin lesson i’d received in high school a few years back. From what i remember, the wolf tone is a sound that is a flaw and is avoided at all costs. So apparently. This leads me to wonder though… is this violin wolf tone perhaps a diminished 5th from the the open chord of the violin (don’t ask me… it’s been a while since i picked it up)? Is it in some way related to the diminished 5th wolf tone that billehunt so eloquently educated us about? Anyone got answers?

“–soon they’ll invent microscopes so powerful they’ll begin to understand life is empty.”
-jack kerouac

::test post::

Change Your Password, Please and don’t use HTML, as it has been disabled, but you can learn about superscripts here

Uh, why is it Friday afternoon alreay in the first three threads of GQ?

“If I pinch my nose with my fingers, close my mouth tight,
and blow real hard, I can make my ears bleed. It’s
not as cool as Superman’s X-ray vision, but it’s my own
special talent.”

Ignore above, things seem to be normal now.

The Diabolus in Musica is commonly called a tritone. If you follow a traditional voice leading then the tritone really is fairly sharp because it leads into the fifth just as the leading tone (7th scale degree) leads into the tonic. If you are singing a sharper leading tone than what is currently heard is more correct. If you do a comparison to the piano, you should actually be singing higher than that pitch because the piano is equally tempered and thus equally out of tune. The current tuning of the piano into an equal tempered intrument was not standardized until the time of Bach which is evidenced by his set of pieces known as the Well-Tempered Clavier.


SqrlCub’s Arizona Adventure

I suppose if you sounded a very low note at a high volume with a string bass or contrabassoon or tuba, you could cause the table to vibrate sufficiently to knock the glass onto the floor…