by David James
It is a truism to say that music consists, in the first instance, of notes, or pitches, and sounds. This might seem a bit like saying that water is wet, or that Joe Biden gets a little confused from time to time. Yet when the two are considered separately, some interesting features emerge that reveal why musical genres have different rationales.
In classical music there is, to a large extent, not much difference between notes and sounds. Because the music is composed beforehand, the emphasis is overwhelmingly on the notes that the composer chose. When the written notes are played, the sounds are pretty much all the same, especially with instruments. A cellist from the Berlin Philharmonic playing a part in a Mahler symphony will produce sounds that are pretty much the same as a cellist from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra playing the same part.
This is how it has to be. What classical musicians spend thousands of hours learning to do is to produce the same sound as other classical musicians do, all the time. If they do not do this, then the orchestra or ensemble will sound awful.
There is perhaps more scope in classical singing. Maria Callas’ scything tone and minute variations of pitch springs to mind. There are also a handful of classical soloists who produce distinctive sounds. Pablo Casals on cello was one; his stentorian liquid tones are immediately recognisable. James Galway on flute is another, although one wishes that he would cease showing off his unctuous phrasing and go back to being just a member of the orchestra.
In other genres, especially with the singing, the sound assumes primary importance. An example is Van Morrison. The notes in his songs – the melodies and chords – are conventional and uninspiring. But his singing, the sound he produces, is dense, imbued with exceptional nuance and possessed of subtle shades of rhythm that collocate to produce marvellously potent musical effects. Morrison can sing almost anything and it sounds profound because his sound is like no other.
A more recent example of the art of producing vocal sounds is the pop singer Billie Eilish. Her songs are melodically very similar and not especially interesting. But the vocal sound that she produces is startlingly emotive: an expression of teenage angst that travels to places far beyond teenage angst.
Her singing has some of the elements of hoarseness and variations of pitch developed by previous blues singers, but she introduces novel effects, such as a fluttering sound that hovers on the pitch but never quite rests. Her variations are compelling. For example, in everything i wanted, she shifts between hoarse singing that is so tonally flat it is more like speaking. Then she shifts to a fully sung chorus.
Another trademark Eilish technique is a cracking of the note, achieved by singing at the back of the throat to imitate the way that people on the verge of tears lose control of their vocalisation. It is, of course, just acting. Nobody could be that miserable all the time and still function. But the result is brilliantly musical.
In popular music the emphasis, at least in the singing, tends to be mostly on sound rather than notes. An exception was the Beatles, whose songs had brilliantly original note selection, including the harmonies, that ranks with the best of the Western composers (a point their producer, George Martin, made). Elton John’s earlier work, when he still retained his vocal range, also featured some marvellous, angular note selection.
In jazz, sound and notes are roughly in balance. Jazz training tends to be entirely concentrated on note selection, especially playing in different keys, or modes, over a fast moving chordal backing. The solos of the jazz greats are analysed for their note selection and then the techniques replicated, often at blinding speed. Little attention is paid to anything else, even to the placement of the notes, the phrasing.
Yet, listen to those same jazz greats and what becomes immediately clear, especially with the brass and woodwind players, is that their sound is the main musical point. Saxophonist Stan Getz, for example, does not select particularly surprising notes. But his liquid, booming sound immediately hugs the listener in a warm embrace. It is the sound that matters.
David James is a Melbourne writer and musician.