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For the purposes of this question, I'm using definitions commonly used in electronic music production:

  • Sound design: The creation of single sounds, that can be used in a composition. For example, synthesizer patch design, sample selection, voice parameter selection and modulation, and effects. This might include mono synthesizer leads, stabs, drum/percussion sounds, pads, or chord sounds, etc.
  • Composition: The creation of musical phrases, or song sections, as opposed to arrangement, which might consist of the sequencing of various composed sections.

Obviously both of these words have varying meanings in different fields, but these are the concepts that I'm trying to get at. Let me know if they aren't clear.

Question: How does sound design impact musical composition?

In other words, how does the length, shape, timbre, volume, pitch/frequency, etc. of a voice affect the ways that it can be used in a musical phrase?

I think this question has a lot of overlap with the concept of instrumentation in classical/orchestral composition, and so perhaps an alternative way to phrase the question would be "what are the sonic attributes of instruments that make them more or less suitable to different roles in a composition?"

For example, a with a long, heavy tail, like a timpani, might not be suited to fast 16th-note sequences (a roll on a timpani might be considered a separate type of sound, compositionally). Likewise, a fast, stabby lead synth sound is probably not suitable for creating space and atmosphere.

An alternative framing of the question might be: What musical parameters are useful for sound design/selection for a voice within a broader composition?


I'm also aware that this question might be a better fit for the Sound Design stackexchange site. If so, feel free to migrate.

  • Composers select instruments based on the tonality, timbre, etc. they want in the voicings of their compositions. I think your question is sort of "backwards" to the process. BTW, tympani rolls can be quite fast indeed. – Carl Witthoft Jun 25 at 12:48
  • @CarlWitthoft Yes? I don't disagree, but I'm not asking about orchestral composition/instrumentation, that's an analogy. I don't think that electronic music producers work in the same way as classical composers. It is quite common in music production to start by building a synth sound, and to then use that sound as inspiration for a melodic line, and then build a composition around that. "Backwards" isn't really relevant, the final result is. But either way you look at it, I think there are probably interesting parallels that can be drawn between the two fields. – naught101 Jun 25 at 13:39
  • Also, I think you misunderstood my Timpani comment. The point is that a single timpani stroke would be considered (in music production terms) either a percussive sound or a bass stab, depending on how it was used. A Timpani roll would instead be considered a pad sound, used for filling space. The two things come from the same instrument, but that's irrelevant, the only thing that matters is how the sound fits in with all the other sounds that are in the mix. And those two things are very different roles in a sound design sense. – naught101 Jun 25 at 13:42
  • This question is ultimately about cross-pollination in ways of thinking. I suspect there is a large bank of knowledge about how instrumentation selection works that could be useful for electronic producers. Likewise, I think the way electronic music producers think about sounds in composition - usually quite divorced from their physical origins - could probably be useful to classical and other acoustic composers. – naught101 Jun 25 at 13:48
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    @topoReinstateMonica Yeah, I know that the terms mean mean diverse things, which is why I defined them for the purposes of the question. "Programming" can also mean writing MIDI lines (especially for drums). There is no single perfect set of terms for this. – naught101 Jun 25 at 14:37
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Sound design serves almost exactly the same purpose in electronic music that instrumentation does in orchestral music. Orchestral composers will play with elements like giving different lines to different instruments, giving instructions for articulation and dynamics, and using unique techniques like pizzicato strings or brass mutes to create a specific texture. Getting the timbrel texture right is necessary to get the emotional palette right. And in electronic music, sound design is timbre.

My favorite recent example of how sound design can affect a piece of electronic music is the soundtrack to the video game Ring Fit Adventure. In this exercise game, players fight monsters by completing workout routines with special motion control peripherals. Since it's paired with a video game, one of the soundtrack's goals is to put players in the right headspace to complete these exercises. One trick it uses to accomplish this is that each battle theme uses dynamic music. For a high-energy cardio workout, the music has a stronger backbeat and more energetic arrangement, but for yoga exercises, the music pulls back the drums and subdues everything with soft articulations and relaxed melodies. But even with these variations, the exact same harmonic and melodic ideas are used. Oftentimes, even the same synthesizers are playing these melodies, just in a different context.

