Lesson 1: Function Territories.

A good soundscape is similar to a cake. There are 3 main components to a soundscape, each with its own function in the music, and they need to be in the correct order, and in the correct amounts. Imagine a cake where the icing is on the bottom, or is half the thickness of the cake. Lets look at the first component. Music is all about notes set in rhythm, and the section that best accents the rhythm is the Percussion. Whether it be a drum kit, a set of bongos and a shaker, or a percussion section of a symphony orchestra, the function of the percussion section is to mark the pinnacle of the accented notes like the snow cap on a mountain peak. The simplest and most common accents are of course the beat, and in common time the strength of the accents appear something, like for example: beat1 = 5, beat2 = 3, beat3 = 4, and beat4 = 2. A good musician does this naturally. However, synchopated accents are not related to the natural rhythms, and so can appear at any part of any beat. With that in mind we will return in the next section (Volume Territories) with how this function fits into the soundscape.

I feel obliged at this point to make it clear that every musician has an inbuilt "clock" inside him that he gets his rhythm from, and it is his responsibility to synchronise that clock with the conductor, or whoever is setting the speed at the beginning of the piece of music. From that point on the speed of the music can be increased or decreased by any member of the ensemble, whether intentionally or not. It should not be the sole responsibility of the percussionist to keep everyone in time, nor should he be the blamed for every increase or decrease in the tempo. Remember, he is responsible for snow on the mountain tops, not setting how far apart the mountains are. .

The other part of the rhythm section is the Bass instrument.Together with the percussion the bass forms the foundation or the body of the sound, much like the cake analogy. These two need to be so in touch with each other stylistically that they could stand alone. The drums are part of the "Untuned Percussion" classification, so when chords change the drums don't have the ability to change the tuning to match the chord, but the bass does... In fact the bass can "carry" the drum sound to different chord tonalities, which gives the feeling that the drums are changing with the chords. Drums, on the other hand give "punch" to the bass sound. Listen closely to most rhythmical music recordings and you will hear almost every bass note is accompanied by a beat on either the kick, snare, or one of the tom toms. Drummers and bassists who understand their reliance on each other make the tightest, and most professional basis for the other instruments and voices to build on.

Once we have a good foundation, the next function is to "colour" the sound. This is done with the Chordal instruments. This could start with the traditional chordal instruments like guitar, piano, organ/synthesizer, etc..., or could extend to a string, brass, or sax section where the notes of the chord are spread amongst the section. In the cake analogy this function is the same as the icing on the cake.

The third function is the frontline. This is the melody which is usually done by the main vocalist or instrumental soloist. This is the centrepiece, the reason the rest of the music exists.

The different parts of the music relate to different parts or the human being. The rhythm relates to the body, which is why we like to dance, or even tap our fingers or feet. The harmony in the music relates to our emotions. A well written piece can take the listener on an emotional journey. The melody relates to the intellectual part, and in fact the brain can only follow one melody line at a time. Where there is multiple part harmony, if the melody is the same volume as the other parts then the brain creates its own melody by jumping from one harmony line to the other.

Having said all that, let me now qualify it by saying that any voice or instrument can be frontline at any point. A drum fill, a bass riff, or guitar lick can be the centre of attention when there is no vocal happening, and that would make them frontline at that point, but after that they must return to the rhythm section.

It's important for every instrument to know where in the soundscape his part is at all times, and to adopt the characteristics of that function.

We are now ready to move on to the next lesson. Click here to go to the lesson about deciding volumes in a sound scape, or click here to return to the Sound Territories and Mixing index page.