Affect, pronounced ah-fact, is a term used to describe the way a piece of music or art expresses an idea. It is a piece moves us, makes us feel a certain way, or see something in a certain light. Like most things affect can be a subjective thing and can vary depending on a variety of factors including the listener’s mood, background, and personality.
We previously posted a series on how music affects us from a scientific standpoint, but what can we say about it from a technical standpoint, and where does affect fit into all of this? This week we’re going to dig into some basics of what makes music and how it all plays into the affect of a piece.
What is Music?
This is a question that could be debated till the end of the world and I doubt that a final answer could ever be agreed on. What is music to you? Is it just a series of noise that happens to create some form of rhythm or melody or is a thought out process involving hours of time in composition? While we could devote an entire series to this question alone, let’s define music as “humanly organized sound.” (Blacking)
Now that we have a definition of music, we can start discussing the characteristics that make music, volume, timbre, pitch, and duration. “The manipulation and organization of these characteristics are what create music by any definition” (Echoes: Music, History, and Culture) and will be our focus for the moment. Today we are going to discuss volume.
Volume is a simple subject. It is simply how loud or soft a sound is. Pretty easy right? From a technical standpoint, volume is simply the height of a sound wave’s amplitude. But volume is more than just how tall a wave is Have you ever noticed that when a song you love comes on your first instinct is to turn the volume up? What happens when music starts soft and suddenly gets loud or vice versa? Does it grab your attention and make you listen closer? So, what does this mean? Volume is an effective tool to direct our attention and affect the overall feel of our listening experience.
Listen to your favorite song but keep the volume low. Then listen to it again but louder. Has the experienced changed? Maybe the emotions you feel while listening get stronger the louder the volume gets, or maybe you just simply notice more things when the volume is at a different level.
This experiment shows that the loudness of a sound has an effect on how we listen to and process music. We will find that quieter music can soothe us while loud music can excite and intensify emotions, thus affecting the overall affect of a piece. And by the very definition of affect, volume conveys an idea through the simple use of a humble soundwave.
Holley, Whitney and Rachael Fischer. Echoes: Music, History, and Culture. Kendall Hunt Publishing Company, 2020. 4-5.
Blacking, John. "How Musical Is Man?" Seattle: University of Washington Press 1973: 89.
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