Long Tail Listening


In music, we pay a lot of attention to the onset of sounds—the point at which the sound begins its audible life. The onset of a sound is its attack point where the stick hits the drum, the bow grabs the string, the finger presses the key, and so on. From a sound’s attack we can surmise quite a bit about how the musician is doing, time- and dynamics- and timbre-wise: Are they playing in time? Are they playing loud or soft? What is the quality of sound they’re making?

But what happens after a sound’s onset point of attack is equally revealing. With some instruments, such as strings or winds, a sound’s attack is the beginning of a longer sustaining that must be maintained over time through continuous bowing or breathing. Other instruments, such as percussion, produce sounds that for the most part are attack-focused: you hit the drum and its sound disappears almost immediately after it has sounded. The only way to sustain a sound on a percussion instrument is to rapidly repeat it in the form of some sort of roll. Of course, some percussion instruments like cymbals and gongs have a more sustaining sound, but they are still attack-focused.

This situation encourages the percussionist to be a long tail listener who tracks what happens after the attack point of the sound as it either disappears immediately or else gradually diminishes to nothing. Long tail listening is about focusing on what happens next: strike a marimba note and it vanishes after a half second; strike a gong and it decays into silence over a half-minute. Either way, long tail listening shifts your attention to the effects of what you just hit, not the hitting itself, as if you’re learning to be your own GPS machine, using your location in time to look back at what just transpired to understand where you are now and where you’re going. In this way, long tail listening encourages us to slow down our music making: as we hear backwards we have time to feel the effects of those onset points of attack now gone that would otherwise have passed by unnoticed.

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