The following article includes a musical breakdown of my song “Empty” from the Spectrum EP. Listen to it here;
In my last article, How To Tell a Story with Sound, I explained the basics of how I attempt to hook a listener into my music. I mentioned that story telling was my favourite medium of art, but what I didn’t explain was why. Well for me it’s because of the therapeutic nature of creating music. and this article will look both at how and why it does that for me, as well as the effects of music on a listener at a deeper level.
Emotion Through Sound
This is a subject that’s been studied and analysed for centuries by both scientists and philosophers across the world, who have looked at every facet of why music can directly affect your emotions. The best songs create empathy, adapting and evolving to fit different people’s life experiences from a young age and staying with them throughout their entire journey in this dimension.
Firstly let’s look at the more tangible musical structures that exist and their associated emotions;
- Tempo (Speed/Pace) – Fast = Happiness, Excitement, Anger. Slow = Sadness, Serenity.
- Mode (Scale Type) – Major = Happiness, Joy. Minor = Sadness, Depression.
- Melody (Note Sequence) – Complimenting = Happy, Relaxed. Clashing = Excitement, Anger, Confusion.
- Rhythm (Repeated Pattern/Beat) – Smooth = Serenity, Happiness. Irregular = Uneasiness, Excitement.
These are basic principles that help with a foundation of a song, and can be studied in more detail in music theory and composition. After this though there are many elements that can contribute towards giving a song meaning. Let’s take a look at some I used below.
In my song Empty, there was a clear objective from the outset to try to show a sense of loneliness, mixed with a sort of nihilistic depression. These are just feelings, so how did I consciously attempt to transpose these thoughts into sound? Let’s look at the sound design of the layers;
- Synth Pad – The key was to make a warm embracing analogue pad that invites you in at first, but slowly turns angrier, colder and more digital as the track goes on. The attack also increases, with the idea being the sound becomes more disconnecting as we build up to the climax.
- Synth Lead – This is a heavily distorted guitar with a ton of reverb to make it sound distant, which I felt added to the concept of the track by being far away/out of reach. I also improvised most of this without too much repetition, to keep the sense of unease throughout.
- Opening Vocal – This was an awesome ethereal vocal sample I dug up years ago which was originally the basis of the track. I felt the rising pitch and crescendo at the end of the phrase set the atmosphere perfectly for what I was trying to capture.
- Chorus Vocal – Maybe this was a bit on the nose, but I felt the lyrics had to be there. The reverb/delay combination on the sample adds to the ambience and sets up the main section of the song by sort of announcing the intention.
- Piano – So the heavily processed piano which comes in after the percussion is one of the main reasons the song works I think. The arpeggio constantly shifts pitches, once again creating a sense of urgency, confusion and disconnection. This also allows us to have a melodic presence keeping us company as the focus of the track builds up.
So the percussion is the main part of this track, and my favourite layer. In most of my songs I tend to keep the percussion consistent, and prefer to change melodies and harmonies over a solid foundation, however as this song is meant to instil a sense of confusion and being lost I felt an ever changing rhythmic pattern was necessary. This was achieved by starting off with a simple drum pattern (Kick, Snare, Hi Hats), and then adding a few different effects combined with automation.
The most important factor when creating emotion and feeling with sound, in my opinion, is chord progression. In this song we keep it quite simple, half of the song with a 3 chord progression and then adding in a 4th to add some further evolution and darken things up.
Most songs (especially pop songs) use the same chord progressions, mixed up with added harmonics or played in different octaves, but a really fun example of this is the below video that went viral by Axis of Awesome a few years ago.
When you listen to any music try and pick out the main chord progression (usually played by the piano or guitar in pop/rock). Most of my music is based in the minor keys and progressions, which to be honest makes it hard to find new ideas. I try to counteract this by ignoring convention and messing with structure and melody.
By the way, in case you’re not familiar with the difference provided by changing keys and scales, check out this extreme example of what happens if you switch the Darth Vader Theme from Star Wars from minor to major.
Sounds more like the Police Academy Theme right?
What Makes You Feel?
So how are these progressions and melodies making us feel different things? Well the brain is a pretty mysterious and enigmatic thing when you think about it, and so far we’re only at the tip of the iceberg when it comes to analysing how it works. Scientifically, it’s been hypothesised that the brain is trying to translate music by looking at expectation, experience, and patterns. More can be read on this if you look up “The Theory of Musical Equilibration” .
Expand Your Mind
So that’s it for this article, as you can probably tell this is a ridiculously expansive subject which we could go deeper into, however I only want to make my listeners more aware of the intention behind the music, and perhaps get more thought into what we choose to listen to.
Keep an eye out for the next article I publish, which will be looking at the link between sight and sound, with some really cool visual videos on show. Until then, I leave you with one of my favourite songs that conveys emotion.