The Big Music Theory (8) - Sonic Architecture: Creating Space
In previous Big Music Theory posts, we’ve talked about the power of harmony and rhythm and how these elements shape the overall architecture of the song. But what does “architecture” really mean? When you try to break it down further, the conversation needs to become more specific.
To follow the idea of sounds having architecture, let’s take for instance that a song is a building in which you are passing through as you are listening. While you’re passing through the building, there are many facets you could point out: the rooms, the hallways, the path you take from room to room, the point of entry and exit, etc. Harmony is like the wallpaper of each individual room. It’s the color and character of a room that can make it unique and different from other parts of the building. If it’s new and interesting, you’ll actually spend the effort to really soak it in. If not, you’ll probably just pass through without noticing much at all (Either that or perhaps it’s a favorite of yours, so you’re attracted to it regardless). Rhythm is the pace you walk through these rooms. You might be strolling or jogging depending on the speed of the beat. The duration of how long you spend time in a room is how long the chord progression remains the same. The combinatorial difference is whether you’re walking through the rooms straight through or if you meander around a little bit, all of which you’re doing either at a slower or faster step.
Another element you could talk about is the actual size of the room, and in essence the entire building. In this metaphor this translates to how much space a song occupies. The space of a song is essentially delineated by three dimensions: duration, pitch range, and density.*
In the first case, space can be manipulated by the duration of silence between notes and the note durations themselves. Music crafts time into space, and so duration becomes a measure of distance. As long there are two notes that are played (like two dots creating a line), the silence or reverberation that resides between them becomes an existing piece of music that you have fabricated. And you can feel it too, that lasting presence taking hold.
In the Temper Trap’s song “Sweet Disposition,” the vocals soar over the rest of the isntrumentation using drawn out notes that fill out the soundscape. Not only do they soar in terms of duration, but also in register. Thus, space can also be defined in a second dimension: by a range of pitch. There is a moment of “breaking the ceiling” when the song arrives at the refrain (“Just STAY there…”), which helps press against and push out the boundaries of the song’s space, relaying an ear-pricking sensation of expansion. (It’s no surprise that the video also conveys all of this visually with the outer space theme.)
But if you take the vocals alone and try to imagine it without the support of the music, the effect is quite different from the original product. True, the same sense of soaring is present, but it’s only a sense of height and distance. The sense of vastness is missing. That’s where the layering in of the guitars and drums’ feverish pulse comes into play. You might think, shouldn’t this retract from the arcing effect of the vocals’ note durations? Quite the opposite in fact. The density of notes sparks momentum, while the density of playing instruments provides color and breadth. Without it, the vocals (as expressive as they might be) would invoke a much more monocrhomatic vibe.
When you couple duration (length), range of pitch (height/depth), and density (width/breadth) together, you produce volume for which the energy of the song to reside and flow through. You have created musical space. In “Sweet Disposition,” the product is a sense of yearning, self-collected spirit, and forward direction. The three dimensions of space function independently but interact interdependently.
What would happen if we tuned these parameters to weigh differently? To make it simple, let’s keep the range of pitch constant (assume the song effectively employs a varied register) and tweak duration and density. An example of a song that focuses heavily on note density and not duration can be found in most electronic/dance music (e.g. Boyz Noize’s “& Down”) - The color and energy is clearly there, but the focus is narrow and straight like a tunnel. An example of a song that focuses on duration and not density is most calm, subdued music (e.g. Bon Iver’s “Wash.”). An example of a song that balances all three to produce an effect similar to “Sweet Disposition” is Beach House’s “Norway.” The only difference I would say is that “Sweet Disposition” sounds more expansive because it employs a wider range of pitch than “Norway,” thus making the most of the three elements.
Another song that accomplishes creating space in all three dimensions is Explosions in the Sky’s “First Breath After Coma”:
It’s pretty clear without saying that this song hands down wins the expansive award. Setting a pulse to mimic the sound of an awakening heartbeat as the stage is a brilliant move and really takes the song from a small seed to a full-blown body of work. The density of the song builds slowly, both in note-count and layering in of instruments. The band takes their time building up to a climax, taking out instruments here and there, dropping the energy level every so often and slowly working back up to what I consider the chorus at 3:16, during which the song “breaks through the ceiling” at 3:34, reaching the zenith of the song. The song shrinks and diffuses afterwards and takes a different turn, employing a different pulse motif that drives through the rest of the song and reaching a final triumphant exclamation starting at 8:25.
What’s interesting is that, despite the closure achieved after nine and a half minutes of performance, not once does the song ever return to an earlier theme. This spits in the face of all conventional pop music, which undeniably relies on the recurring chorus to provide substance and body. Nevertheless, “First Breath After Coma” feels complete, and the journey it takes its listeners is satisfying. Because of the grand, symphonic feel, it’s not even necessary to reiterate. The rooms you visit are rich, large, and vibrant. And even with one pass through these rooms, there’s plenty of stimuli to keep you engaged and admiring.
*Disclaimer: This is not a hard and fast rule. It’s merely speculative observation that’s gone to the furthest extent without my going crazy. If there’s any suggestions to this claim or any I’ve made in this article, feel more than free to share it with me!
The Big Music Theory (7) - The Anatomy of a Tear Jerker
A good friend of mine found this article on the science behind Adele’s emotionally moving music - a pretty good fit in The Big Music Theory series. Check it out here.