Creating Ambient Noise in Musical Works

April 3, 2017 by Kevin Ure

Original music compositions regularly use ambient noise to add effects to a composition. Whether using acoustic effects or electronic effects, the “background” noise serves to develop the atmosphere for musical works. Effects add to a suspenseful scene in a movie, create a thicker musical density, and provide atmospheric effects to aid the storyline. Composers that study film music learn about the many ways in which these sounds can be created.

String Instruments

Since string players don’t have to breathe, they are capable of sustaining sounds for long periods of time. String instruments create imperceptible changes between bow strokes to create sustained drones, tessituras, dramatic tremolos, and trills. All of these techniques when used appropriately add to the suspense of the music. Performers also use pizzicatos, snap pizzicatos, or an extremely loud Bartok pizzicato to create the sound of snapping twigs or sudden outbursts of sound. Additionally, players are often asked to play “col legno” in which the performer uses the back of the bow to create a wooden, clacking sound.

Percussion Instruments

The wide variety of percussion instruments makes it very difficult to discuss this topic in its entirety. The potential for sound effects is virtually limitless. Composers may use a violin bow to play crotales to create an ethereal sound. Normally, crotales are struck with a mallet. However, with modern music bowed crotales have become more popular. Even audio samplers like EastWest Symphonic Orchestra, now include a bowed crotale option. Rainsticks create the illusion of rain while bass drums can be easily played to mimic the sound of thunder. Wind machines can be bowed to create the sound of whirling wind, while thunder sheets can be used to create thundering lightning effects.

Wind Instruments

Both brass and woodwind instruments are capable of creating key clicks by blowing air through the instrument and rapidly clicking the keys. Usually, the performer is asked to avoid creating specific pitches. The goal is to create just the sound of the clicking. Instruments may also be taken apart to create shrieking effects. Playing glissandi and quarter tones can also help add an additional element of pitch to a composition.

Electronic Media

Many new compositions include electronic media accompaniments that are intended to be played with live performers. With electronic music, you can create sounds that don’t occur naturally. Composers can stretch, skew, cut and splice segments of a recording to create new sounds. With the advances in computers, it is becoming more affordable to start your own production company. Low budget projects can acquire the resources to create outstanding effects.


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