Sports tech bleg

How does a vuvuzela work, anyway?  Does it have a reed? Is it a kazoo? Do you vibrate your lips against a mouthpiece as with a trumpet, as the pictures imply? If so, why is its one note much lower than it should be (it sounds like the fundamental of a pipe about five feet long), and why doesn’t anyone seem to be able to produce harmonics above that monotone buzz? (While I’m at it, how does a shofar produce such a low note?)

This explanation is probably wrong, because as we know bees have become scarce owing to disease and mites while vuvuzelas threaten to cover the planet.      Please comment if you know what’s inside these things.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

16 thoughts on “Sports tech bleg”

  1. Tom, you need to be more skeptical about stuff on the web (see my 2nd par, added simultaneously with your post). If you don't know entomology, how can you hope to understand acoustic physics?

  2. The vuvzela is a primitive lipreed instrument. Judging from the length it should sound something near a third-space (treble clef) "C" as its first partial (generally regarded as the lowest usable note on a brass instrument, as opposed to an instrument-shaped object-of-torture). But the length of the instrument isn't everything: it has to be matched to the mouthpiece. A horn the size of a vuvuzela should have a 'mouthpiece' about the size of a very large trumpet mouthpiece, the pictures indicate that the mouthpiece is closer to trombone-sized.

    The large 'mouthpiece' favors the production of the fundamental and causes the thing to play flat (relative to the horn's length). The net result — it sounds about Bb below middle "C". I got out my tuner to check it, because I don't trust my sense of pitch.

    Bona fides: I started out in college as a trombone performance major, and continue to play trombone to this day.

  3. why doesn’t anyone seem to be able to produce harmonics above that monotone buzz?

    Some do. If you have the courage to listen closely, occasionally you can hear a very clear note "C" (again, 3rd space TC) or so, and even something like an "E" above that. It's probably fashion that prevents people from doing anything but the Bb drone.

    The Aussies should have brought a bunch of aborigines with didgerdidoos to compete with the vuvuzelas…

  4. (1) How can you call something made of genuine plastic, in bright colors, and capable of annoying millions of people around the world, primitive? These are all characteristic of advanced civilization.

    (2) A Bb below middle C wave is about a meter and a half long, and the v seems to be about half that (open pipe fundamental two lengths), so especially if it plays its fundamental flat, this makes sense. RBC readers rock!

    (3) How come no-one seems to have figured out how to play one or two partials and be really earsplitting and even more annoying with it?

  5. I used to see these things (or something very much like them) at football games in New England when I was a kid back in the early '70s. They are painfully loud when one gets blown right by your ear. But I have to say I really enjoyed the background noise they made at the world cup.

    I think it was possible to get harmonics out of them, but not easy.

  6. Foster Boondoggle is right — I remember the horns as well. They were something like $3.00, and were basically an injection-molded version of a herald's trumpet. They were a fixture of St. Patrick's Day parades in Southie – Kelly green, natch — among other places.

  7. How can you call something made of genuine plastic, in bright colors, and capable of annoying millions of people around the world, primitive?

    It ain't got some valves, it ain't got no slide, so it's primitive.

    a whole bunch of harmonics

    They cheated and have actual brass mouthpieces inserted into their vuvuzelas. That seems to make it much easier to produce higher harmonics. A well-trained embouchure is also very helpful, and orchestral brass players all have very well-trained embouchures.

    For a (much) lower-tech example of vuvzelas as legitimate musical instruments give this one a try: . The only good thing I can say about it is that at least the trombonists had the sense to not pick up the d***ed things.

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