Robert Estrin - piano expert

How Can You Hear Lower than Human Hearing?

An interesting discussion about low frequencies

In this video, Robert talks about how it is possible to hear sounds lower than the average range of human hearing.

Released on April 15, 2020

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Hi, this is Robert Estrin at, your online piano store with another viewer question. This one I really like. The question is, how can you hear something lower than human hearing? You might say, huh? What does he mean by that? Well, there is really some scientific evidence to support this question, which is to say that pipe organs oftentimes have frequencies that indeed are lower than the threshold of human hearing. And the Bosendorfer's Imperial, which goes all the way down to the C below the low A of the piano, certainly is lower than human hearing, which the bottom, most scientists agree that the threshold of human hearing varies a bit, but below 20 cycles per second, we can't hear. So part of it is explained simply that you can feel those low frequencies, certainly in a pipe organ to that massive cathedral. The whole room kind of shakes with those rumbling frequencies. But there's much more to it than that and it has to do with the overtone series.

I have a video about that, that covers some of that in a video about a tonality of all things. But the overtone series is a characteristic of all pitched sounds, not just musical instruments that anything that makes a pitched sound contains color tones above the fundamental tone and it's a series of tones that goes up by an octave than a fifth, then two octaves above the fundamental pitch and on and on, all these color tones affect the sound of the tone. That's why in its simplest form, why a trumpet sounds distinctly different from a violin playing the same pitch.

It has to do with the overtone series and how these overtones interact. So when you're hearing an extremely low note, you are actually hearing more overtone than fundamental pitch and your mind kind of assumes the fundamental pitch, particularly if descend. I'm going to give you an example. We a have a video. I'm going to play a little bit a clip here for you so you can hear going down extraordinarily low from the lowest A on the piano on Bosendorfer and listen to this. You can get to these notes below the lowest note of the piano because here's the lowest octave A on all other pianos. But on the Imperial you can go lower.

You may have noticed that I played in octaves in the left hand so that you have the reference pitch of an octave above. The single notes are an eerie vibration sound, and to understand what that sounds like, I actually did a little experiment as a young child. I used to always play with my father's tape recorders and one time I recorded the lowest note of the piano and then I took it from actually my tape recorded to my father's tape recorder and they ran at different speeds. So I was able to increase the speed several octaves and to my shock, instead of hearing a single note, I heard an entire chord because on smaller grand pianos, the fundamental tone is so weak that the overtones are actually as loud or louder than the fundamental tone. So how you're able to hear notes that are below 20 cycles per second. And indeed the Bosendorfer Imperial goes lower than that, or a pipe organ with these immense pipes that produce frequencies in the low double digits of frequencies.

It's not only that you feel the room shaking, but you hear the overtones and you summize the fundamental pitch that you can't actually hear. So the question is answered for you very simply, you're not hearing something you can't hear, but your mind makes an image of that low tone of what it should be in your head. Pretty crazy stuff, huh? Anyway, once again, I'm Robert at, your online piano store. Thanks for the great questions and I'll see you next time.
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Patricia Ann Fisher * VSM MEMBER * on April 16, 2020 @7:50 pm PST
Thanks Robert for covering this topic so thoroughly. It helps one to fully appreciate pianist Fazil Say’s CD performance of the Bach-Busoni Chaconne. The piano’s extended bass register comes into play for a most incredible, tho fleeting, listening experience.
Robert - host, on April 17, 2020 @11:37 am PST
I must check out that performance!
Fulvia * VSM MEMBER * on April 16, 2020 @5:38 pm PST
Quite interesting. Now if all pianos start with the A key, what is the reason for that Busendorfer to go down to the C. Is there any composition that would use those lower keys? And if so, what can a pianist do when not using the Busendorfer?
Shirley Gibson * VSM MEMBER * on April 15, 2020 @12:00 pm PST
Cool, Robert! Thank you!!
Robert - host, on April 16, 2020 @3:32 pm PST
Glad to hear you enjoyed this!
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