Hearing new sounds

illustration showing soundwaves (represented by wiggly lines) coming out of a speaker

© iStockphoto.com/Victor Soares

Popular music thrives on familiarity. Each of us has our favourites, pieces of music that we know well and keep coming back to. It's easy to forget that any one of those pieces of music was once new to us. In some cases we can recall the thrill of discovery; in others our memory of the circumstances is blurred or even non-existent. But however it happened, one thing is certain: each piece once reached our ears as a new sound.

It's a process that goes on all the time, and it does not only apply to single pieces of music. It can equally apply more widely, for example, to the sound of a whole musical style - but even there it is often a single piece that strikes a listener as new and makes them want to hear more music of a similar kind.

It's also a process that applies both to old sounds and to new ones. Music that has already been in existence for a while continues to acquire new audiences for its sounds. As you read this there is no doubt someone somewhere hearing Gregorian chant or Mississippi blues for the first time. But the process of reaching an audience is even more important for sounds that are themselves new. However much older music is re-circulated to find new audiences, and however strongly we as the audience are attached to our familiar, well-loved pieces, music needs new sounds in order to keep developing. New sounds are the motor of change as they in turn can inspire other new sounds to be developed.

But just how do sounds that are new to us actually reach us? Who is responsible for setting the process in motion? Are there particular channels that music takes, and has the process changed over the years? What part is played by information about music?

Of course, before any new sound can reach the ears of an audience it has to be created. The first time any new sound appears is in the hands of the person or persons making it. This can happen almost anywhere, but just as there are particular circumstances in which new music reaches an audience, so there are particular conditions in which musicians and sound personnel first hear their own new sounds. They often (though not always) imagine them first in their minds, but it is also common for new sounds to evolve in places where musicians meet to rehearse, perform or record. (You can explore some different aspects of how sounds are made in Sites and scenes|, Musicianship and Sound and technology|.)

For both musicians and their audiences many of the processes involved in hearing new sounds are common to different places, but local factors are also often very important. Liverpool's musical history provides interesting examples of how local factors can affect how new sounds are heard.

Follow the links below to explore the question of hearing new sounds in more detail: