The timeless appeal inherent in natural sounds

(November 02, 2009)

Something about the antique smell of leather endures, as does that of new-mown grass and freshly baked bread. There's an everlasting appeal in the sound of crackling bonfires, rippling water and birdsong.

 There are thousands of other smells and sounds that beguile us, entrance and embrace us - all of them natural. And that clearly tells us something.

Where is the aromatic allure in the odour of diesel, melting tar and exhaust fumes? Why do jet engines, road drills, machinery and traffic-roar offer no more than dissonance and offend our ears? The ‘natural’ versus the ‘artificial’ is surely part of the answer. That does not mean that all artificial sounds and smells are unpleasant – far from it. However, if a sound or smell is likely to offend or revolt, it’s a fair bet the synthetic variety will be right up there with the worst of them.

So what does this mean? Not sure, but one point is certain - the timeless appeal inherent in natural sounds. The sounds you hear from acoustic rather than electronic instruments.

Wait a moment. Is this electric instrument bashing? Absolutely not, it’s just an observation on difference.

The acoustic difference is what makes the difference

From bouzouki, glockenspiel and marimba to accordion, whistle and harmonica – such instruments enjoy one common thread, what you hear is what you get. No autotuning, no keyboard-generated imitation, no samples, no programming, no isolation from the real world. Acoustic instruments themselves depend on the vagaries of the atmosphere that surrounds them - temperature, moisture, humidity. The method and period of their construction has an effect, as does individual tuning, touch, feel and use. All that you would expect from something that lives, breathes and responds the world it inhabits.

It’s about now that some exponents of the electric guitar, organ, synthesiser or computer will leap to the defence of their chosen instrument and argue there is just as much feel and ‘touch’ involved. Not so. The subtle changes produced by variations in ambient atmosphere, apart from the minute differences caused by individual tuning, make acoustic instruments far more ‘alive’ than their solid-state counterparts. Add the pressure, grip, action or feeling of the musician and variations without number become possible.

Electronic instruments lack much of the ‘living’ soul of their acoustic associates. Perhaps that’s why musicians from nearly every style eventually gravitate towards delivering an unplugged or acoustic set, album or tour. They not only recognise but long for the ‘living’ quality acoustic instruments impart. Each performance is different. Each one is fresh and new – every time. Each one is heard for the first and only time; because so much will change next time.

Make no mistake; there are hundreds of examples of acoustic and electric bowling along happily together. After all isn’t that what created folk rock?

That’s the reason this is not a diatribe against electric. More accurately this is a celebration of acoustic. It’s an observation on what makes acoustic music so different, and why in a world increasingly offering pre-processed, programmed, taped and recorded samples, acoustic music still lives, breathes and enjoys a varied and vibrant following. No matter how our lives become ever-more driven and directed by the artificial and the synthetic folk still like to hear acoustic music.

Perhaps that point is also why folk, roots and anything that falls into (for however brief a moment) the acoustic arena endures in society. It’s not a desire to reach back to the old days with a rose coloured tint - a criticism often levelled at folk. It’s the point that acoustic music remains totally relevant and contemporary.

People enjoy listening to real people playing real instruments. People enjoy hearing real people sing. People know that hand-made often possesses imperfections but that’s something of the enduring charm.

Too perfect is too perfect

Artificial is untrue to itself and to everything around it. 

Perhaps this desire for ‘real’ is why folk music in the 21st century is not an anachronism but remains a much-needed staple of musical expression.

So forward electric, on with sanitised delivery, and up with synthetic sound. Drive your unblemished, razor-sharp accuracy through the musical world.

But, and it’s a bloody big and important ‘but’, do not forget from where you came. And do not forget the simple pleasures that so many eventually ‘unplug’ to hear – the sound of acoustic music played on real instruments by real people.

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