You understand that the fundamental components of music are sound, harmony, melody, rhythm, and form. But you’re sure there’s something else that’s happening in the music that inspires you, and you can’t quite find it in your own music.
It’s common to think that the “music” is what you directly hear—the notes that play instruments that fill up what would otherwise be empty space. But a more interesting approach is to recognize and take advantage of the fact that silence and incidental noise can be made into fundamental parts of the musical texture. They can be as much a component of the sound of your music as a bass line.
Here are some ways that you can start to use silence and noise in your own music.
Listen to other music and think about what’s happening in the spaces between the notes. Is there ever actually complete silence? In most music, you’ll probably find that at any given moment, there’s always at least something you can hear. Even in sparse textures, there’s usually a bit of reverb, delay, or other ambience that fills the gaps between notes. You can usually achieve this texture pretty easily by adding subtle spatial effects to certain elements.
But in some music, the space between the notes is truly silent. Listen, for example, to music by artists such as AtomTM. Here, reverb is used sparingly, and each musical gesture seems to enter and exit against a backdrop of empty space. The result is an overall texture that’s extremely clean, surgically precise, and very “digital.” To make music that evokes this feeling, you’ll need to be very careful with spatial effects, as well as with the placement and duration of your sounds. Long sustained chords might not make sense in this context, nor will sounds with slow attacks or releases. It might help to think of everything as a short, percussive element.
At the other end of the spectrum, some music has no silence at all, with every gap between notes filled with some kind of ambience or noise that is so present that it’s as important to the texture as the “intentional” sounds. Dub techno, as exemplified by artists such as Rhythm & Sound, is largely defined by this approach to space. Although the instrumental layers are quite sparse, there is a constant layer of noise that suggests the use of mysterious, ancient, broken equipment. This type of ambience might seem hard to achieve in modern, ultra- clean DAW environments, but here are some ways to create it:
- Record the sound of an open microphone in a quiet room (or even just a channel on your audio interface with nothing connected) and then dramatically boost the level of the recording. The inherent noise of mics, preamps, and audio interfaces can take on a new character when boosted enough to be heard as an intentional element in a mix.
- Sample the sound of a turntable’s needle in the “runout” groove at the end of a vinyl record.
- Field recordings of almost any source can take on the character of abstract noise, provided they’re processed in the right ways. Try applying lots of reverb to urban, factory, or nature recordings.
- Certain plug-ins are designed specifically to create artificial noise, although these can sometimes sound quite consistent (and thus artificial) unless heavily processed.
- If your DAW has this functionality, try creating feedback loops by sending the output of a return track back into itself, (carefully) adjusting the send level, and then recording the output. You can create very interesting types of noise with this technique—especially when using effects on the return track.
Whether you’re aiming to incorporate noise as a compositional element or are aiming for clinical, ultra-clean textures, it pays to think carefully about what’s happening between the notes in your music and to make conscious decisions about how to make musical use of that space.