The Limitations of the “Pyramid of Sound”

From an early age, many band students are drilled in the “Pyramid of Sound” model for achieving a properly balanced ensemble sound. This model was perhaps most prominently championed by the prominent band composer and conductor W. Francis McBeth (1933-2012) and is used by band conductors throughout the United States. When rightly applied, the Pyramid of Sound is an effective tool for balancing not just concert bands, but practically any type of ensemble. The concept is very simple: the lowest instruments and parts in the group should be loudest, forming a foundation upon which higher parts build, becoming progressively softer until the highest notes are played most softly. Because human beings tend to perceive high pitches more readily than low ones, ensembles that are balanced in this way tend to have pleasing sounds where all parts are easily heard.

So far, so good, but difficulties arise when students try to apply this concept in situations where it is not appropriate, such as in solo playing or even in soloistic passages in ensembles. Think about most melodies you know. The highest notes tend to be the climactic ones, so the best phrasing occurs when the lower notes at the beginning of the phrase are softer, then crescendo to the higher notes, and diminuendo again as the phrase concludes or resolves. Sometimes a slight increase in tempo is appropriate when moving higher, as well, and then a corresponding slight decrease in tempo to bring the phrase into balance metrically. While this might sound like common sense, low brass students that have had the Pyramid of Sound preached to them their entire musical lives will sometimes instinctively soften on the highest notes and then get louder on the lowest notes, even when good phrasing would dictate the opposite. Because of their supporting roles in most ensemble situations, low brass students just beginning applied study are often inexperienced at playing and interpreting melodies and simply bring the approach they have used in their bands to solo literature, phrasing studies, etc. The resulting interpretations are not just strange—they are exactly backwards!

Happily, through instruction, demonstration, and patient reassurance that it really is okay to forgo the Pyramid of Sound in the right situations, most students quickly figure out a better approach to shaping melodies. I will usually illustrate this to them by drawing the above Pyramid diagram and labeling it “for ensemble playing,” and then place another, much simpler diagram alongside it, labeled “for solo playing.” That diagram looks something like this. It is simple, but effective.

Many great bands and their directors are devotees of the Pyramid of Sound, and when rightly applied this approach leads to warm, beautiful, yet clear sounds. But accompanying material is one thing; melodic and soloistic lines are another. In those cases, the Pyramid must be abandoned in favor of the Line.

About Micah Everett

Micah Everett is Associate Professor of Music (Trombone/Low Brass) at the University of Mississippi, Principal Trombonist of the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, Tubist/Bass Trombonist of the Mississippi Brass Quintet, Bass Trombonist of the Great River Trombone Quartet, Assistant Editor (Audio/Video Reviews) for the International Trombone Association Journal, and an S.E. Shires trombone artist. He is the author of THE LOW BRASS PLAYER'S GUIDE TO DOUBLING, published by Mountain Peak Music, and released his first solo recording, STEPPING STONES FOR BASS TROMBONE, VOL. 1, on the Potenza Music label in 2015. In addition to his professional work, he maintains an avid interest in the study of the Bible and of Reformed theology. He holds doctoral and master's degrees in music from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, a bachelor's degree in music education from Delta State University, and a certificate in systematic theology from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. The ideas and opinions expressed here are not necessarily shared by the employers and organizations with which the author is associated.
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