Nothing to do this Saturday (13th July 2013)? I’ll be at Lewisham People’s Day making some weird noises and laying down a blanket of cozy audio in the Indian Canopy. I should be on from about 1pm for some experimentation!
Nothing to do this Saturday (13th July 2013)? I’ll be at Lewisham People’s Day making some weird noises and laying down a blanket of cozy audio in the Indian Canopy. I should be on from about 1pm for some experimentation!
Sound is part of our everyday lives and is with us while we sleep as well as during our waking hours. Whilst our brains are clever at filtering out sounds, this does not mean that our brains aren’t processing and allowing them to have an effect on our emotional state. Even though we may not be consciously paying attention to bird song, for example, these sounds still have a calming affect on us. This idea can be very useful to those wanting to create atmosphere and influence emotion; think about the use of sound for events.
A good example of sound influencing emotion, consciously as well as subconsciously, can be seen in the huge part that sound design has played in film; from the early silent films utilising live musicians to the complex multiple layered, surround sound used in cinemas today. Cinematic sound designers don’t just add sounds to a film to aid realism but treat the sounds they use as an integral part of the story, changing the character of mundane sounds so they fit in with the action and emotional content. A good example could be the use of a telephone ringing: among other factors, the atmosphere will differ depending on how quiet the background noise is, the pitch of the ring and the gaps between each ring; it is possible to make the same sound seem relaxed or very tense.
A more obvious way we enjoy sound is by listening to music; the sound for events usually finishes here. Volume, style, mood, cultural preference, and even mathematics can affect this: two sounds played together seem harsh when the mathematical relationships governing them aren’t compatible. The rules we have created for writing music, such as the use of scales, harness such factors and this means that music can be seen as sound that has been tamed; human beings discovered how to structure and blend sounds to create entertainment. This shows that the factors making music enjoyable are actually present in every other soundscape we hear too: in a park, melodious songbirds delicately serenade us while the trees gently swish in the breeze to calm us; the crashes and fast-paced footfall at a train station during rush hour all serve to add to our sense of stress.
So, if it is possible for sound and music to have similar affects, what strength does one have over the other if we were interested in influencing emotion? Well, the weakness of music is that the effect it has on people is highly dependant upon taste but then listening to general sound does not really constitute entertainment. Identifying customer demographics can alleviate the taste problem with music, but the emotional affects of sound in general should not be ignored and can be sculptured into entertainment to provide something richer than plain music; and even if it slips under the listener’s radar raw sound will still have an influence upon emotion and should be thought of when choosing sound for events.
Sound can be used to intensify a theme or it can be used to influence emotion. Further to these subconscious emotional affects, when taken out of context, sound can be novel and exciting with these emotional affects still intact. Companies who offer sonic branding realise this and use sound as well as music to add one of the missing senses to modern branding: the auditory system. They can use the ideas and techniques cinematic sound designers use but instead of taking us on a narrative with their audio, they are bringing a brand to life and making it ever more relevant to our everyday lives while making the brand more memorable. We can experience emotion because of sound and businesses want us to be emotionally connected to their brands.
These ideas shouldn’t be confined to traditional advertising channels though; they can also be very poignant in experiential marketing and events. Every event is an excuse to show off in front of the public as well as clients and potential clients so why not manipulate sound for events using a soundscape to create a desired audio atmosphere? Sound can be used to steer the emotion of guests towards a desired emotion. As in sound design for film, sound for events doesn’t have to be obtrusive; it just has to be emotionally affective. It can also be paired with action or specific items of an event to instil emotion still further. Interactivity opens up the mind and leads to us becoming psychologically involved with the subject matter; an activity also becomes more attractive if pleasant emotions are paired with it.
