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Stop, Hey, What’s That Sound?

October 22nd, 2012 · 43 Comments

The first time I heard the Divine Fits’ debut album, I remember thinking that the members of Spoon must be peeved that someone had so perfectly emulated the band’s sound as to produce what could pass for the best Spoon album since 2002’s Kill the Moonlight. After a quick Wikipedia search, of course, I realized that it wasn’t a case of “emulation” at all: The group’s line-up included Spoon front man and songwriter Britt Daniel, whose unmistakable sonic fingerprints were all over the album.

Probably every reader of this blog has often had the similar experience of hearing a new song by an artist they know well, and instantly recognizing its authorship, even before the singer’s voice comes in. What we’re recognizing, of course, are the rhythmic and melodic tricks certain songwriters recur to, and the idiosyncrasies of each performer’s technique. Yet those of us who aren’t musicians, or at least trained in music theory, usually can’t tell you exactly what we’re recognizing.  If pressed we might be able to isolate some familiar elements and say something vague about what makes them familiar: Johnny Marr’s “jangly” guitars, that yearning quality of James Mercer’s ascending and descending vocal melodies, the “too many notes” intricacy of a Mozart composition, the driving rhythm that somehow reminds you of three or four other Spoon songs, even though it’s not quite the same. It’s a classic case of what Hayek and Polanyi called “tacit knowledge“: We’re much better at employing our knowledge than we are at articulating exactly what it is we know, or how we’re doing it.

But of course, what we’re recognizing usually can be articulated by an appropriately trained person—and I bet I’m not the only non-musician who’d find it pretty fascinating to have that explained. So here’s a free idea for any music sites or magazines on the lookout for a fresh feature—or an aspiring music writer with the know-how to pull it off: A regular “What’s that Sound” column that picks an artist with a distinctive sound and tries to explain—with some technical detail, but presented with reference to specific examples so the untrained reader can get some sense of what it actually means— exactly what that trademark “sound” consists of. I’m so confident this would be popular that I’m almost surprised that (as far as I know) it hasn’t already been done.

Tags: Art & Culture



43 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Kieselguhr Kid // Oct 22, 2012 at 4:47 pm

    So, look, initial disclaimer, I used to be a pop guy and am now a jazz snob.

    But that said, jazz listeners — as far as I can tell even musically uneducated jazzz listeners — are just really, really familiar with this phenomenon. It’s why I hear a track off a new John Abercrombie album on the radio and say, oh, cool, he’s playing with Joe Lovano. With some artists it’s easy — I remember my two-year-old daughter in the back of a car hearing something on the radio I surely hadn’t played for her and saying, “that’s _Miles_,” which of course it was. And I mean, pretty much every musician in that genre is known for exactly that stylistic distinctiveness — that’s what makes you you. But still: it characterizes that form, and it’s a bit hard not to, well, chuckle a bit at your story.

    The point is, the type of thing you’re advocating isn’t new in jazz although it serves a different function. _Jazz Times_ and _Down Beat_ have each had a regular column going back decades where they play new cuts to musicians and they say, oh yeah, that’s so-and-so, you can tell by the way his left hand moves in fours (or what-have-you). Although, again, I think an awful lot of the listenership can do that too, the point is more to get the musician’s untainted opinion, which it turns out you can’t do because the sounds are so distinctive (Bill Stewart did an _incredible_ one maybe a decade back, picking out drummers, which I think mostly cured me of pop — because you immediately realized that there probably aren’t a dozen pop drummers so distinctive, that if you put them in different ensembles, _anyone_ would be able to figure out who’s who. Hell, Christopher Guest made a movie about that.)

    So if you really want to learn this — and be able to do it on your own — well, easy-peasy, man. Start with the guys who’s training is to play with enough individuality to make that kind of identification easy.

  • 2 Julian Sanchez // Oct 22, 2012 at 5:36 pm

    Also a jazz fan, so of course I know all of that, and can often recognize my favorite performers in that genre as well. I’m not interested in “learning” the skill or practicing it or anything; I was just proposing something for general audience music mags.

  • 3 Tim Cushing // Oct 22, 2012 at 7:15 pm

    I certainly hope someone takes this and runs with it. (And that you provide the link when they do.)

    There’s all sorts of signature sounds that I’d like to see explained. We all know The Edge’s trademark “chiming” guitar work and Sonic Youth’s various detunings.

    But I’d like to have someone break down what exactly that distinctive noise is that The Cure unleash quite frequently on “Disintegration,” and on various post-best-album-of-all-time albums. (It’s that tweet-chirp sound that echoes off in various directions. It shows up very distinctly [and very early] in “Burn,” the track they contributed to “The Crow” soundtrack.)

    And there was a good half-decade where you could tell something was an Evil Nine remix just by listening to the drums, which sounded “live” but most likely weren’t.

    Splitting off the subject proper — hype men, sound effects and samples distinct to various hip hop artists. Eminem’s child voice interjections, onomatopoeia and vocalized sound effects taking the place of the usual yo/boyee/damn hollering. Rick Ross’ various unique grunts, groans and deliver of the word “boss,” which in his mouth sounds like it has the roundest, smoothest, laziest “o” ever pronounced.

  • 4 gus // Oct 23, 2012 at 7:43 am

    There’s a similar thing on ABC classic FM called ‘keys to music’

  • 5 Anonymous // Oct 23, 2012 at 11:59 am

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  • 6 Glen // Oct 23, 2012 at 6:43 pm

    Seems like Pandora is damn close to what you’re talking about, or at least well-equipped to do it. If you plug a song or band into Pandora, it will, in addition to giving you a “radio station” based on it, also give you a list of the characteristic features of the song or band that were used to create the station. As I recall, Pandora was born out of the “Music Genome Project,” which was about identifying these features of music that people glom onto unconsciously.

  • 7 Julian Sanchez // Oct 23, 2012 at 11:31 pm

    Yeah, but the Pandora descriptions are fairly general—”jangly guitars; vocal harmonies”—and lump together bands you’d never actually mistake for one another. I’m talking about stuff like “they always use x-y-z chord change…”

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