Listening

09/10/2010

One of the modules we will be studying this year is titled ‘Sonic Art’. This module begins with us exploring the different ways that we as humans listen to and perceive sounds.

With the exception of sound engineers and electronic musicians, its surprising how little people actually listen to ‘sounds’, instead focusing on melody or lyrical meaning etc. It’s hardly surprising then that when asked to describe the sonic characteristics of a sound most people fail completely. We resort to very vague, subjective terms and it would be very doubtful that somebody else could identify a sound from our description.

Even as an electronic musician, working with sound now for the last 3 years or so, I just can’t seem to find the vocabulary to describe a sound accurately and objectively.

For the general public, and even for most musicians, such a degree of sonic understanding is perhaps not really necessary. Sure they are bound to give it some thought, perhaps on a more subconscious level, but for them, melody, structure, lyrics etc are the key musical components and this is where their listening efforts are directed.

For us as electronic musicians however, our most valuable tools are not concerned with melody or lyrical content but with sound, with timbre and texture. We absolutely need to have a complete understanding of the sounds we are using when shaping and structuring out music.

So how can we develop the vocabulary and the ability to understand and describe the sonic characteristics of a sound accurately?

The journey must start with developing the way in which we listen to sounds. It is not enough to hear somebody playing an electric guitar and to describe the sound as that of an electric guitar. What are the sounds textural qualities? Its dynamic and durational qualities?

In order to gain a deeper understanding of sound as an ‘object’ in it’s own right, we must start to listen to it in such a way. Close our eyes and listen to the sounds around us, try to decide what they are as sonic events without considering what has created them.

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