Harnessing the power of subjectivity is central to creative design, especially in music creation. It's a very simple idea:
A sound can only be ‘loud’ in the context of a quieter element. A tone is only ‘bright’ in relation to the other, duller balance of timbres around it - which themselves may feel ‘dark’. A chord or note only receives its harmonic function (or emotion, if you like) in relation to the other notes in the music - and only delivers/relieves tension in the context of the rest of the sequence. A groove only swings and shuffles when there are contrasting solid downbeats to syncopate across (see funk legend Bootsy Collins demonstrate on the ones). Pace in rhythm is only created in the context of slower passages or rhythmic frames. (We'll be taking a closer look at all of these musical ideas as we expand into each specialised area)
These subjective relationships are relevant to anything you put in your music. For example, you may have written an intricate jazz masterpiece, with complex harmonies throughout. It's quite likely that if you took the 'simplest', most stable and consonant chord from it and dropped it in to a stripped-back pop song, it would now sound 'complex' and ambiguous.
If you think about it, it's a very powerful concept to have control over. Having subjectivity in mind opens up the many possible ways to achieve our creative ambitions, establishing balances and contrasts for whichever desired effect.
It's a powerful tool in mixing - many producers looking to increase the impact of their drums for example, simply soften the transients and attacks on all the other instruments. Next time you hear an incredibly punchy drum track, ask yourself how it contrasts from the sonic attributes of the other channels. The resultant effect is as much this management of context as it is the processing applied to the drums.
Equally, consider stereo management. You'll often hear a super wide, rich stereo field is pinned down and exaggerated by a central mono element. High frequencies can exaggerate the depth of low frequencies. Reverberant sources can exaggerate contrastingly dry, close sounds. It really is endless in application! Have a listen to your favourite mix elements and ask yourself why they stand out as special - against what?
Following this concept to it's limits, it stands that an artful juxtaposition of contrasts leads to more artful music. It's actually where the subjective 'emotion' comes from. When you lose yourself listening to a piece of music, what you're experiencing isn't just the notes or pulses or sound sources - it's the space described between them.
And this is why separation is so important, creating a musical space for everything to coexist in synergy. Historical techniques such as counterpoint through to modern day management of frequency masking in the mix, all help establish this separation (discussed further in the forthcoming post).
When you're next envisioning a musical experience, consider how you can create and manage it through contrast, not just through individual focus on instruments. You will find there are almost limitless combinations of creative avenues to explore.