How many of us know a child who is oblivious to our voice when engaged in an activity (reading, watching TV or gaming), yet can hear if a candy bar is being opened? Many layers of sounds may be occurring at the same time (barking dogs, vacuum cleaners) but a child can hear the bath water running, and may run to hide under the bed. Actually, the ability to hear specific sounds amidst layers of sounds is a skill we want our children to have. It helps them more aware of their environment, and what they hear may save a life one day. As parents, over any other noise, we can hear the difference in the tone of our child’s scream, and determine whether it is in joy and excitement as they play, or if they gotten hurt and need our help. On the other hand, the absence of sound from them may be a call to action for some of us! Certainly the ability to discriminate sounds makes music listening more enjoyable, and it is a key skill to develop in becoming a musician.
Families in Kindermusik, and those following these postings have been challenged to make homemade instruments WITH their children, in order to explore the different timbres of sound. Children learn how to make different sounds. And they learn to listen carefully to the sound to determine how it was made. Many have MET that challenge, as you can see by the pictures in my Portfolio, creating one instrument with a light sound, and one with a heavy sound. One is played, then the other is played, and this helps us explore ONE sound at a time in comparison to another.
Then we play the two sounds together… and we have created a layer. Layers of sound are created when more than one sound is occurring at the same time. This is what the world sounds like, layers of sounds. We can train our children and ourselves to hear each of these layers. As we do, we develop listening discrimination. In Kindermusik, we have been exploring layers of sound. In Our Time, we are listening to recorded bus sounds, and mimicking these sounds as vocal play: the sounds of the engine in the background, the squealing brakes, the bus driver talking, and the quiet sound of money as it clinks into the box. In Imagine That!, we are putting together the pieces of a puzzle in order as we distinctly hear these 4 different sounds of the sea which are layered: the slapping of the waves against the side of a boat, the bouy bell in the distance, the barking of the seals, and the horn from a friendly boat passing by.
Listening discrimination is an incredibly important skill as a musician, to hear and keep time with the rhythmic beat played by the drums or bass instrument, to hear a slight difference in pitch that prompts us to adjust our pitch to match, to hear the emotion from a particular voice or instrument that stirs us to play with that same feeling and emphasis. Great musicians are masters at this skill.
Let’s break down some important aspects of layered sounds in music. As you look through these, think of opportunities to help your child experience these many different layers of sound. Although you can introduce the “right words” to older children, it is far more important that children of all ages just EXPERIENCE the wide variety of layers that occur in music, and start to listen carefully to identify specific sounds within the layers. Kindermusik recordings focus on including a wide variety of timbres of voices and instruments, and the way the music is arranged to offer many of these on each album.
Timbre is the distinctive quality of sound, the difference in sound from a fingernail, or a nail, tapping a table, or the difference in sound from a trumpet and a French Horn. See previous posting on Timbre.
Monophonic Melody: When one sound plays a series of notes, it is called a MELODY. We only hear one pitch at a time, and is known as monophonic (one sound). It is one of the sweetest sounds when I hear my daughter, or most any child, hum or sing a pure and simple melody. It is also incredibly moving to hear one masterful voice sing our national anthem.
Layers in music, are layers of sounds, voices, or instruments playing at the same (in unison or homophonic), or at different times (polyphonic).
In Unison – A simple example would be two different instruments, or a male voice and a female voice, singing the same melody, same pitches, but if listening well enough, one can pick out one or the other voice. This is a performance IN UNISON. It is also what you and your child enjoy together while on a road trip! On a grander scale, my son was in absolute AWE the first time he heard the entire population of a baseball stadium sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”.
In Harmony (homophonic) is when two or more instruments play at the same time, where one plays the melody and the other plays notes that sound good with the melody. Simon and Garfunkel were masters of harmony as a duet (a combination of two voices or instruments). Church songs are often written in harmony, with several pitches being sung at the same time. When you see the sheet music, the notes are all stacked on top of each other on the staff. These CHORDS are chosen carefully by the composer to produce a desired feeling or emotion.
There are many ways that composers and musicians layer sounds, which adds Texture to the music.
Texture describes the complexity of a musical composition. The word texture is used because adding different layers or elements to music creates a musical “tapestry.” Texture can be simple or elaborate. As simple as the ones discussed above, or more complex, such as:
- Biphonic refers to two different melodies playing together at the same time (as simple as singing a Round, or as complex as two separate melodies that sound good together)
- Polyphonic refers to a composition with many voices, melodies, and harmonies.
- When you listen to a piece of music, you’ll notice that it has several different characteristics; it may be soft or loud, slow or fast, combine different instruments and have a regular rhythmic pattern. All of these are known as the “elements of music.”
In Kindermusik for the Young Child, we are studying the music of Beethoven, and how he was a master of using chords and texture in music to tell a story, or emphasize deep emotions. I found a video in which a composer of music for video games approaches the idea of layers of sound, and develops layers of musical themes. Kole Audio Solutions demonstrates how he created 3 distinct musical layers for a hypothetical video game. The music represents three emotions, neutral (that plays throughout), whereas Good and Evil take turns layering over the top of neutral. Fascinating !
From simple sounds around the home, to the rich sounds of the woodlands, from the beautiful simplicity of a child singing themselves to sleep, to the complex orchestral movements of a symphony or opera, we steep ourselves everyday in layers of sound. Just talk with your child about the textures of sound that surround us, and seek to pick out the many individual sounds that make up that texture.
Fascinating article! Thank you for such valuable information.