The use of certain elements we consider “Sound
Effects” in Music is much more common than we may think. Whether
it’s nature ambiances heard lightly in the background of a New Age
track or the aurally unpleasant bang of a trashcan lid in Industrial music,
our perception of what purely differentiates the line between Sound Effects
and Music is rapidly blurring.
I recently became more aware of this progression earlier this year when
tasked to compose an eerie / ethereal background track for a horror game.
The piece most definitely had to set a mood and have direction, but never
really intrude the player’s “consciousness” enough to
have them recognize or become aware of “Oh hey there is music being
played now.” So, in a way the music was to act in a role we may
consider to be more common with sound design.
Now this practice in and of itself is not new, but the questions I asked
myself while approaching this problem and the previously closed “doors”
the answers opened up to me are new and unique enough to want to share
my findings with you.
I. Approaching the Issue & Asking the Right Questions
Before I even attempted to do the traditional “sit down & start
writing” phase, I tried to think of and answer all of the necessary
questions that are unique with a piece like this. Should there be any
thematic material… would it “get in the way”? How Dynamic
can the piece be? Will I be using “traditional” instruments?
What role will the mixing process play in this piece? Etc…
Asking and answering all of these questions were absolutely critical
for taking an accurate first step towards fully expressing my intent with
the piece. That is why I often take this step and recommend many others
do as well (especially if you need to be very articulate with what you’re
wanting to express).
II. Answering the Questions
Let’s go through the process of asking and answering a few questions
unique to a piece of music like this.
First, lets look at “Will I be using traditional Instruments?”
Since there is no right or wrong answer to this question, I only felt
compelled to organize/understand my instrumentation choices enough to
justify their usage in the piece. So, I decided that my approach to this
piece had to be one focused more on timbre/moods and that writing standard
musical phrases easily identifiable as “music” by the human
ear were off limits. At least initially, as I also decided that “sneaking
in” the main theme from time to time would be okay (as long as it’s
full introduction was gradual). However, for the most part, I “justified”
the usage of some traditional musical instruments by challenging myself
to use them in a unique way that wouldn’t immediately be perceived
as a musical phrase by the listener. “Typical” sound design
elements (impacts/crashes/scrapes/etc.) were also allowed, but must be
organized in such a manner that they would have a perceived direction.
Which brings us to our next question… “What role
will Form play in this piece?”
As I mentioned before, the line between what could only be considered
Sound Effects and what could only be Music, is rapidly blurring. Impacts,
soundscapes, and other “sound design elements” are being used
so often in modern music that I believe the only clear distinction between
the two is the way each one is structured.
This is not to say that Sound Effects can’t be organized in a way
to tell a story, for they surely can, but rather the way in which we approach
and organize our sounds for music is different. Repetition and imitation
are two of the most common techniques used in music from almost anywhere
in the world at anytime in history. When you’re lacking tonality,
melody, and other “common” western musical constructs, more
often than not we revert to repetition and imitation to structure our
music (both for our sake and the listener’s ears). Often times,
when your creating Sound Effects to picture, its not ideal to only use
one punch/kick sound for an entire fight scene. However, I can also imagine
the argument that the variety in those punch/kick sound effects, are the
equivalent of musical imitation. So, perhaps the only real thing separating
the difference between Sound Design and Music is our perception/preconceived
notions of what each one “should” be.
With that said, I decided that the role of Form in this
piece was to take these isolated sound ideas/motifs and repeat/imitate
them in a manner that felt like it was going somewhere (The repetition/imitation
itself not having to be structured, but perhaps more organic or improvised).
Complex and strict forms like Sonata or even Pop wouldn’t accurately
achieve this goal. So, it was determined that the form must be even more
basic (remember we don’t want the listener to immediately recognize
this as music). My solution was to introduce and eventually repeat/imitate
these “themes/motifs” as they were applied throughout the
changes in the dynamic curve.
Last but not least… “What role will the Mixing Process
play in this piece?”
I feel very strongly about the role of Mixing in the Composition process,
as it’s unavoidable in modern times. However, I’ll save the
majority of what I have to say about this topic for a separate article.
As it applies to this question though, I determined that the subject
matter and piece itself needed “mixing forethought.” Simply
thinking about what pitches, rhythm, or articulation to use would not
be enough, so I went a step further and asked myself questions like…
“Is a High Pass Filter needed in this piece? If so, When and for
what Part(s)? How much distortion should be used on the guitar…
what pickup? Should I automate the reverb to the dynamic curve or keep
it consistent throughout the piece?
It’s through questions like these that some of my most creative
answers originated. When you become more aware of exactly what frequencies
you want expressed at a certain point in a piece of music or how you plan
to creatively pan each instrument, your music will immediately benefit
from the original answers you come up with
I always like to say that if it affects the way your music sounds at
the end of the day then it’s a part of the Composition Process that
should be taken into consideration. That goes for Mixing and even your
state of mind prior to writing (make sure it matches the necessary mood
you want to express in the piece of music!)
III. Applying the Answers
Now that we have some unique answers to work with, it’s all about
performing and capturing their essence. For instrumentation it was decided
that everything is permitted, but most “standard” writing
practices would not apply.
Bend a string of the guitar beyond its “comfortable point”
and play your theme. Play the Piano with socks on your hands or breathe
into the mic and apply massive reverse delay. Place a huge pillowcase
over your mic/head and start to sing. Record your harp in the bathtub
or pitch up/down kitchen pan impacts and organize them to build a triad.
The options available to you are only restrained by your ability to ignore
the fear of “What will others think?” The Answer to “What
is Music?” is growing every day with new ideas from creative composers
willing to push the boundaries of sound and a more accepting audience
that’s aching for something new/original. With that said, I’d
like to wish all of you the best and keep composing fellow artists!
If you’d like to listen to piece of music I finished, click
here and tell me where to send it.