How can these ideas be used in sound for events though? To use the example of birdsong, it might be desired that guests or delegates stay in one particular area to increase their exposure to visual advertising. Birdsong being played within a relevant surrounding would help this. A hallway or room could be given a strong-sounding audio sheen that breathes importance into the room. An audio reward could be obtained to increase a sense of fun and happiness by triggering a button or sensor, again, actively engaging the client with the brand. These are just a few examples of what is possible and really, we are only limited by our imaginations. Sound is becoming ever more important in consumers’ lives and this can only increase as more and more companies realise how powerful sound for events can be. An example of this focus can be seen through the inclusion of soundscape, or ‘design you can’t see’, in last years London Design Festival; and practical applications used by Bentley and BMW, for example, strengthen this through designing the sound of their car interiors. Sound shouldn’t be a luxury though; today’s technology and multi-channel communications mean the power of sound is open to all.
If you want to know more about sound design, books such as ‘Sound Design’ by David Sonnenschein can be very useful in understanding more about the emotional content of sound; books on sound art such as Alan Licht’s ‘Sound Art’ can also provide much inspiration in sound for events. There are also various academic texts available on the psychology of hearing and how sound affects consumer behaviour. Jay Harris is a sound designer and soundscape artist living in London who provides creative audio installations and soundscapes for events.
You may or may not be familiar with your local live music scene and it’s related events. Whether it is a dusty local pub or a dusty, prestigious Camden venue they generally work in the same way for amateur musicians. My experience on the lower rungs of that system is probably as good as anybody’s. This is because local, live music seems to be stuck in a perpetual loop. Masses of bands play events in London’s live circuit, throughout the country and throughout the world over and over again. The vast majority of bands don’t go anywhere and are eventually spat out of the spin cycle to make way for others. Bands end up this way for a number of reasons but it is my personal opinion that the ‘live circuit’ is archaic and is holding innovation, and therefore good bands, back.
In the UK, bands hope that if they play enough gigs they will be given the right opportunities to turn their pre-career into a full blown music career. The better, more professional bands that also produce exciting events rise to the top, gain fans and eventually gain a record deal.
Well, since music teamed up with the Internet, the idea of aiming for a record deal has pretty much been dispelled as an ineffective myth among bands. With online promotion and recording technology now open to all with a fairly modest amount of cash, it is now possible to go it alone and the influx of web-based knowledge on the subject has dispelled the romantic rock-star myth. All this is very old news now though and behaviour has developed accordingly. However, this change in ‘business model’ for amateur musicians doesn’t seem to have updated throughout the entire system – namely the events that host the bands.
Promoters still seem to be running events with these old rock-star ideals. As somebody that got involved with finding gigs for my previous bands to play, I ran into many promoters asking the band to play shoddy gigs or replace last minute drop-outs. Because their business is rightly very much bums-on-seats driven, they force you to bring x amount of fans although they give you little financial reward. However, instead of money they do dangle the possibility of playing with the bigger bands if you do what they say. Quite demeaning really, as ideally they should be judging such possibilities on your performance not on whether or not you can appease the venue owner. It’s music they love right?
This all brings you to a situation where bands do whatever it takes to please the promoters in the hope of gaining ‘great gigs’, ‘great opportunities’ and the ‘possibility to take your career up to the next level’. Of course, these promises rarely materialise. If they do, the exposure gained isn’t really worth that much anyway; it’s usually over-hyped in an effort to persuade the band to fill a slot. Among all this, the promoters always put the emphasis on the bands to bring fans, telling you they wont let you play their events anymore if you don’t fill your quota. Maybe these promoters aren’t sure of what a ‘promoter’s’ role traditionally involves and that good promotion doesn’t really equal a Facebook page, a few posters and placement in the swamped gigs section of the local newspaper?
Maybe things work like this because it’s so hard to get people to come out and see bands play. The venues and pubs are under pressure to keep open, the promoters are under pressure to please their venues and the bands are therefore pressured to make sure that people come to see them and buy beer etc.
This is mostly fair enough really as the system is dictating that the people caught within it act in a certain way. What is clear though is that the system is perpetual. Bands come, bands go, occasionally a band makes a bit of money and are able to grow; but the promoters seem to stay where they are, churning out faceless bands at every event. This system does seem to be stacked in their favour but whether that is true or not, the system doesn’t work for the cornerstone of the live music scene – the bands.
