The Interesting Instrument

Music has been called the greatest thing that humans do; some are of the opinion that it, even if only in the form of songs sung around the campfire, it is the oldest example of human art. However, whilst a huge amount of music’s effect and impact can be put down to the way it is interpreted by our ears and brain (I once listened to a song comprised entirely of various elements of urban sound, each individually recorded by separate microphones and each made louder or softer in order to create a tune), to create new music and allow ourselves true creative freedom over the sounds we make requires us to make and play instruments of various kinds. And, of all the myriad of different musical instruments humankind has developed, honed and used to make prettyful noises down the years, perhaps none is as interesting to consider as the oldest and most conceptually abstract of the lot; the human voice.

To those of us not part of the musical fraternity, the idea of the voice being considered an instrument at all is a very odd one; it is used most of the time simply to communicate, and is thus perhaps unique among instruments in that its primary function is not musical. However, to consider a voice as merely an addition to a piece of music rather than being an instrumental part of it is to dismiss its importance to the sound of the piece, and as such it must be considered one by any composer or songwriter looking to produce something coherent. It is also an incredibly diverse tool at a musician’s disposal; capable of a large range of notes anyway in a competent singer, by combining the voices of different people one can produce a tonal range rivalled only by the piano, and making it the only instrument regularly used as the sole component of a musical entity (ie in a choir). Admittedly, not using it in conjunction with other instruments does rather limit what it can do without looking really stupid, but it is nonetheless a quite amazingly versatile musical tool.

The voice also has a huge advantage over every other instrument in that absolutely anyone can ‘play’ it; even people who self-confessedly ‘can’t sing’ may still find themselves mumbling their favourite tune in the shower or singing along with their iPod occasionally. Not only that, but it is the only instrument that does not require any tool in addition to the body in order to play, meaning it is carried with everyone absolutely everywhere, thus giving everybody listening to a piece of music a direct connection to it; they can sing, mumble, or even just hum along. Not only is this a wet dream from a marketer’s perspective, enabling word-of-mouth spread to increase its efficiency exponentially, but it also makes live music that other level more awesome (imagine a music festival without thousands of screaming fans belting out the lyrics) and just makes music that much more compelling and, indeed, human to listen to.

However, the main artistic reason for the fundamental musical importance of the voice has more to do with what it can convey- but to adequately explain this, I’m going to need to go off on a quite staggeringly over-optimistic detour as I try to explain, in under 500 words, the artistic point of music. Right, here we go…:

Music is, fundamentally, an art form, and thus (to a purist at least) can be said to exist for no purpose other than its own existence, and for making the world a better place for those of us lucky enough to be in it. However, art in all its forms is now an incredibly large field with literally millions of practitioners across the world, so just making something people find pretty doesn’t really cut it any more. This is why some extraordinarily gifted painters can draw something next to perfectly photo-realistic and make a couple of grand from it, whilst Damien Hirst can put a shark in some formaldehyde and sell it for a few million. What people are really interested in buying, especially when it comes to ‘modern’ art, is not the quality of brushwork or prettifulness of the final result (which are fairly common nowadays), but its meaning, its significance, what it is trying to convey; the story, theatre and uniqueness behind it all (far rarer commodities that, thanks to the simple economic law of supply and demand, are thus much more expensive).

(NB: This is not to say that I don’t think the kind of people who buy Tracy Emin pieces are rather gullible and easily led, and apparently have far more money than they do tangible grip on reality- but that’s a discussion for another time, and this is certainly how they would justify their purchases)

Thus, the real challenge to any artist worth his salt is to try and create a piece that has meaning, symbolism, and some form of emotion; and this applies to every artistic field, be it film, literature, paintings, videogames (yes, I am on that side of the argument) or, to try and wrench this post back on-topic, music. The true beauty and artistic skill of music, the key to what makes those songs that transcend mere music alone so special, lies in giving a song emotion and meaning, and in this function the voice is the perfect instrument. Other instruments can produce sweet, tortured strains capable of playing the heart strings like a violin, but virtue of being able to produce those tones in the form of language, capable of delivering an explicit message to redouble the effect of the emotional one, a song can take on another level of depth, meaning and artistry. A voice may not be the only way to make your song explicitly mean something, and quite often it’s not used in such an artistic capacity at all; but when it is used properly, it can be mighty, mighty effective.

