Finding a “Sound”

An interesting quote from an interview with Ben Folds:

“I put myself in the position of making my first record as much as I can. You’re slightly off balance but you’re excited about what’s gonna come out. It’s nice to do it and be able to stand sort of at the speakers and go, “Listen to that. Listen to what we just did. I can’t believe that’s come out. THAT WORKED!” […] You make five records and you do what you did before and before and before. You’re gonna stand at the speakers and go, “Yep, that’s what I expected. That’s pretty good… or it’s not, whatever.” But doing things where you can jump up and down a little bit. A little bit of fear before you press play and hear it is good.”

(By the way, this is a very familiar feeling. However…)

While watching a band the other night, a person at the show said the group had “really developed their sound” since she last saw them.

“Sound.” It is not just the tonal quality of all the instruments and recording equipment used by some musicians on an album (though that is probably the most significant part). It is also the musical motifs they use repeatedly in different ways: fast tempos on a punk album, the jilt of a certain rapper’s lyric delivery, the voicings used by a particular jazz pianist, or the frequently loud and precise brass parts that define Mahler.

As a musician, is “developing a sound” inevitable? You have a personality and some preferences, such that even if you try to do different things, it will sound a bit like you.

But if everybody’s out there doing it, developing their own “sound,” isn’t it actually unique  to avoid it, and always switch up your music?

Well, maybe it’s like breathing. You can’t be unique by not breathing. Just dead.

Ben is helpful. In the interview, the quote is referring to the results of his collaborations with people. Even though you have your sound, you can find new exciting sounds by combining with different artists. Sure it’ll sound a bit like you (along with whoever you accompany), but the sum will be different from its parts.

Ultimately, Ben has had a successful career, and is able to collaborate with other great artists. He got there by developing a sound (and/or a schtick) and playing it consistently, which takes years and lots of sweat. So the real lesson is: experiment a lot until you find something, then work your ass off to hone it and sell it. Then maybe you can get back to experimenting in a way that people might actually listen.

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2 Comments on “Finding a “Sound””

  1. smosthedog Says:

    I don’t think that once you’ve “developed a sound,” you’re stuck with it. Like people’s personalities, I think a “sound” can change over time, molded by the things it encounters. In fact, I think developing one “sound” and never changing it (unique as it may be) is what turns people off many musical artists after one or two albums.

    I think a sound is actually what helps a listener have some cohesion among the different works by the same musician. If you switch it up too often or too far, you lose a listener’s attention. They don’t know what to focus on, so they don’t focus at all.

    I guess the idea is that it will sound a bit like you, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be different every time. And just because “developing a sound” may be inevitable, does that make it a bad thing? Does that make your “sound” any less unique?


  2. […] that I was on a journey. “Why be limited to a singular “sound?”" I stubbornly asked the world. When I graduated college all I knew was that I wanted to record more of these concoctions. I was […]


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