Maybe promoters should focus on providing good events rather than piggybacking off the friends of the bands they work with? Maybe they should think about how they can make their events more interesting? Maybe prolonged efforts to produce events people want to go to will enable them to provide their own audience? Music isn’t always enough to sell something, which is why bands also sell various add-ons in addition to their music. So therefore maybe promoters should think about adding value and intrigue to their events; maybe the ‘unknown band in pub’ idea isn’t a good business model? To be fair though, some promoters do a great job of innovating: one of the most memorable gigs I played involved comedy acts, burlesque and also allowed us to have an improvised jam with our audience. The audience loved it!
If the music industry hadn’t spent so much time and money creating gods out of ordinary musicians maybe amateur musicians would be more cynical about promoters dangling fame and fortune in front of them like a glittering carrot? (Notice that even the music industry has to sell image and not solely music – no matter how ‘indie’ the band is).
So, how can the local live scene break its cycle of mediocrity? Maybe educating young musicians on the realities of business will allow them to add reality to what promoters tell them. Maybe this will force promoters to offer new rewards to young bands and maybe they will have to start providing interesting content rather than relying on bands to bring their friends to buy drinks etc?
What does innovation mean in practical terms though..? As marketing and more mainstream events companies now practice, people should think about every sensory aspect of the event and focus it towards their brand or theme; a gig can be more than a band/act and some booze. Contrary to popular belief, adding creative flair doesn’t have to be expensive, just thoughtful. I doubt things will change any time soon but maybe this thinly veiled rant will be food for thought…
After the last incarnation of my band, Lunar Rising, split I looked at various ways to become more self-sufficient. I wanted to create big sounds using instruments but with fewer people, or at least fewer people with specific skills. I looked into easy-to-play drone instruments such as the Shrutti Box, computerised sampling and looping and messing around with ‘found sound’ atmospheres. During this research, I also started to look at drone instruments that I could make cheaply and without much fuss and this is when I came across the Aeolian Harp, AKA Wind Harp. The nature of this instrument means that on it’s own, it wasn’t entirely suitable for use in a band (or was it…? more on this later) but I wanted to make one out of sheer curiosity and thought it could come in very useful for creating soundscape installations (more on this later too…).
So, what is an Aeolian Harp? Well, legend has it that the ancient Greeks came up with the idea somehow. Strings are tightened across a simple (or not so simple) body which is then placed outside or at an open window. The breezes and winds then brush over the strings and this creates a very beautiful, ethereal sound. Yes, the wind effectively plays the instrument for you!
You may be wondering how this is possible, as the wind isn’t agile enough to pluck or bow a string. Well, apparently the jury is still out on the exact science but the basics are known. Skip this paragraph if science bores you… Each single sound, instrumental or otherwise is made up of different frequencies (or pitches). These frequencies are usually mathematically related and these various frequencies all contribute to what you hear as timbre or tone (the way the instrument sounds). A string that has been pulled taut has a pitch related to it’s length and the various frequencies making up this pitch can be teased out by lightly brushing the string at various points. This is what the wind does to an Aeolian Harp and the (effectively) random nature of wind is why you can hear so many different, random notes all at the same time
So, how to make one! I found out how to make an Aeolian Harp by watching this great You Tube video by Stan Hershonik, a guy that has made many different types.
All you need is a bit of guttering, some wood, nails, instrument tuning pins and some fishing wire!
The video above shows you what you have to do but basically you fit wood blocks into either end of the guttering and screw your tuning pins into one end. Thread your fishing wire strings through the tuning pins and pull them over the other side of the guttering where they are nailed in place. Use two bits of thin wood as the bridges to hold the strings up. Tighten the strings using the tuning pins and you’re done! Exact tuning isn’t really necessary as it will still sound nice! If you fancy making one please do feel free to contact me if you have any questions or are having any problems.
Here is a video of my finished harp singing, including a duet with a train and some wind noise! How does the sound make you feel?
