This article is aimed at non-musicians or beginners, and readers who are curious to learn a bit more about sound physics. Pheek is a professor at Musitechnic, a sound recording and music production college.
Recently, I was chatting with a friend while music played in the background, and suddenly, I said “That song has great textures!”
Since he’s not a musician, I could tell by the look on his face that he was a bit puzzled.
“How can you hear textures? Aren’t they something you touch?”
We too often take for granted that the people we talk to know what we know, especially when it’s a shared passion. This “sound texture” incident is a very good example of this. To me it was obvious, but not necessarily to my friend, as quickly became apparent. While it is possible to pinpoint the origins of this concept, I will nonetheless try to keep things as simple as possible and summarize the key concepts for the sake of making it accessible to everyone.
Textures Related To Sound Form
There are many ways to analyze sound and you’ve probably seen images of sound waves before. Many software programs and tools such as an oscilloscope can show what sound looks like. There are multiple types of sound waves and today we’re going to analyze a few, just the basics.
Sine wave: The most basic sound wave, it shares it’s shape with the human voice, but it is also poor in harmonic content. The more harmonic content, the richer the sound. When we refer to rich content, it means that it is very stimulating for the human ear. One of the advantages of electronic music is the ability for machines to reproduce sound mechanically, through the use of a device named an oscillator. As you can imagine, it wasn’t very long, when oscillators were first invented, that people realized that it was possible to create very complex sound waves with them.
As I was saying, sine waves are rich in their own way, but are poor in harmonic content, which doesn’t mean, however, that they sound dull or uninteresting. Some of the most familiar sounds are sine waves: bass, piano, guitar, voice…
Let’s move on to richer types of wave forms:
Square waves, triangular waves and saw tooth: All of them display an odd symmetry compared to the sine wave. Without going into the mathematical side of things here — you can read-up on that on Wikipedia, if you are interested —, it has to be noted that these soundwave types go against the natural smooth waveform of the sine wave. The odd symmetry is synthetic: this is the very core of sound design through synthesis. When created with synthesizers, this process is what we refer to as “analog”.
This is where the concept of texture in sound starts making sense (hopefully!). To help you better understand, let’s make some comparisons with images.
Textures Related To An Aesthetic
One reference I’d immediately point out is the use of filters in photo applications. They help you quickly and easily modify a picture you just took. They can give your photo a retro look, a washed out look, a nostalgic tone, a bright tone, and so on. Using filters can automatically change the tone of the message, or at the very least the way the image is perceived. The same goes for music. Applying a filter, either to a vocal or melody, can really change things up in the same way. This is where texture in sound happens.
Let’s look at a few common sound textures which you will be able to recognize from memory and spot the next time you listen to music.
Earlier, I was explaining the various types of waveforms, but I intentionally left one out to avoid any confusion: noise. Noise could be described as non-linear, exempt of perceivable note but very rich in harmonics. Noise is often present in the use of analog machines, and often, for humans, this implies a certain warmth. While digital signal strives to achieve perfection, this cleanliness is sometime perceived as cold or clinical. There is quite a debate around that issue, but let’s settle it simply with the subjective appreciation argument.
This example is a classic dub techno track by Rhythm & Sound on the label Chain Reaction. As the story goes, Moritz von Oswald really wanted a noisy aesthetic for his music, so he travelled to Detroit to find the right mastering engineer who could do the job properly.
A really interesting fact about the current state of music is how the technology is evolving to make things feel true to the original (bits, sampling rate) but on the counter hand, there’s artists who really try to get their sounds more noisy, dirty, old sounding. There’s perhaps a nostalgic feeling from the past in there. It would be interesting to question artists who are investing themselves in that direction.
A “dirty” texture is very close to, and therefore often confused with, noisy. Dirty refers to somthing that could evoke old hip hop where sounds feel thrashed, out of a cheap sampler we had as kids but in technical terms, engineers will qualify tracks with a poor mixdown dirty or muddy. To a musician, a dirty sounding track mostly refers to audio quality, while to most clubbers, it evokes something sexy that makes you want to get your freak on. Sometimes, dirty sounds will combine with a noisy aesthetic. They work well together. Although I prefer contrasts in styles, complementary approaches also work.
Dirty can also be in the way
Clean is very surgical, with not so much effect such as compression, where you can distinctively hear all the sounds on their own, in their space. The mixdown is überclean, sounds are usually well designed, balanced, with some accent on a very spaced and organized high end (eg, high pitch sounds).
Lo-Fi is very, very similar to dirty. Think of those voice emulators (called vocoders) used for robots or the sounds of a laser gun bought for 1$: that is Lo-Fi. Less precise, but has a certain power. It has a aesthetic that brings arcade game or very cold.
The open style is something with the feeling of being in a very open space. In technical terms, it has a lot of reverb and to some people, it feels like underwater or cinematographic.
When we refer to something thick, it is a type of music that feels like a wall of sound at high volume and can be extremely intense to listen to. In technical terms, the track usually has a really thick bass, is very compressed and the general mixdown is very glued together.
There are many other styles, filters, aesthetics we could cover here, but let’s save that for a future post.
Textures In Composition, Timed Based
This one is a bit more abstract as it involves attentive listening over time. The idea is to be aware of how the song evolves and what place there is for fragments, pieces of sounds spread around. Imagine looking at a very wide, long piece of art that you have to walk alongside to, finding details here and there. Someone like Vladislav Delay is a good reference as he is an expert at leaving spaces, which leaves room and air for other sounds to breathe in and out.
So, that was my introduction to textures in music. You’ll probably start being able to spot them more easily, from now on. Perhaps you’ll have your own names for them, as well, which doesn’t really matter as long as you can hear/see sound!