This past Sunday, I arrived in Ballroom B of the Courtyard Marriott, where Hilltop, the local Christian church I attend, holds its weekly services. A congregation of about a hundred people squeeze together in a sterile, beige conference room to consider the character of the Divine. This two hour service begins with an hour of singing. Vocals are loud. There is dancing in the aisles. A few people kneel in corners, weeping tears of conviction and of joy. The music is a massive swell of harmony, cascading in waves from three vocalists, a violin, two guitars, a keyboard, a bass, and a drumset. The timbres are thick with warm, sustained tones, saturating the room. Synthesizers sustain long, formless pads in open chords. Guitars are adorned with echo, reverb, and compression effects. Reverb and compression effects are applied over the vocals and violin as well. There is never a moment of musical silence, only the swelling of an ever-present set of diatonic sonorities, shepherding listeners into spiritual encounters with the Lord.
The spiritual aspect of music has always been central to my personal experience as a listener and musician. Spirituality is a nebulous term that can mean different things for different people. The balance involved between emotion, intellect, symbolism, and physical sensation is one that has challenged and transformed me throughout my 21 years of life.
When we consider what the components of music are, the answer we often give is melody, harmony, and rhythm. However, it’s apparent that these means of description are not useful for all types of music. In the case of Sam Smith’s “Too Good at Goodbyes,” the chordal harmony is actually a banal feature of the music. It is more illuminating to point out the track’s gospel chorus feature, jaded lyrics, and the cathedral-like reverberations that bloom around Smith’s voice as he lets out long, high notes. Acoustical reverberation, or “reverb,” is a component to this Smith track that is particularly worth noticing as a listener. Before recording technology advanced to its modern capability, the acoustics of a piece of music would be fixed to whatever space it was performed in. With the modern capabilities of processing audio through a digital reverb software, however, producers are able to modulate the “space” surrounding the music just as flexibly as they may choose melodies, harmonies, instrumentation, and lyrics. Such a tool allows reverb to form the musical narrative of a song. In Smith’s “Too Good at Goodbyes,” the expanding and contracting of reverb from section to section amplifies the track’s themes of loneliness and relationship, as well as the lines between sacred and secular.
Reverb is a physical phenomenon present in all spaces. When a sound is emitted, like when somebody claps in a large empty room, the sound of the clap travels all around the space, bouncing off of the walls, ceiling and floor, until its energy dissipates. When you hear that clap, you are receiving the sound waves once directly from the colliding hands, a second time from sound waves that bounce from one surface of the room and then to your ear, a third time bouncing from surface to other surface to ear, and so on. This is why a large room carries a longer reverberation of the voice than a small room. The sound waves take longer to travel from surface to surface to ear drum. Physiologically, this is one way the human body is led by the ear. We enter a space, and by hearing any sound inside it, we comprehend the nature of the space, its size, material, even how crowded it is. Poetically, it is powerful to understand how the environment we inhabit literally takes part in amplifying and silencing certain voices.
When we are looking death in the face, we will not take up our musical instruments. But, when death seems far from us, what will remind us, prepare us, for the work needs to be done when death comes?
Why has music endured? Certainly, humanity’s enjoyment of music is clear. But amidst rising social, political, and natural conflict, the significance and influence of music seems small. What does it really do in our broken world? In my contemporary ensemble seminar, Professor Claire Chase began class by asking about our thoughts and feelings towards current events concerning the NFL, Donald Trump, and the state of our nation’s race relations. Honestly, my reflections made me discouraged, as practicing musical performance seemed to be an inconsequential response compared to activities like attending protests or calling my state representative. However, I could not let go of music entirely. Does music’s capacity to resonate deep within us truly yield negligible results in the greater narrative of life? I remember composer Jason Eckardt noting that if music was truly unnecessary for humanity to survive and flourish, then it makes no sense that music has not been evolutionarily phased out of our species millennia ago. Somehow, along the way of life, we must have forgotten the role music plays in constructing our world.
A temple draws us to God, and a kitchen draws us to the stove. What is our gaze directed to when we step into the sonic space of music? We often conceive of space as a parameter we inhabit. However, space inhabits us as much as we inhabit it. For example, it only makes sense that the organization of a Harvard student’s dorm room is such that the desk, bed, and drawer the most accessible parts of the room. Thus, in the creation of the dorm room, the space inherently draws the student towards that desk, bed, and drawer.
What of sonic space, then? Just as the dimensions, furniture, and flow of a room draw us to its original purpose, sound is a type of space, one with timbre, rhythm, and time organizing the listener’s experience. Some sounds draw us towards focus: white noise machines, gentle piano-solo music, cocktail jazz. Some sounds draw us to exercise: driving beats from hip hop or EDM. What, however, are we being drawn to when an artist takes their music in a dramatically different direction? When Bruno Mars drops “Uptown Funk,” when Taylor Swift releases “Look What You Made Me Do,” or when Bon Iver imagines “22, A Million”?