So, you can use an Aeolian Harp to bring a bit of cheer and background noise to a space and this is where an involvement with them could rightly end. However, how else might they be used? As I mentioned earlier, could they be used in a band? Well, mic’ing them up would provide a bit of a chalengle but maybe artificial breezes can be created so that human power can influence how the harp sounds. Could it be possible to rig a harp up to electronic fans controlled by a user interface? Collaborator Christopher Konopka is currently considering this in some interesting depth… maybe more on this later… The electronics and software programming could be very simple but considerations of breeze strength and fan noise would have to be taken into account.
If this set-up ends up not being possible in a band situation, these ideas could easily be transferred to a soundscape installation and various artists have already done this. Using a few harps, big or small, outside could create a space that people can walk around and enjoy the sounds created. If the fan ideas work out then maybe they can be used indoors as part of a more general soundscape. The natural harp sound could be teamed up with noises coming from speakers and, again, interactive elements could be used to control what happens when. The harps could be built into aesthetically pleasing sculptures to provide a visual spectacle as well as interactivity. But what still remains though is the sound; a beautiful, otherworldly sound that creates a serene and interesting backdrop to any space. I am really looking forward to having the opportunity to develop these ideas in my soundscape work. Watch this space but until then, have a go at making one yourself, anyone can do it!
This is the second part of a two-part post about the destructive capabilities of sound and sound design. Specifically, these posts talk about how sound design is used during war and the factors common to these uses. Maybe a look at such extreme usage will spur ideas of how sound design can be used in more constructive, peaceful ways.
From reading the previous post, you can see that the use of sound design in this context is both psychological and physical and it’s strength lies in being able to affect both the body and the mind; potent stuff! This is no less true for another, more sinister application: the use of sound in torture.
If the use of sound design in war strikes you as sinister, you may be shocked to learn that it is also used in torture. The idea apparently came from the North Koreans and Chinese who used sound to brainwash captives during the Korean War. The Americans realised how powerful this concept was and therefore conducted research into how it might be countered so they could defend themselves against it. This research actually ended up leading to the US using similar techniques employed by the Chinese and North Koreans and these techniques have been used at both Guantanamo Bay as well as the Abu Ghraib prison.
So, what has this torture consisted of? Well, reports say that very loud, aggressive music is played as an integral part of stress-based torture; loud sound is extremely fatiguing to listen to. On its own, the music serves to isolate the captive and draw them into their mind while learning dependence on their captor. Used for hours, the music keeps the captive awake and disoriented; the idea being that talking and divulging information will be seen as a release from the stress of not being able to rest and also of escape from the sound.
An interesting point to note about this audio torture is that Muslim detainees at these two prisons have also talked about how culture has played a part in their discomfort. Music has very different, religious meanings for a lot of Muslims and being subjected to intense rock and metal music offends their beliefs, which are at the very core of their existence. When paired with isolation and hopelessness, this imposition could be very powerful in changing thought patterns.
It is probably pretty obvious to you that very loud sound is very uncomfortable and you instantly want to remove yourself from it. However, something called dissonance also contributes and is used in sound design with great effect. Heard in much modern metal music, dissonance also produces an uncomfortable feeling. Sound is basically the vibration of air molecules and the speed at which they vibrate is called frequency. The frequencies of sounds that go well together have a mathematical relationship, one number is divisible by the other. When sounds are dissonant, this numerical relationship does not exist and our brain interprets this as uncomfortable, making it a great tool for violent, unsettling music! This effect comes from a cross between physiology and culture though: Our cultures train our ears to what sounds acceptable but the effect is directly related to how sound moves as well as the way our brain is structured in interpreting these sounds.
So, as with the militaristic uses of sound design as described in the previous post, torture also uses the basic power of sound as well as the psychological affects it has, creating an overall sound design. Too much of any sensory input is always painful so there is perhaps not much we can learn from this. But sound is very important to our psychological make-up; sound is always around us, we cannot easily switch it off like we can with sight and the fact that sound is a constant in our lives (even when asleep!) means it can easily obtain meaning when paired with emotion. Reverse these negative sounds to positive sounds and the affect remains. Think of a nice relaxing summer afternoon in a park; what can you hear? The gentle, hypnotising swish of the trees in a breeze; delicate birdsong and maybe even the calm of running water. Now, keep the scene exactly the same but replace those sounds with violent, uncomfortably loud smashes and crashes and have a think about how your mood changes. The emotional pairing and content of sound is driving the feelings you are experiencing.
