Properties of Sound – Location

We are exploring the properties of sound, introducing creative games that help identify the uniqueness of each instrument. So far we looked into the Envelope , Duration, Loudness, and Pitch. Now we will look at Location. 

Location refers to the listener’s perspective, in front, behind the listener, etc…

The location of a sound is vital for our survival, like when we misplace our phone and ask Alexa to make it ring on full volume so we can locate it; or when we are crossing the street and we use our sense of hearing as well as our eyesight. Pop music producers (pop, R’N’B, rap…) or artists involved in electronic music pay more detailed attention in organising the location of each sound (panning) and how it evolves over the course of the song location-wise.

This is a fun audio to listen to. Wear headphones to get a good sense of how the location of a sound affects the overall experience. This is a very concrete example of sound location and how it affects us in making sense of the sound and the world around us. 

But, as classical musicians how much do we think about the location of the music when we are performing, writing or listening to music? Is it important to know which direction sound, music, noise is coming from when we are in a concert setting? 

In theatre, and film as well as pop and electronic music, artists take extra care in panning the sound – and making it feel that it is coming from any one direction. In the performing arts it’s important to know the location of a sound because it adds to the story telling; we know that at some point a horse is going to come in the character’s way.

Knowing, or not knowing, where a sound is coming from affects the listener psychologically. To inspect the psychological side of placing a sound in a specific location one needs to watch nothing else apart from a haunted thriller movie. The necessity of positioning a sound is extremely highlighted in this genre. 

Marco – Polo — 󠀫group game (assess the use instruments or voice)

Photo by Rene Bernal on Unsplash

The normal game: one player is ‘it’ or’ Marco’, and tries to find the other players while the ‘it’ player’s sense of sight is limited by shouting ‘Marco’. The other players must respond with the word ‘Polo’. So ‘Marco’ needs to locate where the sound of the word ‘Polo’ is coming from to find the other players.

This game will allow the children to experience how the location of a sound manipulates their emotions and realisation of their space. The children can play it in a nursery room in the dark (if it is age appropriate) or just covering someone’s eyes with a scarf and surrounding them in a designated space will be fine. The second option is less traumatizing for children prone to daydream, and less of a mess at the end of the game. 

To play with your music students, you can keep the words ‘Marco – Polo’, you can add other sounds with your instruments or body percussion, (if age appropriate) walk towards or away from the sound or mix up different sounds and add direction to the sound as well. (A variation of this game we played in my parkour session by Esprit Concrete. I love how a simple game like this one can have multiple benefits depending on the context you are playing it in). You can make it a bit more complex by adding a series of sounds, and depth: high, low, near, far, all combinations of these. 

There are two music based focal points: 

  1. Identifying the correct location of the sound
  2. How does the player feel when 
    1. the sound comes from each location
    2. when there are more than one sources of sound
    3. Doesn’t know where the sound is coming from

I would specify the point I want to make each time as it gives an entirely different intention to the game. The first point, apart from it being a great motivator, it trains the players for when they are part of an ensemble to listen to other instruments and adjust their playing. And for survival purposes! The second point intends to awaken creativity, which is useful from a performance or compositional perspective as the player will learn to identify the intent of each decision. 

Depending on who the listener is, the sound arrives to them in an entirely different context even though it is part of the same music. For instance, when playing in an orchestra, the violin player will hear the other violins louder and perhaps not so loud the flutes because they aren’t sitting next to each other. But the audience member will hear a compact sound, a blend of all instruments. 

Mini Sound installation Performance

Place your students in various locations around the room or outside (perhaps two meters apart from each other) and ask them  to play one of their pieces. Ask other students to walk through the various locations and report their impressions. Do they hear the same piece? Do they blend all the sounds in their head creating a new piece? 

Food for thought

If you are playing offstage, to give the impression that you are far away, do you have to play forte to be heard? Can you have the same effect just by playing pianissimo? Have a look and listen at these music pieces where the composers ask for an instrument to be offstage, you may find some in this article.
This might be a silly one but it is a fun experiment with your students to better explore the necessity of why it is important to place your sound source in the specific position and understanding how their instrument works. If the performers turn their back to the audience does anything change in the location or direction of the sound? If you are a pianist or play on another big instrument you could ask your audience to turn their backs.

Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

There are some very practical and functional reasons why classical music performances are set as they are. With these games and thoughts I would like to trigger your perception to the matter so you make the best choice in your next recital. It might be that the best way for your performance is by setting the stage in front of the audience, as it has always been. It might also be that for this performance taking meticulous thought on the location of the music in regards to the audience will add another layer to your story telling making it overall a more compelling performance.

Photo by Will Francis on Unsplash

Location of sound

  1. Performer to performer 
  2. Performer to audience
  3. Performer to conductor
  4. Moving around the stage
  5. Moving around the auditorium / space
  6. The audience moves around
  7. Sound installations / performance installations

© Rania Chrysostomou, 2020

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