Tech

What makes music sound…good?

Even across genres, there are a couple key elements that make songs sound appealing

June 5, 2020
Audio wave forms rush behind text
Listen to music industry experts break down the musical principles of reverberation and distortion [credit: cksegarra | CC-BY ].

Think about a song you like. Regardless of the genre, the song probably includes either reverberation, distortion or both.

These add texture to the music that we tend to crave. But how do they work? As a guitar player, I thought I knew. But I’d never taken a pause to think about the details. To find out what exactly reverberation and distortion are and how they are produced, I speak with Stephen Kurpis, audio engineer from Vitruvian Sound NYC. He explains how distortion doesn’t necessarily mean loud, blown-out rock sounds. It can be something more subtle that gives music life.

Tae Hong Park, a music technology and composition professor at NYU, then explains how distortion is made on a fundamental level. He also describes reverberation, the famous echo-like effect that is so common in music today.

To give an example of how it all works, Luke DuBois, a digital media professor at NYU, tells the story of Motown’s sound — an iconic record label with a unique sound based on reverb and distortion.

Motown, of course, was big in the ‘60s. But artists have been looking for ways to make their sound unique for centuries. At the end of the story, Matthew Goodheart, a musician and a music composition professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, gives an example of how each era has its own idea of what sounds “good.” So, to hear it all, click play below.

Scienceline · What makes music sound…good?
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About the Author

Curtis is a photographer and science journalist who focuses on health, Earth science, and ecology. Growing up in New Mexico, his life was centered around nature—hiking, biking, and exploring. When he wasn’t outdoors, he was reading (he loves travelogues). Later, while studying geology at Trinity University, he realized he could combine these passions by becoming a science journalist. Now, he uses his words and photos to help others see practical beauty in science.

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