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  • What makes a sound pleasing?

    Ever wondered? Why is a piano pleasing? Or what makes a saxophone "enjoyable?" Or a flute?

    I wanted to post this in the Sound Design section, since this is kind of where I'm coming from on this. Using synthesizers, I get a lot of different reactions to sounds. Some are more pleasing, some are relaxing, some are obnoxious, some are silly or annoying...

    But if I want to make new sounds that are pleasing and that could be used, for example, with an orchestra, what would they require?

    For example, we know that traditional instruments generally have a certain amount of noise in them. Randomness is also apparently quite important, since (it is said) no two notes sound exactly alike. This makes me think that a synth sound that is completely "pure" may not be considered "enjoyable". Obviously tastes will differ. But I think we can agree that certain sounds have become quite "popular" and "accepted." Even a raunchy overdriven guitar is considered by many to be pleasing. Why? What does it have that is pleasing to the human ear?

    Even listening to ocean waves (easy to recreate with white noise) is considered relaxing.


    brian
    Linux: your PC, your way.
    Some native synths for the linux platform: LinuxSynths.com

  • #2
    i would hypothesize that it's cultural bias and personal taste, mainly. we're taught that certain combinations of harmonics or arrangement techniques sound powerful, calming, ridiculous, etc based on others' opinions of things. there's a case to be made for things like tempo and key instilling similar emotions in everybody, though: https://digest.bps.org.uk/2009/05/20...ly-recognised/

    you might also find this interesting, although it's a little tangential: http://speech.di.uoa.gr/ICMC-SMC-201...VOL_2/0982.pdf
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    • #3
      A good question.

      If I had been asked this a couple of years ago my answer would have been completely different.

      Since listening to stuff created by peeps here at AO, and generally on SC, what I consider to be pleasing has changed immensely.

      Tastes develop over time...
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      • #4
        What makes a meal taste good? Sometimes I like lobster and scallops, sometimes lamb and sometime bread with butter, sometimes I like it hot, sometimes sweet. What do all that share in common?
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        • #5
          I think ian is right in that it is partly cultural and partly personal, and as synkrotron says it is something that develops over time. I remember back in highschool I didn't appreciate violins and orchestras, because I was tired of those overused sounds. That changed in my 20s when I had an intense classical music period (listening a lot to especially Mahler, Sibelius, and Schubert), and fell in love with the sounds of the cello.

          On the other hand, I have always been into guitar and have owned several of them throughout my life. But currently I am tired of guitar, and piano for that matter, and mostly listen to synth- and field recording based electronic music.

          And I am sure that within a few years, other genres will come to my attention, and I will seek out different sound palettes again.

          What makes a sound pleasing? I think that is really hard to analyze. But I do think it is important that the sound somehow connects to our emotions.

          I've also come across this course, which may lead to some deeper answers: https://www.coursera.org/learn/music-as-biology
          https://ablaut.bandcamp.com/ | https://soundcloud.com/ablaut

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          • #6
            This is a question about aesthetics and taste, so it is highly personal. It probably also has a cultural bias since Asian musical sounds generally are more shrill than Western musical sounds.

            There are some hints from harmony - Pythagoras showed that pleasing intervals have simple frequency ratios. There is a fairly well-known curve of dissonance that plots intervals to consonances. But harmony is not a sound, it usually is sound progressing over time.

            I grew up watching science fiction in the 50's and I like the simple sines and ring modulations a lot to this day. I also enjoy resonant filter sweeps. So my current interest is in sounds that change harmonic structure fairly quickly over time.

            It is thought that the ear fatigues easily when the timbre is constant - that it likes the frequencies to change. But noise takes that to the extreme and most would not conclude that noise it all that pleasing except maybe in contrast to something else.

            I enjoy complex sounds that morph so that it can't be said that the sound I am looking for is a bell or a percussion or a vocal effect or whatever.

            But is enjoying the same as pleasing? I find the bassoon and oboe instruments to be among the most pleasing. I prefer a cello over a violin. I don't find percussion to be pleasing at all - only percussive rhythms are interesting to me.

            So I guess pleasing sounds and melodic structure combine to make something enjoyable - it has to be heard in a context of other related sounds.

