“I think sound is a very interesting phenomenon. Why people are so influenced by music: they didn’t know how strong the music influences us for good or for bad. You can kill people with sound. And if you can kill, maybe there is also sound that is the opposite of killing. And the distance between the two points is very big. And you are free–you can choose.”
– Arvo Pärt
“Music is a meaningful context which is not bound to a conceptual scheme.”
– Alfred Schutz, “Making Music Together: A Study in Social Relationship.”
We take it for granted that different musics have different affects, but do we think much about the effects of these affects? Is musical sound a semantically vague symbol onto which we project our own meanings, or is it a more powerful force that that—a force, as the composer Arvo Pärt notes above, with the power to influence us for good or for bad?
I haven’t thought much about the effects of musical affect, but I do notice that I turn to certain kinds of sounds more than others. I prefer slow attack sounds over fast attack ones. If I use percussion (which is mostly fast attack sounds), I prefer resonant sounds over harsh and clangy ones. (I prefer gongs to cymbals.) I like mellow timbres with their high frequencies rolled off. When I use brighter sounds, they tend to be without low frequencies at all, which makes them timbrally thinner and more delicate. I generally like acoustic-sounding sounds, though I also like synthetic textures—such as deep sub bass sounds.
Sound production textures are another window onto our preferred sounds. A “dry” mix is one with little use of reverbs or delays, which are often associated with a “wet” ambiance. When an individual sound is presented dry (i.e. without reverbs or delays to create ambiance around it) it sounds more “up front” or foregrounded in the mix. Such sounds are as if right in front of you; we might even say that such sounds are “in your face” or, to put a label on it, aggressive. When an individual sound is presented wet (i.e. with reverbs or delays around it) it’s located further back in a mix’s dimensional space. Such sounds are as if reluctant to come to the foreground, which is the affective opposite of in your face. I like the suggestiveness and subtleness of these sounds, and I spend a lot of time trying out different combinations of wet reverb settings to achieve affects that feel suggestive yet ambiguous.
Pärt’s idea that sounds have power to influence us for good or bad gets us thinking about how any sound or music works on us. If you want to subject yourself to a simple case study, watch some TV commercials and pay attention to what the music is doing—or trying to do—in relation to the subject matter in the ad. Is the music trying to convey a sense of epic cool in say, a car ad? A sense of quirkiness in a telephone company ad? Nostalgia in an investment banking ad? Humor in a laundry detergent ad? Sadness in a rescue animal ad? Toughness in a Walmart ad? (The company managed to licensed an AC-DC song.) TV ads remind us that just as music can be bought, so can our attention. So: take a moment to register the relationship between how the music sounds and how you feel. Something is happening, and once you key in to what’s happening, you’ll never watch TV ads the same way again. What’s happening is that the sounds are directing your feelings. While music is semantically vague—as Schutz says, it’s a meaningful context not bound to a conceptual scheme—it’s directly suggestive, which is the source of its affective power.
Of course, advertising sets a low threshold for tapping into music’s affective potentials. The problem with advertising—besides the obvious annoyances that someone is trying to sell you something and the assumption that every product or service deserves a soundtrack!—is that its vocabulary of affective gestures is small. Ads chase after obvious vibes—like epic cool, quirkiness, nostalgia, humor, or sadness—while the music we love is often about non-obvious vibes, vibes you can’t quite put your finger on, vibes that can’t be commoditized.
If you write music yourself, you can’t help but reflect on why you make the music you make and to what ends you’re making it–in other words, the consequences of your sound. Your sound preferences may be obvious to you, but do you wonder about what you hope your sounds could do for others? Your music’s affect may seem obvious, but will I feel it like you do? (One person’s favorite energetic song is another person’s annoyance.) We are all, as Pärt notes, “so influenced by music” and rush headlong into its symbolic worlds and meaningful contexts, hoping to be changed.