Dynamics: On, Off, Left, Right, B, A, Start

At the center of every great pop song, orchestral piece, or ambient synth-based horror movie score is a conscious or intuitive understanding of dynamics. Giving a song a beginning and an end, or the intentional lack thereof, is an important part of using music to tell a story.  “Dynamic” is often used to describe music that spends some of its time being quiet and some of its time being blisteringly loud, but I’d like to offer up (or rather repeat what I’ve learned from people smarter than me) the idea that there is much more to dynamic music than stomping on a distortion pedal and deafening an unsuspecting listener.

Movement can happen in a song through (deep breath) volume, melody, the choice of instrumental tone (or timbre), the types of instruments used, layers of instruments or voices, space, complexity, dissonance, harmony, chord changes, tightness, sloppiness, the choice of words, the intonation of speech, the rhyming pattern, the length of a given section, repetition, stopping short and a million other dimensions that can make a song feel like it’s progressing from beginning to end. Movement, in all these dimensions, becomes a tool to the songwriter or composer.

You may be wondering: “But Sean, you uninformed and uncultured slob, what about music that doesn’t change much over time? Ambient music, film scores, even simple hook-based pop music? Does a lack of dynamics make them bad?”. To which I would say, “read the first sentence ya nerd” followed shortly thereafter by a far more friendly “no, of course not”. A lack of dynamic change can be just as much a powerful choice as an abundance of dynamic change. Familiarity, comfort, mundanity, and a feeling of a continuity can all be expressed by maintaining a constant dynamic. A song that sets out to capture one particular moment or feeling wouldn’t be served well by an evolving sound that changes dramatically from beginning to end; a song’s movement should match the story it’s trying to convey.

         Subverting this idea can also be a powerful tool. Presenting horrible events with a carefree disposition, jangly guitars, and dancy rhythms (e.g. much of “Bubblegum” by Kevin Devine) can communicate sarcasm or highlight the absurdity of our tendency to live life as if violent injustice is a perfectly alright status quo. Dramatic change between sections can convey the volatile nature of a person or event, such as Slow Mass’s use of major tonal and volume shifts to show the inner existential turmoil caused by pointless, “cyclical living”.

 

The idea that every aspect of a song or album should reflect its place in the world being created or presented by the artist is key to creating what Zack and Ian (Editors in Chief) refer to as “a world album”. The world being presented can be big or small, and the timeframe in which the story takes place can be short or sprawling; the dynamics of a song or album should be coherent with the world being built, and how the world is meant to be viewed by the listener.

 

    Next time you’re listening to a record (or writing one!), try and follow the dynamics of each section or each track. What story is it telling, how is it choosing to tell it, and how is it asking you to listen?

 

Songwriting: Writing Voice Over Singing Voice

Over the last two decades TV shows such as American Idol and it’s sleeker copycat The Voice have enraptured American audiences. Part of the success of these programs is the underlying implication that the viewer gets a voice in choosing who the next radio star might be. Millions of talented singers have auditioned for these shows and performed their hearts out to cheering crowds in the hopes of winning their ticket to musical stardom. However, as should be fairly apparent, most of the winners of American Idol and The Voice rarely become the radio stars of tomorrow, or even sleeper stars in their own right. How is it that the same incredible singers lauded by the world one year often fade to relative obscurity the very next year despite the high-level recording contract they just won?

 

The answer is simple: there is a lot more to being a great artist than having a great voice. Don’t get me wrong, a good voice definitely helps, but it has never been the be-all-end-all of an artist’s success. To illustrate this, let’s contrast the plight of these TV Show contest winners with the plight of country music legend Willie Nelson. Like many country singers, Willie Nelson got his start in Nashville, Tennessee, but unlike our friends from American Idol he didn’t get his start as a singer, but as a songwriter writing songs for other people. Nelson’s goal was to be a singer/songwriter, but in the notoriously competitive Nashville music industry he was told that he didn’t have a good enough voice to hold his own as an artist. In fact, it was not until he moved from Nashville to Austin, Texas that he was finally allowed to pursue his artistic endeavors. The rest, of course, is history. Willie Nelson is now a 12-time Grammy winner and one of the most recognizable names in country music, building a longstanding career off the prowess of his writing voice despite early criticism of his singing voice.

 

The same trait that held true for Willie 50 years ago still holds true today: a strong writing voice makes up a lot of ground if your singing voice isn’t quite at Tina Turner levels. Most people don’t care about the ins and outs of your vocal technique so long as you’re hitting the notes (and many people don’t even care if you hit the notes in today’s musical landscape), so long as you’re adept at finding catchy melodies or writing lyrics that demand attention. The only way to be truly effective at either of those things is by spending time developing and maturing your writing voice.