The upshot of this is that we can listen to different variations of the same battle theme to hear exactly the same musical ideas expressed using exactly the same synths but with different effects applied to them, so that the only difference between the lines is in the sound design.

Compare the introduction to the mini-boss battle theme with the introduction to its yoga variation. The most prominent differences are, of course, that the main variation uses aggressive drums, a sparse rhythm section, and an organ popping in with responses to the main vocal line, while the yoga variation has no drums, airy pads and arpeggios, and no call-and-response. This gets us most of the way there. But also notice that the vocal lead in the main theme is dry. This lets its tight articulation pop out, giving it forward energy. In the yoga variation, the exact same vocal sample is played with only one change: a very wet delay has been applied to it. This delay is enough to soften the edges of its sharp articulations, letting it sit comfortably in the low-energy texture the rest of the variation has created.

Without this sound design decision, the vocal line would have cut through the yoga mix, destroying the delicate texture it had created. In my experience with this game, the yoga theme doesn't just produce a different emotion. The variation puts me into the right headspace to back off from pushing myself in the way most exercises demand and instead focus on the slow, deliberate movements of yoga, even when I'm not conscious of it or paying attention to the music.

Many of the changes in the arrangement are compositional decisions, but a very clear sound design decision was needed to get the yoga variation to sit correctly. The effect is a piece of music so finely executed that it can change the way people move their bodies.

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    Thanks, great answer! You first paragraph encapsulates most of what I have been struggling to communicate in response to other comment :) . Interesting example, too. Now that you mention it, it makes me realise that VIP mixes and other self-remixes are probably an awesome resource for studying. – naught101 Jun 29 at 9:30
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Yes, whether using traditional instruments or designing your own - and any sound used in a musical composition can be considered an 'instrument' - a composer chooses a sound that suits the music. If you need a pad, don't score pizzicato strings. If you've written a sprightly melody, a slow attack isn't going to be much use.

Incidentally, your timpani example is a poor one. They are very agile, within a limited range of notes. And, free of the practicalities of a limited number of kettles and the time taken to retune them, a synthesised timp sound has definite melodic possibilities!

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  • See my comment in response to Carl, above. You both interpreted it in a way that I did not intend. The question is not about the role of instruments in a composition, it's about the role of sounds in a composition. – naught101 Jun 25 at 13:44
  • Re: your first paragraph: yes, this is the kind of thing I'm interested in. That's a pretty simple example, but I'm wondering what other rules/guidelines exist. Or perhaps it's just a matter of "common sense", and none of this is codified at all.. – naught101 Jun 25 at 14:13
  • Not worse an answer I guess: in addition to envelopes parameters mentioned here, how crunch/un-filtered/high-harmonic is important when using "a" sound design for chord or solo. I would say that chords require a "cleaner" sound in order not to be completely mixed up. Solo patches on the other hand can be full of lot of harmonics… But this is not an obligation ;) – Tom_C Jun 25 at 17:34
  • @Tom_C: yes, this kind of thing. I guess it's unlikely that anyone's going to manage to pull together a comprehensive answer (I suspect the field is not all that well documented, because the choices are more limited and obvious in actual instrumentation), so maybe add your thoughts in a separate answer? – naught101 Jun 25 at 23:51
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    @naught101 I think also it is not well documented because there is no real recipe. Sometimes from a same sound design, changing only the envelope will make it usable in a completely different context whereas sometimes many parameters have to be changed… I am not sure you can reduce that easily except for some obvious ones (Attack/Release for instance) – Tom_C Jun 26 at 6:36

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