Reading the sound: listening to a song is like leafing through the book

I am curious how many music and sound fans share my observation that listening to a well composed, arranged and sound-engineered music piece is almost the same as reading a good novel. For some reason this comparison has been popping up in my head for years now. It kept bothering me so often that I decided to finally write about it!

Most people think of a song as a story and for a large amount of contemporary music, especially the mainstream one, this holds true. In fact, singer-songwriters are overzealously encouraged to write lyrics that tell stories so that listeners can relate to the songs that they are listening to. But what if the tune is in another language or has no words at all? Does it have a story? If yes, who is responsible for telling it?


Where in books the action between their protagonists and antagonists takes place in imaginary physical spaces, on the sound canvass the action happens as a result of harmonies, chord changes, the movement of the sound across the stereo field and three-directional layering of various sound effects.


As I write this, two music albums spring up to mind that make me feel like I “read” them every time I listen to any recordings from them. Specifically, I am referring to Bobby McFerrin’s Vocabularies and A. R. Rahman’s Taal (original motion picture soundtrack). Contrary to what the word “album” suggests, these albums don’t have to be listened to in their entirety to experience the “reading the book” effect. Each of the songs is a self-containing book with its own pages and chapters (think key changes and themes).


To be able to appreciate the work these composers are doing two important conditions have to be met: undivided attention to the music and listening in front of stereo speakers or while wearing headphones (each approach provides for a unique perspective). Listening with headphones allows for a more immersive theatrical experience but won’t give you that “augmented reality” feeling such as the one you get in front of stereo speakers (where music is mixed with sounds from around you).


Both Vocabularies and Taal from Bobby McFerrin and A. R. Rahman respectively contain many “sound books” defined by the theme changes, richness of arrangements and sound textures. If I had to pick a song from each of the albums that illustrate the sound-reading experience, I would suggest “Wailers” from Vocabularies and “Ishq Bina Ishq Bina” from Taal.


This is probably as much as I can write about the sound using words without getting too boring or superficial. I would love to hear what music you like to read and why.


Thanks for reading!

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