 

Let’s back up for a moment and define what we mean by the term “writing voice.” An author’s, or here, songwriter’s writing voice is their writing style: what makes their specific work recognizable and determines the character, attitude, and perspective of their music. Each voice is unique to each individual writer and when exercised, or perhaps more accurately, when released properly sets the work of a given writer apart from other writers. When this is done well it not only makes your music more distinct, but it also makes it more relatable. One of the biggest mistakes that many young artists make is trying to make their art more universal by making it less personal. It may seem counter-intuitive, but the more you try to make something that everyone can relate to the less relatable, less impactful, and ironically, the less universal your art usually becomes. The reason for this is that all people are personal and experience themselves as a person both through introspection and through interaction with the everyday world around them. Thus, when you write a song that talks about your own life, emotions, interests, and interactions in a way that only you would think to do, it becomes immediately relatable even if the listener has never had the exact same thought or experience, because when immersed in your song they simultaneously see the world through your eyes and their own eyes.

 

What I am not suggesting is that all impactful art is confessional. That is another trap that many young artists find themselves in, where songwriting becomes solely an exercise for confessing their darkest fears and insecurities. Although these kinds of songs are often relatable and emotionally impactful, they relay only one part of your experience as a person (no-one, no matter how traumatic their lives is limited only to traumatic experience). What’s more, not every song has to confess something introspective, but in fact can profess something about the larger world the artist lives in. When an artist’s writing voice becomes a fluid extension of his/her own character and perspective he/she can both confess any internal, emotional experience and profess anything he/she believes or experiences externally without ever sacrificing context. When this is paired with an ear for melodies that naturally complement the emotional contour of the lyrics, one’s vocal aptitude becomes less and less of a concern. For this reason, I would argue that developing one’s writing voice is the most important part of growing your craft as an artist.

Build a World, Not a Sound

What makes an album stand the test of time? What is the secret ingredient that pushes a good album into great territory? When confronted with these questions people generally sort themselves into one of two categories: a great album is either 1) an album where every song stands out on its own merit or 2) an album where each song works cohesively with the others to create a whole work that is greater than the sum of its parts. Nowhere is this divide more obvious than the debate between two of The Beatles biggest albums Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and their eponymous White Album, with fans of the former almost always coming from the “cohesive work” position and fans of the latter almost always coming from the “standout songs” position. Both sides certainly have their merits, but neither is without their flaws either.

While an album full of great standout tracks is an impressive feat, a common flaw with this method is that it often removes any flow from the album as a whole. In this situation the album itself isn’t really special at all, it is merely a collection of great songs, more like a portfolio than an artistic medium unto itself. I would argue that The Beatles White Album falls into this camp, however, that is not to say that all song-focused albums do. Rumours by Fleetwood Mac is an album composed almost entirely of radio singles, but it also works well in sequence as a cohesive unit.

On the other end of the spectrum, focusing more on cohesion may almost always make an album flow better, but it can also lead to generic, formulaic songs or conversely to some of the hokey and bloated, albeit amusing, failed experiments of forgotten 70s prog-rock bands, where the album’s grandiose story is thrown haphazardly over the same three riffs for 14 minutes at a time. An album that gives you ten copies of the same song may be coherent, but it is not greater than the sum of its parts. Likewise, an album whose sum is greater than its parts is no great accomplishment if all the parts are awful.

So where does this leave us? If an album lacks cohesion, then it loses its character as an artistic medium and becomes only a container for songs. However, if it is cohesive at the expense of depth and/or diversity then it lacks any real staying power. Even combining the two categories to say that a great album must have strong cohesion and be comprised of lots of standout tracks leaves a lot on the table. Such a theory may capture the essence of an album like Rumours, but it doesn’t capture the brilliance of an album like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. There is no definitive equation to explain what sets great albums apart from their peers, but I would argue there is one common thread that holds true most of the time, though it is not a concept commonly applied to music: world building.

I would propose that, for the musician, writing an album is similar to the process of world building for the novelist. You must create a space where the songs on your album can believably exist with one another and you must, proverbially speaking, give your audience something interesting to look at. This can be done in a myriad of ways, but for our purposes we can narrow the process down to two general components: scope and depth. The scope of an album here refers to the range of musical dynamics in the arrangement, anywhere from the simple quiet versus loud dynamic all the way into contextualizing different styles and sounds together. On the other hand, the depth of an album usually has more to do with the melody and the lyrics (if the song has lyrics), providing differentiation between songs based on melodic movement and variation, or through artful lyrical craftsmanship.