This blog post has been inspired by the documentary ‘Songs of War’ aired on Al Jazeera and is the first in a two-part post on an extreme use of sound: the use of sound in war. This is a fascinating subject although you may be shocked to hear about how sound can be used and what is actually happening today in our own armies.
I’ve talked about it before but sound has been used to trigger emotion in film for a long time, reinforcing the emotional content of what you are seeing, creating a much more integrated atmosphere that draws the viewer in. Also, the importance of sound, not just music, is being accepted more and more in the marketing world. Sound tends to focus on the positive here as brands fight to associate their goods with attractive, positive attributes that gain customers. However, as with everything, music and sound aren’t always used for good, sound has also been used in war for a long time. The very fact that sound can be used in such extreme ways shows how very potent sound design can be, both a strong physical force as well as psychological one. The characteristics of sound and music that cause them to be manipulated in such a way are what makes this subject so interesting for marketers wanting to convey messages as well as those just interested in sound.
The first uses of sound in war were to intimidate the enemy. Drums, trumpets, shouts and the crashing of shields and swords have been used to show strength and power, whip soldiers up into a frenzy and strike fear into the hearts of the enemy. These are all very physical, powerful sounds that seem to remind us of danger no matter what our cultural norms are. Particular to the UK, the sound of bagpipes in battle is both stirring for the British and fear-inducing for soldiers on the other side. This sound is different in that it is more complex although it is still rousing and powerful.
As time went on, the use of music and sound became more sophisticated and strategic. A famous example is how Adolf Hitler and Josef Goebbels controlled music in the Third Reich through the Reich Music Chamber. Stirring militaristic marches full of bombast, powerful brass sections and simple crashing beats were used to ignite war in the population. Also, during this period, the famous Stuka dive bomber used sound to inflict terror on the people it fought against: as the plane dived to release it’s bomb, a siren let out a shrill whine. You might notice here that context played a big part in this terror rather than sound in isolation, accenting fear already there much as cinematic sound designers do.
Later on, the use of sound in war is got ever more sophisticated. During the Vietnam War, the American military used speakers in the jungle to project eerie, ghostly sounds. This was intended to affect the Vietcong spiritually and break their morale; they believed that if they died away from home their spirit would get lost and be forced to wander the earth forever. Here you can see that power is not so much of a contributor but again, playing on context, emotions can be influenced by knowing about your ‘audience’.
Modern times have seen the invention of the directional speaker. Conventional speakers project sound outward in a 90 degree arc meaning that sound can be heard even if you are not directly in front of a speaker. Directional speakers use a carrier wave to hold the sound waves and this only travels in straight lines. This means the speaker can be pointed at just one person or a group of people and even though it is delivering intense sound levels, those standing outside of this ‘beam’ will hear a much reduced sound. It can therefore serve to incapacitate a select group of people without having to fire guns and it’s inventor even goes so far as to say that this invention could end war as we know it. Again, power is the theme and the importance of this is also shown in the continuous thread of battle music: modern American soldiers have been known to listen to music while actually in battle; tank crews in particular listened to hard rock or heavy metal while fighting to keep them motivated and fearless.
As you can see, sound can be terrifying and it can be used to control as well as to injure. There are a few constants that appear throughout these examples, highlighting general effects that sound can have. My next post will talk about taking these ideas away from the front line and their use in torture, an even more sinister application.
Happy New Year! Here we are, 2013! We have escaped a Mayan apocalypse and there are reports of the UK’s financial situation improving!
