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Is there a specific term to describe the tension that arises when songs are played in reverse? Where it sounds as if the volume is increasing for each note.

For example:

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    Does the word “backwards” not suffice? Apr 26, 2018 at 12:44
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    It doesn't have to be backwards. Take as a classic example, the Allman Bros' live Fillmore East opening to In Memory of Elizabeth Reed. There's a lot of playing with gain and sustain after each note is picked. Apr 26, 2018 at 13:42
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    @ToddWilcox - Ben's answer covers an exact term.
    – Tim
    Apr 26, 2018 at 13:48
  • Is this asking for words that describe this sound, or a word for this technique?
    – user45266
    Dec 3, 2018 at 5:13

5 Answers 5

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I'm not sure of a word for the piece as a whole, but you could observe that the envelope of most of the notes has a slow attack and a fast decay. This is a reversal of the normal envelope of any plucked or percussive sound (or simulation thereof), which would have a fast attack and decay exponentially.

In a lot of modern music, sounds with slow attacks are used to create a sense of tension and anticipation of key moments in the piece - e.g. reverse cymbals, vocal rises / 'swarm of bees' / reverse reverb effects - which create a force that keeps the piece 'moving forward'. Normally, the tensions created by these devices are resolved (see also the question What is forward momentum?, and my answer there) - but in this case, they simply keep recurring, so it's perhaps not surprising if you feel a general sense of tension with this piece.

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    There's of course also the difference in the direction of melody and harmony, which also tends to sound strange, if you take a piece of "normal" music and play it backwards. A neat way of doing this is with a music box that plays paper tape, like a player piano- just put it in backwards. Upside down adds to the fun. Apr 26, 2018 at 8:58
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    @ScottWallace that's true - the harmonic tensions and releases of a 'conventional' piece played backwards wouldn't work the same way. I haven't tried playing the example 'forwards' yet to see if it is a conventional piece in those aspects when played in that direction! Apr 26, 2018 at 9:54
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This technique is called backmasking. The Beatles were an early pioneer of this technique, who used it in a few places on their Revolver album, most notably the “Tomorrow Never Knows” track.

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  • No it isn't. Backmasking, as it says in your own link, is "a recording technique in which a message is recorded backward onto a track that is meant to be played forward". OP isn't talking about hiding a secret message, they're just asking about the sonic properties of music played backwards.
    – Migwell
    Feb 16, 2023 at 23:38
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How would I describe it? Weird. When synthesising sounds, ADSR is a way to split it up into component parts. Attack, Delay, Sustain, Release. The first part of a sound is called attack, and this is usually short. Imagine a drum being hit - the first sound is there in its full magnitude. As against a note played on, say, a violin, which could start quietly and swell to maximum volume moments later. At the other end of a sound, there's release, the point at which the sound finally stops. imagine a note played on a piano, with sustain pedal down. It gradually fades away to nothing. In comparison, a trumpet note, when the player puts his tongue back over the mouthpiece, and it stops abruptly.

When played backwards, the attack becomes release, and vice versa. As far more notes have a long release, they sound like a gradual attack, etc.

As far as names, don't think there is one, apart from backwards sounds. But another point is that not only is each sound reversed, so is the harmonic content, so chords which often follow each other (ii>V>I, for example) get swapped round too.

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  • One think I've been wondering about recently is if there's anything that can be regarded as a 'natural' attack shape (for slower-attack instruments), or if it's different in every case. For decays, an exponential function is often what happens naturally, but perhaps that sounds like a weird attack in shape as well as speed of attack. Apr 26, 2018 at 11:24
  • @topomorto - I guess the shape (on a volume/time graph) will be essentially what you ponder upon. I also guess that each instrument will have a different one. Or several, depending upon how it's played. Not versed in this side of sound, but there it is. I suppose it's that, and the different harmonics produced, that pretty well parcels up each instrument's individual sound. Is there more - or does that spawn a question?
    – Tim
    Apr 26, 2018 at 11:36
  • yes, that's what I was pondering - what kinds of attack shapes bowing or blowing (with different techniques, as you say) gives rise to. And as you allude to, the overall envelope of the sound can also be analysed on a per-harmonic basis.... you can consider that they all have their own envelopes! Apr 26, 2018 at 12:05
  • @topomorto -- "... can be regarded as a 'natural' attack shape....": that is an interesting question. Decay seems closely related to damping of an oscillator, and for a harmonic oscillator damping results in exponential decay. For attack it would seem that the inertia of the resonant material would be the relevant factor. That is, how do soundboards and columns of air at rest respond the the source of vibration initially?
    – user39614
    Apr 26, 2018 at 12:47
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    You could probably look at the attack in terms of a driven harmonic oscillator, with the resonant material driven by the source of vibration.
    – user39614
    Apr 26, 2018 at 12:48
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If the piece wasn't actually played backwards, but had the same envelope for its notes, I might say the notes (or phrases) "swell". The note slowly increases in volume until at the end it cuts out quickly. I might similarly say "it sounds reversed".

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Regarding specific terms...

As @BenMiller answered backmasking is the technique of reversing a sound recording.

The term for reversing traditional music notation is retrograde.

The term to describe the expressive effect (tension) of increasing volume is crescendo. As other answers point out backmasking reverses the sound envelope so things like percussion and plucked strings (sounds with a sharp attach and slow decay) sound like a volume swell. Crescendo is a traditional term to describe that swell and generally a crescendo is used to create emotional intensity.

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