Advertisements

Some things are just unforgettable

What makes an amazing moment? What it is that turns an ordinary or mundane event into something special, something great, something memorable, something that will stick in the mind long after countless other memories have faded, and which will be able to conjure up emotions that, for years and years to come, will send thrills of excitement shivering down your spine? What, precisely, is it that makes something unforgettable.

Is it the event itself? Sometimes, yes, that could be enough. Every so often there are moments so amazing, so surprising, so out of this world and different, that it is burned into one’s soul for evermore. The feat of athletic ability and genius, the trick or feat of skill that just seems completely impossible, the speech or book whose mere words can force themselves through the rigid exterior of the mind and imprint themselves permanently into the soft, pliable core of the soul itself. But… are these moments truly unforgettable? At the time, they may seem so, and for a while afterwards they may become something of a mini-obsession- telling all your mates about it, linking it on Facebook or Twitter, but will these moments continue to inspire and delight however many years from now? On their own… I don’t think so.

Is it the context? To take a favourite example, Jonny Wilkinson’s drop goal to win the 2003 Rugby World Cup for England. The clock was in the final seconds of the second half of extra time, Jonny was the nation’s golden boy, beloved by all, it was against old rivals Australia, in Australia, with the home media having slaughtered England in the previous few weeks. England had been building and building for this moment for four long, hard years, and it all came down to one kick (his speciality), by one man, with the hopes and fears of the entire rugby world on his shoulders… if that context wasn’t special, then I don’t know what was. This is but one example of a moment made by context- there are countless others. The young Chinese man who stood up to the tank in Tienanmen Square is one, the Live Aid concert another. But… is it everything? Is a moment being poignant on its own enough to make a moment affix itself in your memory? Or, to come at it from another direction, is a moment excluded from being special simply by virtue of not being worth anything major? Just because something is done for its own sake, does that mean it can’t be special? Once again, I don’t think so.

So… what is it then, this magic ingredient, what is needed to make a moment shine? For an answer, I am going to resort to a case study (aka, an anecdote). A few of my mates are in a band (genre-wise somewhere near the heavy end of Muse), and there is one particular gig that they have now done two years in a row. I should know- I was at both of them. Both times, the crowd was small (around 70 people), and the venue was the same. Last year, the event as a whole was a great laugh- a few of the bands were received a bit coolly, but several others had the crowd going mental- joke-moshing, pressing against the barrier, and generally getting really into the music. My mates’ band was one of the well-received ones, and their set would have been one of the highlights of the night, if the headline act hadn’t blown everyone else completely out of the water.
This year, however, things were a little different. I can personally attest that, in the intervening 12 months, they had improved massively as a band- singing was better and more coherent, music itself was flawless, and they had even gained in confidence and charisma on stage. The music itself was infinitely better, but the actual set… lacked something. Through no fault of the band, that moment just wasn’t as special as it had been a year ago, and the evening as a whole was actually pretty forgettable. And the difference between the two events? In a word: atmosphere.

The previous year, the headline act had been a… well I don’t know enough about music to genre them but suffice it to say it was on the heavier end of the spectrum, and as such the crowd were fairly wired up generally, and especially for anything involving heavy guitar-playing. This year however, the headliners were acoustic in nature- while their music was far from bad, it didn’t exactly inspire surges of emotion, especially to such a small crowd, and this was reflected in the crowd and their preferences. Thus, the whole night just did not have the same atmosphere to it, and just didn’t feel as special (there were other reasons as well, but the point still stands- the lack of atmosphere prevented the moment being special).

This, to me, is evidence of my point- that, to make a moment special, all that is required is for the atmosphere surrounding it, wherever you are experiencing it, to be special, because it is the atmosphere of a moment that enables it to bypass the mind and hit home straight at the emotional core. There are countless ways of giving a moment the required atmosphere- appropriate music can often do the trick, as can the context of the build-up to it (hence why context itself can have such a big impact), or simply the stakes and tension that the moment inspires. However it is inspired though, what it means is simple- to make the most out of a moment, go out of one’s way to make sure the atmosphere you experience it in is the best it possibly can be.