The Vertical Color of Sound
My first experience with the guitar was at about ten years old. I was pretty much obsessed with the opening chord of A Hard Day’s Night, and believed that with enough effort I’d figure out how to play that chord.
I never did figure it out.
There were two things in that situation I didn’t really understand at the time. The first was that no one else knew how to reproduce that chord either. Fast forward to 1998, when math professor Jason Brown finally unlocked the secret using Fourier transform analysis on the recording. What he found is that in addition to two guitars and bass, Beatles producer George Martin had also overdubbed piano on the track. I guess the band knew how to keep a secret, or did they even know what Martin had done?
The other thing I didn’t realize is how compelling sound itself can be, completely apart from what we think of as music. That chord was a great example. There is no melody, no rhythm. There is just the sound, by itself, apart from any real composition. It stands on its own.
The whole thing reminds me of Eric Tamm’s book on Brian Eno, The Vertical Color of Sound. He quotes Eno naming the grand piano as his favorite instrument:
“I like it because of the complexity of its sound. If you hold the sustain pedal down, strike a note and just listen… That’s one of my favorite musical experiences. I often sit at the piano for an hour or two, and just go “bung!” and listen to the note dying. Each piano does it in a different way. You find all these exotic harmonies drifting in and drifting out again, and one that will appear and disappear many times. There’ll be fast-moving ones and slow-moving ones. That’s spellbinding, for me.”
It was through Eno’s words that I fully appreciated that enjoying sound for its own sake can be just as much a first class experience as enjoying music. Sound, on its own merits, is just as interesting and beautiful as melody, harmony, or rhythm. And it justified what I had always felt in those moments when the “music” parts of music momentarily disappear. What is left in that unstructured space? Just sound.
Thanks to Eric Tamm and his publisher for making his books available online.
Also thanks to Steve Turnidge for turning me on to Eric Tamm’s work.