When a great album has a small scope, it almost always has sizable depth. For instance a great minimalist folk album may not have a ton of musical variation, but it will be set apart either by its lyrical craftsmanship or the emotional power of its melodies, generally a combination of both. Conversely, great albums with large scopes often have a shallower depth comparably, usually because the busier or more unusual the arrangement the harder it is to put compelling melodies to it, and thus the harder it is to put lyrics to it. There are of course the rare few albums that pull off a large scope and sizable depth, such as Kendrick Lamar’s 2016 masterpiece To Pimp a Butterfly, which leaves us with three general types of great albums: a small scope/sizable depth album, a large scope/shallow depth album, and a large scope/sizable depth album.

Thinking of writing albums in terms of world building seems to fly in the face of the conventional wisdom given most artists early in their careers, which is: “find your sound.” While that advice isn’t bad per se, it often ends up leading to formulaic music when artists inevitably take it as “pick a genre you think suits you and do whatever it is people in that genre do.” It takes many artists years to break free of this simple, often self-imposed cage and begin making the music they are capable of making. Part of my goal as an editor here at Not a Sound is encouraging artists to push their craft and helping them to break out of the creative cages they end up stuck in. So shake off those shackles and when you start writing that next album remember to build a world, not a sound.

Our Rating Scale

Trying to rate albums, like rating any kind of art, is an inherently subjective task. In order to remove as much bias as is humanly possible, we try to rate albums based on what they are trying to accomplish more so than their genre, “sound”, or authenticity. To do this we try to take into account the artist’s intentions, the content of the album, and our personal responses as listeners before assigning each album a numerical value. We love all kinds of music and it is at the core of our mission to help artists, so we do not publish negative reviews or hit pieces. We would rather praise things we think are worth praising than fish for clickbait with negative reviews that don’t help artists or our readers.

That said, it should be noted that our rating scale looks a little different than that of many of our contemporaries. Where a score in the 6-6.9 range would be considered a mixed review in some blogs, here it is the baseline positive score. Rather than signifying a flawed album that could be better, it instead signifies a strong album with a modest goal (which is often to fit neatly into a narrow genre category). The majority of the albums we cover will land in the 6-7.9 range, with a few stand out albums in the 8-8.9 range, and only a hand full of albums scoring 9 or above. The most important thing to remember is that if we are reviewing the album, we like it and think it deserves to be heard, so don’t take offense if we don’t give your favorite band a 10, it doesn’t mean we don’t like them!

Here is a rundown of our scoring system:

6.0-6.9 – It’s Solid

It’s a good example of its genre, or what it’s trying to do. It may not be the most impressive or ambitious example, but it does what it’s trying to do well. It’s a meat n’ potatoes kind of album. These are the kind of albums that you’re going to listen to multiple times over the year when you’re in the mood for a specific sound. For instance: “man I really just want a good old-fashioned pop-punk record, I’m gonna put on Knuckle Puck’s second album.”

7.0-7.9 – It’s Great For its Context

It’s a great example of its genre, or what it’s trying to do. Of all the artists trying to do this thing, these folks are some of the best at it. These albums stick out compared to other similar albums and might be great gateway albums to get people into the genre if they’re not familiar with it. These albums might be considered dark-horse classics in their respective genres.

8.0-8.9 – It Transcends its Genre/Context

These are albums that do something special and might merit a listen from people who don’t usually like the genre this album is coming from. Oftentimes these are cases where the artist pulls off something very poignant in his/her art. Or, this can happen when an artist begins to successfully experiment with new ideas and sounds that aren’t traditionally found in his/her native genre and pulls off something that feels ambitious and groundbreaking.

9.0-9.9 – A Masterpiece/ A Front-Runner for Album of the Year

We think that this album stands head and shoulders over all the other albums that came out this year (or in a down year, comparably to the prior year). This album hit all the right notes, tugged all the right heartstrings, pulled off all the right ambitious moves and left us awestruck. We will come back to this album for years to come.

10.0 – A Generational Classic

This is the rare album that comes out maybe once a decade or so that redefines what we thought was possible in music, makes an incredibly poignant and timely statement, and should be remembered as a highly potent cultural landmark for the foreseeable future. We do not give out 10s on a regular basis.

Welcome to Not a Sound

Thank you for supporting our dream to build a different kind of music journalism. In the future we hope to provide a platform that makes it easy for you to find wonderful, new artists at every level who are creating the music that you want to hear. We have big things planned for this December, but until then, we won’t have too much to share, so please bare with us until operations begin in full.