            When I make a sound or a preset I usually will come up with something a bit over-the-top and it has to be mellowed to be played in a musical context because I design it to stand alone.
            Jim Hurley
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            • #7
              Originally posted by ian View Post
              i would hypothesize that it's cultural bias and personal taste, mainly. we're taught that certain combinations of harmonics or arrangement techniques sound powerful, calming, ridiculous, etc based on others' opinions of things. there's a case to be made for things like tempo and key instilling similar emotions in everybody, though: https://digest.bps.org.uk/2009/05/20...ly-recognised/

              you might also find this interesting, although it's a little tangential: http://speech.di.uoa.gr/ICMC-SMC-201...VOL_2/0982.pdf
              Thanks for the links, Ian.
              The first one talks about the similarities between cultures in interpreting sounds/music with regard to emotion. The pdf was a bit more relevant, although there too, it seemed to focus on the emotional interpretation of specific sounds.

              In particular, I'm interested in what parts of sound we generally consider to be pleasing. For example, why is a jazz guitar heard more often than a banjo?
              My hunch is that there's something inherently pleasing in a jazz guitar's tonal qualities that is lacking in the banjo. Maybe a guitar tends to get more attention, but I imagine that is only because it was already more popular to begin with..


              brian
              Linux: your PC, your way.
              Some native synths for the linux platform: LinuxSynths.com

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              • #8
                Originally posted by arachnaut View Post
                This is a question about aesthetics and taste, so it is highly personal. It probably also has a cultural bias since Asian musical sounds generally are more shrill than Western musical sounds.

                There are some hints from harmony - Pythagoras showed that pleasing intervals have simple frequency ratios. There is a fairly well-known curve of dissonance that plots intervals to consonances. But harmony is not a sound, it usually is sound progressing over time.

                I grew up watching science fiction in the 50's and I like the simple sines and ring modulations a lot to this day. I also enjoy resonant filter sweeps. So my current interest is in sounds that change harmonic structure fairly quickly over time.

                It is thought that the ear fatigues easily when the timbre is constant - that it likes the frequencies to change. But noise takes that to the extreme and most would not conclude that noise it all that pleasing except maybe in contrast to something else.

                I enjoy complex sounds that morph so that it can't be said that the sound I am looking for is a bell or a percussion or a vocal effect or whatever.

                But is enjoying the same as pleasing? I find the bassoon and oboe instruments to be among the most pleasing. I prefer a cello over a violin. I don't find percussion to be pleasing at all - only percussive rhythms are interesting to me.

                So I guess pleasing sounds and melodic structure combine to make something enjoyable - it has to be heard in a context of other related sounds.

                When I make a sound or a preset I usually will come up with something a bit over-the-top and it has to be mellowed to be played in a musical context because I design it to stand alone.

                Yes, I also like ring modulation and sounds that modulate over time. I think that modulation is key to making a sound "alive" and "warm," whereas a sound with no modulation may sound "dry" or "dead."

                Now, there are certain synthesized sounds that have become popular over the years. And although some of these sounds may be considered "simple" and always the same with each key press, my thought is that there is still probably some element of randomness that makes the sound enjoyable to listen to (including sine waves).

                From the responses to my OP, it seems that it's easy to get side-tracked into talking about one's personal tastes regarding instruments and musical styles. But I wanted to go a bit "deeper" into how different instruments' sounds are constructed, and try to understand why they are considered "nice."

                I think I can move this discussion a step further in this regard: Although I have never owned a DX7, I see the popularity is has enjoyed, and I also see that the DX7 tends to produce sounds with piano-like decays. I would say that most people don't think of a DX7 when they want to create pads and sweeps, for example.

                So it might be hypothesized that people *generally* like plucked or hammered sounds over pads/atmospheric sounds. (There are always exceptions, of course, and it might be somewhat of a cultural thing too.)

                Sounds that have very strong modulations might also be considered less enjoyable, or "silly" at best. (But maybe if someone actually made a nice song with a lot of LFO in it, the sound just might become popular--who knows??)


                :end of rambling:


                brian
                Linux: your PC, your way.
                Some native synths for the linux platform: LinuxSynths.com

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