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This is soft question.I am not expert in music. We know that English language has 26 letters (which are again grouped into vowels and consonants) , while language of music is same all over the world and it has only 7 letters (all are vowels). There are number of musical instruments. one can blindly recognize which instrument is being played just by listening to it.

Each musical instrument sounds (i am not finding proper word here in case of "sounds" ) different than any other musical instrument.Every instrument seems to be unique while listening.My basic question is why is it so?

Also,is it possible to replace one musical instrument by combining two or more other instruments playing together or like that ? (For example is it possible to obtain same Guitar sound (i.e.sound/tones our ear listen while Guitar is being played) by combination of other musical instruments say violin and harmonium etc played together ?)

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    $\begingroup$ I prefer the opposite question: Why do humans think any two notes sound the same? In a complex atomic world, one can never jump in the same river twice. $\endgroup$ – hotpaw2 May 17 '15 at 17:07
  • $\begingroup$ adding to @hotpaw2, what do you mean by musical instrument notes sounding different? or the same? does a sampling keyboard that sampled A-440 of a violin sound the same or different than the same violin playing A-440? if you say "the same", then we have a basis for asking the question "what makes two sounds sound the same?" which has a contrapositive question (and answer) which is your question. $\endgroup$ – robert bristow-johnson May 17 '15 at 18:33
  • $\begingroup$ A sampling keyboard is absolutely silent without a DAC (reconstruction filter), amplifier (transfer function), and transducer (speakers that are probably quite different from a violin body as held in the players hands). Saying nothing about the room, head movements of the listener, oxygenation of the cells in the auditory cortex, and etc. $\endgroup$ – hotpaw2 May 17 '15 at 23:29
  • $\begingroup$ picky, picky! okay, how about comparing one recording of a violin played back and the same recording played back on another identical sampling keyboard? $\endgroup$ – robert bristow-johnson May 18 '15 at 0:34
  • $\begingroup$ I've heard that an non-expert (e.g. not an instructor at Juilliard, etc.) can be fooled into thinking an instrument is the same or different by changing the orchestration before and after the note in question. Observer expectation effects. $\endgroup$ – hotpaw2 May 18 '15 at 1:25
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Instruments sound different because they produce completely different sounds (waveforms, acoustic fields) even when playing what some human brains (not all) interprets as the same (in Western 12-semitone equal-temperament) "note" or pitch.

Whether anything sounds the same or different is probably dependent on psycho-acoustics and other stuff going on inside the human ear and brain, possibly dependent on anatomy, culture, upbringing, training, situation, and even mood (how hard is the human concentrating on the sound).

e.g. people raised in certain parts of China and Africa (even Hungary) will hear huge differences between vowels and consonants that I can't notice at all (without a lot more linguistics or foreign language training). Same with music. A symphony conductor will hear mistakes that 99% of the audience won't.

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The quality you are looking for is called "Timbre". When each instrument plays a note it generates not only the fundamental frequency but a series of harmonics or overtones. The relationship in amplitude of all the overtones creates the instrument's tonal colour. So if a trumpet plays a C note it will generate the fundamental C, as well as a specific set of harmonics at specific amplitudes. Other trumpets will generate a similar set of harmonics, but at slightly different amplitudes - but close enough that it will sound like a trumpet. A guitar playing a C note generates the fundamental - the harmonics are the same - but the amplitudes of the harmonics will be quite different from the trumpet.

See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timbre

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  • $\begingroup$ +1 because you told the OP exactly what word they needed if they want to do further research $\endgroup$ – andrew May 18 '15 at 17:59
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With digital signal processing and digital audio effects you can get a similar tone. (:

But acoustically, no, because of the transfer function of the mechanical-acoustic system of the instrument (among other unique aspects of the instrument), the harmonics will never be just the same.

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Actually there are classes of musical instruments whose members will have similar sounds such as the string-class of violin, viola, cello or the class of woodwind instruments with flute,picolo,pan flute etc. or sets of drums or the class of percussions including a grand piano, stage piano, console piano etc...

So its clear that each class has a very distinctive sound as an average person can easily classify them while within a given class it is more difficult for an average person to identify every member (but a person with a musical ear will be able to distinguish almost every type of instrument from each other, thats one of the primary differences between a musically able person from a not so one)

Coming to what makes all those instruments (both the classes and members) sound different from each other is their physical structure and vibration mechanisms. These are specific to almost every class and to each member based on their material, geometry and driving mechanisms so that the resulting acoustical waves will have specific harmonic characteristics for each instrument (indeed this is true for any object of the nature) which will lead to distinguishable timbre / tone differences by humans.

Coming to the ability of simulating the acoustical charactheristics of an instrument by another one. There are already electronic analog/digital synthesizers which can mimic many of the instruments to some degree. There are also more sophisticated acoustical modeling programs which offer the complete re-creation of the acoustical properties of any imaginable or existing object/instrument. I'm not experienced in their results so you can look further.

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