Where are you while you’re reading this? Pause for a moment and listen to your surroundings.
No, really, go ahead. Uncork those little white earbuds from your ears if you have to.
Right now I can hear cars off in the distance. A bush outside my window hissing as it rubs its leaves together. I can hear distant birds that I can’t name in the forest canopy outside my window.
What can you hear at this moment, right where you are?
What’s the closest sound you can hear? What about the one that’s furthest from you?
Sounds Tell Stories
Each place has its own sound fingerprint–a certain combination of noises and ambient sounds that give the experience its own unique atmosphere.
Tune into these sounds, learn to describe them in lyrics, and you tap into a powerful storytelling tool that can immerse your listeners into the world of your song.
Let’s break down some of sound’s components.
The volume of a sound gives us a lot of information about the event that caused it. Is the stone owl close or far away? Was that just a tap of the hammer or an outright slam? Volume allows us to judge distance and the amount of power or force that was put behind the source of the sound.
Every sound–no matter how brief it might be–actually has its own volume arc. How quickly does a sound reach its peak: immediately, as with the hammer? Or with a slow buildup, like a roll of thunder?
Sometimes this has to do with the way the source of a sound is moving in relation to your ear. If you’re walking on the dirt shoulder of a country road and a car passes by, that sound of rubber on gravel peaks just as it passes your ear.
Decay & Reverberation
Now as that car continues past you and begins shrinking into the distance, its sound fades.
After any sound peaks, it begins returning back to silence. That return is called the sound’s decay.
Sounds decay differently depending on where we are. Whether we’re inside or outdoors; whether the room is large or small; whether there are trees to absorb some of the sound… all these things affect the way the air returns to stillness.
So the sense of hearing can actually give you a rough mental image of a space’s dimensions and what it’s made out of. Blindfolded, you could clap your hands and tell the difference between a vast wooden hall and a small carpeted room.
This one’s simple enough. Is a sound high-pitched or low-pitched? The potential for melody exists in many of the sounds we hear every day.
When describing sounds in a lyric, there are plenty of interesting comparisons to be made: the caterwaul of a police siren, the throaty growl of thunder…
The machinegun rapping of a woodpecker, the metallic drumming of a leaky faucet, the slow creak of bedsprings, the ticking of a clock’s second hand, the hourly cuckoo.
Sometimes describing rhythm is essential to capturing a sound in words–and sometimes it’s a handy way of letting your listener know that time is passing in the world of your song. Rhythms rule our clocks, our seasons, our daily routines. Listen for them.
Take three minutes just to listen to your surroundings. What can you hear from where you are right now? Note the location and the time of day. Morning has its sounds; dusk has its own; midnight too.
Uncork your ears. Tune in. Listen for those unique sounds that really capture a specific place, a time of day, a time of year. Listen for the ways sounds swell, fade, echo, rattle, buzz, and impact your body. You never know where you might find the seed of a new lyric hiding.
Sounds tell stories. Can you unravel a new lyric by starting with just one atmospheric sound?
listening fox photo by harlequeen