Whatever your stance on the last two pieces of information, a new year always kickstarts new ideas and positive thinking. Most of us seem to be back at work now, looking forward to an exciting new year …despite some still being on the turkey sandwich diet…
I’ve heard more than a couple of times this January that people are keen to keep this New Year positive thinking intact, not allowing the usual January lull to depress us; a kind of new years resolution to stick to our new years resolutions… So, instead of giving up the fitness plan on January 17th (supposedly the most miserable day of the year), losing track of all those books you want to read for self-improvement purposes, or chaining an entire pack of cigarettes (…on the 17th…) lets join them and put plans in place to make goals and targets a reality. All you have to do is have ideas to improve yourself and plan out when you will see them through… and stick to it! Whenever you get tempted to leave something until tomorrow, do it right that second instead. You’ll feel better for it and actually see progress!
As far as myself goes, I am developing and expanding my work to make things more appealing to more people and am relishing the new challenges that this brings. After discovering that making sound and soundscape interactive is well within my grasp, I am now working on new systems to achieve this. Motion sensors, pressure sensors and more can be used to add a whole new dimension to soundscapes for events. Immersing an audience now becomes even more complete as people take ideas on-board by thinking about them while interacting with them. This is a powerful way to bring people into a branding or experience. For example, when promoting Crunchy Cornflakes, maybe Kellogg’s could use a doorway entrance mat that sounds crunching noises when walked on. Or maybe a company promoting it’s eco-friendly status could use an interactive rainforest of noises that appears when a display of its products is approached.
Innovating and pushing your ideas to their limits is key to success so don’t let January pass without making sure you stick to improving yourself and developing ideas! What plans and ideas have you got for this year? How do these ideas push your past thinking to it’s limits? Let me know, maybe we can share ideas…
Some of you may remember an album of childrens music I released a couple of years back called Bedtime Nursery Rhymes. I sold the album as download on various sites via Tunecore and physical CDs through Kunaki. Wonderful reviews and some steady sales followed and overall, I was very pleased with the project. Press play above to listen to two tracks.
This year, I have been updating the album. A few of the reviews mentioned that Bedtime Nursery Rhymes could have been a bit longer, so I extended it by another 5 tracks. I included Little Bo Peep, Hey Diddle Diddle, There Was a Crooked Man, Hickory Dickory Dock and Wee Willie Winkie to the existing tracks: Curly Locks, It’s Raining It’s Pouring, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, Rock-a-bye-baby, Kum Ba Yah, Brahms’ Lullaby. The artwork has also been updated by the talented Marie-Pier Tremblay and the album has received a new title: Sleepy Dreams – Instrumental Nursery Rhymes. The title was changed due to the possible misconception of the album containing lyrics.
Bedtime Nursery Rhymes was the first project that I created where I wanted to give a practical use to sound. Music and sound have always been very powerful forces for me but the fact that most of it is aesthetic or perceived as aesthetic bothered me. Therefore, I came up with the idea of using music and sound to lull young children to sleep by using bedtime nursery rhymes. To achieve this, the music had to be relaxing and relevant to children so it could have a use of parents playing it as they put their children to bed. The music also had to be magical for children so that bedtime would be an enjoyable experience. Overall, the creative focus was on the sounds rather than the tunes, and using established nursery rhymes helped this. On a technical note, the nursery rhymes used also had to be free of copyright.
Bedtime Nursery Rhymes was also my first look into sonic branding and the techniques that could be employed in this. I looked at each element of my chosen nursery rhymes and created a sound or series of sounds to convey these elements. The idea was therefore to create pieces of music that were focused on their subject matter as well as the use I had in mind for them. This would make sure that the messages I wanted to convey would be focussed. Creating sounds using some of the more abstract concepts as starting points made sure that there would be a level of intrigue to the music as well originality. These two factors were very important if I were to create something magical.
To create the sounds, I had a look at each nursery rhyme. I then came up with various related adjectives from which I could create some sounds. For example, Little Bo Peep is all about Bo losing her sheep so I created a ‘fluffy’ sound. I also pictured her with some sprightly lambs so I made sure to put in some delicate sprightly noises that feel like little lambs frolicking!
CDs are also available via the internet from Kunaki. Kunaki are based in New York so please leave 2-3 weeks for delivery. The total price has been adjusted to take the cost of basic airmail into account.
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