Sonic Innovators: How Does Sound Inform Genres Through Time?

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  • May 12, 2017
george martin

As we move through sonic history, what is accepted as pleasing to the ear, or even simply musical, changes. Some sounds are regarded as timeless classics, others horrendously dated, and some fall in and out of fashion in cycles. Genres can be born of changes in technology and social climate, and it is the resulting characteristic timbres and techniques that allow a listener to distinguish one from the other.

To recount the sound sources of history’s ebb and flow is important in predicting what comes next, and grabbing inspiration for your own projects. Read on for a discussion of sound informing genres through time.

george martin

We go tramping through the evolution of genre as informed by sonic innovators and social climates, which have led us to a world where, in music, almost anything seems possible.

The Birth of the Electric Guitar

The crackling sound of string vibrations being transformed into electric signals and amplified back to the acoustic world first reached ears in 1931. The necessity for such an instrument came from the prominence of Jazz in the 1920s, the poor acoustic guitar unable to yell above the thunderous brass and percussion big band ensembles toted.

A solo over the thick textures was unfathomable, so musicians and engineers moved to make it possible. When the electric guitar gained prominence, its sounds wiggled their way through many countries and demographics, informing many genres in its travels.

When the electric guitar was taken out of the context of the loud big bands and put into the substantially quieter world of popular music, there was a war brewing. On one side, rock ‘n’ roll was a chance to break free of conservative bonds, and on the other, the electric guitar was satanic, polluting, and offensive to the ears.

The late 1940s and 1950s saw the evolution of the genre, and around the electric guitar, the classic setup of a lead guitar, rhythm guitar, bass guitar (or double bass), and a drum kit was born. When you heard the ensemble with the crunching guitars and solid backbeat, you knew you were hearing music named after a sexual analogy.

Adaptations to the instrument have taken it further and influenced its sound. Psychedelic rock took advantage of the sounds of wah, fuzz and delay effects. The Hawaiian adoption of the guitar as a lap steel made its way into the popular idiom and helped build the legato sounds we recognise in Country and Western today.

The familiar grind of distortion also informed metal, grunge, and heavier rock genres – these harsh, angry sounds were welcome in styles that were a rebellion to the established sonic codes of society, and eventually became commonplace.

Strong Lyrics and Strong Voices

The sound of angry voices, and the need to be angry, provided a framework for genres such as folk, hip hop, and punk. The voice and the individual became very important in these instances, as they painted the struggles of generations, races, and genders.

Folk used simple textures and a calmer disposition to ease into the protesting trend and juxtapose heavy subject matter with light accompaniment. The sound of hip hop was harsher and unapologetic, an attempt to heal the African diaspora through a melting pot of musical techniques such as syncopated beats and toasting. In this case the sounds of lost cultures informed genre.

Punk used brash and forceful vocals to represent the youth’s vehemence towards sexism (in the case of bands like Bikini Kill and the Riot Grrrl movement), politics (the Clash with Margaret Thatcher), and the general social climate. All these genres were informed by vocalisations and vocal timbres, more so than the genres before them.

The Studio as an Instrument

The development of recording technologies through the 50s also led to new sounds being accepted throughout the era and beyond. The transformative power of the studio was now felt, and the effect of this was an influence on the final product so great it could act as an instrument.

The late George Martin, is often referred to as the fifth Beatle because of this influence. The manipulation of tape with splicing, reversing, double tracking, deterioration, and reversing, all became familiar sounds that heralded the birth of experimental pop music, a tag that the Beatles were associated with as they became more and more daring in the studio.

Brian Eno’s studio compositions similarly pushed the boundaries of genre, releasing a string of critically acclaimed albums including Before and After Science and Ambient 1: Music for Airports. The whirring, ambient sounds were unique and as they reached more ears, have influenced our most popular genres today as the studio refines production and digital influence on the acoustic sound world.

Synths and a New Digital Sound world

The 80s witnessed an explosion of affordable (and not so affordable) programmable beatmakers and synthesisers from the likes of the Japanese giants Roland and Yamaha. Musicians and producers took full advantage, and carved out entirely new stylistic approaches to pop music.

Via the digitisation of recording technology, the possibility of new manufactured sounds with the standardisation of MIDI language, software emulations of instruments like the previously mentioned synthesisers and drum machines, the palette of sounds that musicians have to choose from is seemingly infinite.

The digital audio workstation (DAW) has also significantly democratised the recording process. With its incredibly convenient user interface, it places musicians at the forefront of the craft. There’s now a boom time of musicians that have serious studio chops that are blending analog sounds with digital functionality – think contemporary executors such as Kevin Parker and Animal Collective.

What’s Next?

We can definitely learn from this brief impression of sound informing genres. We may have, in a decade from now, a form of music that we cannot even fathom. Microtonality is making its rise in study and Western popular music (see King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard’s Microtonal Banana).

Globalisation has made the world smaller and previously unlikely collaborations have spawned interesting musical hybrids. Perhaps the advent of virtual reality may have a hand in the next genre.

Overall it can be said that innovations are what break into the mainstream and inform genres. Experimenting, blending, and refining your craft can ensure you stay on top of the curve and make some truly unique music in a world where information can come from anywhere, and new sounds are being heard all the time.

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