Music as Sound, Sound as Music

Leaning forward in my chair, I gripped my saxophone in anticipation. It was my first rehearsal with the Senior Massachusetts Youth Wind Ensemble, the first musical group to ever intimidate me with its degree of talent and level of perfection. Widely regarded as one of the top wind ensembles in the world, the group is led by Michael Mucci — a conductor, educator, and mentor whom I admire deeply. During his opening remarks he said a curious thing.

“You are all here because you love sound.”

Strange, I thought. Why would he use the word sound? In my mind, the word “sound” stood uncomfortable close to “noise.” I wasn’t just producing mere sounds; I was making music — an art that requires skill and refinement, an art that is the opposite of noise. But for some reason, his words remained in the back of my mind and their meaning grew clearer as I matured musically through my high school years. Before this, however, I had to learn that listening to music is just as much a craft as making music.I didn’t always know how to listen to music well, and I still have a lot to learn. I remember how teachers would recommend that I listen to recordings like Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue and John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, and how I would get bored after a few minutes. I thought it was because I didn’t understand the music theory underlying the jazz. But after devoting much time to learning about chord progressions and two-fives and secondary dominants, I still could not enjoy these records. Understanding that the tune “So What” has a modal structure that modulates up a half step in the bridge did not help me at all in appreciating the track.

Eventually, I was introduced to the concept of tone. Teachers emphasized the importance of developing a unique sound, asking me questions like “How would you describe your sound?” Dark, rounded, and pure, I would say. I knew that good tone was an important aspect of musicianship, but I hadn’t thought about it as something up to the musician to define. Miles Davis was always championed as having the quintessentially unique voice, so I began paying more attention to the way his trumpet sounded, not just the notes he played. With this attitude of listening for how things sounded holistically rather than how the notes were arranged, I gave Kind of Blue another shot. This time, I found myself able to sit through the full nine minutes of each track with a sustained interest. Instead of fixating on that particular bluesy lick that Cannonball played or the pentatonic scale that Coltrane used, I focused on how the richness of Bill Evan’s chords complemented Miles’ subdued tone. I noticed the contrast between the distinct sounds of Coltrane, Cannonball, and Miles, and how that lent the album a mosaic-like quality. I absorbed the recording’s general chilled, quiet, impressionistic ethos. I could go on about what I love about the album, but the point is that a simple shift in my listener’s attitude was all that I needed to understand the music. Studying jazz theory was unnecessary because listening to music involves something much more fundamental — it involves the skill of listening to sound.

I approached both new and familiar pieces of music with this new philosophy, asking the question: What kinds of sounds are these artists attempting to create? Sound, of course, gets conveyed in many different forms. In jazz, for example, the artist’s phrasing, tone, dynamics, intonation, rhythmic and melodic choices all characterize his sound. In classical, the composer’s orchestration and compositional choices as well as the performer’s interpretive choices comprise the sound. With this attitude, I listened with more focus; with more attention to subtle nuances and with more awareness of the piece as a whole. The result was that I appreciated a greater variety of music to a greater degree. Intrigued by new and unfamiliar sounds, I was less inclined to avoid music whose style wasn’t immediately familiar to me. That being said, I was not able to simply dive into the avant-garde. But I was able to immerse myself in the sound of a lesser-known, more unique composer such as Mahler or Tord Gustavsen.

And at its very core, music is just this — sound. After the last chord of every concert with the Massachusetts Youth Wind Ensemble, my heart raced and my mind marveled at how magnificently the sound reverberated throughout the concert hall — entire seconds of sustained acoustic glory. The audience seemed to be equally mesmerized, remaining silent for a few seconds after the note had died out before applause broke out. A friend of mine went to one such concert and said to me afterwards, “The concert was amazing! Especially that last piece, there was just so much sound coming from all directions.” He had never studied music before and was able to enjoy a classical concert. Most people think jazz and classical music, or any type of non-pop music, are esoteric art forms, inaccessible to those who are untrained and inexperienced. But my near decade of intensive musical training and experience has only made me realize that this isn’t the case. Music is not about mastering the technicalities of a particular genre and being able to play specific notes in a specific style in a specific order. Music is about developing and expressing our natural, human instinct to produce different sounds and appreciate how they interact and combine in beautiful ways.

Later, my new understanding of music changed the way I hear everything around me, not just sounds in the concert hall or the practice room. Being a musician naturally made me more sensitive to any sound at all, and this came at a cost. For instance, when someone on my floor forgets to turn off their alarm and I’m in my room, struggling to write a paper, unable to ignore its constant blaring. Or when on a weekend morning the sound of a dozen high-powered leaf blowers, all humming at a slightly off-tune pitch, wakes me up from my lazy sleep. And try as I might, I simply cannot soundproof my room from the commotion that inevitably fills Old Campus every weekend night: drunken yelling, piercing screeches, blaring music, and senseless whoops. For someone who prefers quiet, being so hearing-sensitive makes Yale a very loud place indeed.

But then again, a heightened awareness of sounds can be refreshing. Now, sitting by an open window during summer nights, I am able to enjoy the concert of crickets — a cacophony during which polyrhythms emerge and evolve through a series of interlocking rhythms and pitches. And I love when the rich and dissonant call of a train echoes through the quietness of the weekday night, each time with a different blend of notes. My walk these days in the woods can be transformed into something memorable when a particularly lyrical bird sings a song. The ability to hear — to really hear — the sounds of the outside world adds a deeper dimension to my experiences. A memory of a trip to New York City would be incomplete without recalling the chaotic urban sounds of car honks, footsteps, and crowded murmuring. A climb to the summit of a mountain would be diminished without noticing the utterly imposing silence.

Learning to hear music as sound taught me how to hear sound as music. After all, music and sound are not separate realms, and neither are the concert hall and the city streets. It is all part of one single sonic environment that our ears inhabit. So the next time you are in the mood for music, try something new; maybe put on Kind of Blue. If you are feeling adventurous the next time you are out and about, try listening to the world as a recording studio full of new and experimental sounds.

Tagged under Essays, Featured, Listening