Atmosphere is something that I often refer to so I thought I would try to explain this abstract term in relation to my interests. Many musicians are expert at manipulating atmosphere but many don’t even try so I thought I’d give my opinions and ideas. If you look at a dictionary definition it will tell you that atmosphere is a pervading tone or mood but I’m a little conscious that this is a bit vague when referring to music/sound.
In terms of creating a convincing, all-enveloping atmosphere that transports the listener I think that it is helpful to expand the above definition. An atmosphere is an intricate network of various emotions and senses that are tightly knit together, sometimes so much so that the overall effect gives no clue to what it is composed of. Because of this, creating an atmosphere by working backwards from a general feeling may produce very bland results i.e. just filling a happy song full of happy melodies/chord.
To effectively transport the listener into the song or music, a deeper understanding of the happy situation is needed. The best way to achieve this is to try to affect as many senses as possible and refer to related thoughts and feelings, untangling multiple causes of the atmosphere and deciding their weighting. I also find that it helps to picture the scenario and think about what you can see and/or feel as well as think about what others may see or feel.
To me, the most important aspect of an atmosphere is the space it is contained in because this seems to form a basis of almost any experience (through the filter of experience and emotion, but I’ll come to that). For this reason, I like to start here. Generally, a song or piece of music can have a sense of space when listened to because of the amount and/or type of echo (reverb) added to individual instruments or the whole piece. In many cases, this echo is added for technical reasons to help individual instruments be heard more clearly and to add depth for a bigger sound. In other cases, relevant to this post, it is used specifically for mood such as to enhance emotional vocal lines: the sound of an emotive vocal in a big hall can be very powerful. These days you can use convolution reverb to actually sample real spaces and use your computer to put your recorded audio into these spaces.
If you look at the space you are currently in you will see various objects around, some of them make sounds on their own, others may need a little help… If you are at work and think about making music about it, you could use machinery/technology noises but morph/adapt them to underlying emotions. Emphasising uncomfortable sound frequencies could increase a sense of stress (at work) along with using a rushed timing. You may use the same sounds but soften their sound and transients to make them more calming if your story involves a calm workplace. You may not want to use field-recordings in your music so, to communicate stress, you may play your guitar faster with a strong attack (note onset), and also emphasise those harsh frequencies. For work-related stress, you may also play with a mechanical, repetitive feel or even mirror the sounds of machinery/technology present. To soften this you may slow your playing down, manipulate the sound to get a warmer (bass-influenced) feel or layer it with a soothing instrument like a string orchestra.
There will always be more sensations though, such as experience or other emotions, as life just isn’t that simple. If you are at work, you may have an underlying sense of stress and also relief of being able to joke around. You may have a sense of pride or despair; or you may experience excitement and longing if you met your husband/wife there. Conveying the overall feeling may be hard without breaking this atmosphere into it’s parts. Of course, lyrics can convey these ideas but this wont work for instrumentals and if there are vocals wouldn’t the experience be far more intense if the instrumentation strengthened their effect? To create an overwhelming sense of being placed right inside the music’s subject matter, dissect the elements of the atmosphere you are experiencing and find sounds/themes/ideas for each aspect.
There are also more aspects you can reference; atmosphere also contains the perceptions of the people in the space, or have been in it, along with your own possibly unique viewpoint. These interactions may be a central theme but hard to convey from a general perspective so all these aspects could have sounds or themes. You could layer physical themes with references from personal experience or common sense to create your whole; obscuring the sounds may give the impression of dreaming or forgetfulness; you could use different sounds, instruments, styles of playing or different sound treatments to represent different people. The way the themes interact with each other in your ‘physical landscape’ can also be manipulated. Are they in harmony? Are they fighting? Are they working together to solve something?
Well, here are a few ideas of how the atmosphere in music can be intensified (in my opinion!). You may want to do this to make your music more convincing and substantial or you may be exploring sound and it’s relation to the human experience but either way have fun and use these ideas, if new to you, to open up a whole new universe of inspiration. If you have any thoughts or ideas on these ideas please feel free to comment below.
My first experiment into using atmosphere in this way, using synth, is Bedtime Nursery Rhymes. My next venture along these lines, using ‘found sound’, is Some London Life; go over and take a look!