We don’t have the written history to know this, but it seems likely that the earliest music was inspired by the cacophony of sounds emitted by the natural world; Birds singing, frogs croaking, streams flowing, and leaves blowing all in harmony and dissonance. These real-world sounds are still inspirational today, making appearances in movie scores, pop songs, and rock ballads. The world of sound design relies on this natural music. There are also several ways to incorporate these sounds into your own songs and mixes.
Listening to real-world sounds for melody and rhythm
Nature can be used as a tool to help with writing a song. It might sound absurd, but natural rythms, melodies and harmonies are all around us. While every bird might sing a slightly different tune, there’s a pattern in each song. Likewise, a howling wind might emit a collection of pitches. Even man-made structures like generators can hum a steady note, inspiring a back-drop for a simple chord or melody.
Today, most of us are plugged in all the time, even outdoors. While it’s tempting to pop in some headphones on a walk or jog, consider at least once just taking in the music of nature. At first, you might not hear much, but if you pay more attention you might suddenly find yourself humming a new tune, one inspired by the natural world around you.
Using real-world sounds in your mix
Real-world sounds aren’t just inspirational tools, they can also be used as instruments in and of themselves, or as thematic cues. If you think hard enough you can probably come up with a song or two that uses one of these sounds somewhere. Here are just two classic examples: “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding opens with the sound of waves crashing on the shore, slowly fading out as guitar fades in; “Allentown” by Billy Joel starts with a train whistle right before two snare hits come in. In both of these songs, the opening sounds relate to the song’s theme. The former references nostalgia and the passage of time felt sitting by a bay while the latter deals with travel, war, and American symbolism.
Of course, these sounds don’t necessarily have to open or close a song. They can be embedded within the song, either alone or behind the music as ambience. Another way these real-world sounds can be used in your mix is via sampling. This is when a sound is captured then used as a “note” that can be modulated and mixed with other sounds, or used all by itself. For instance, the sound of a gunshot could be sampled then mixed with a snare for a thematically and literally violent snare sound. There are sites with huge collections of these sounds for sample use, though nothing is stopping you from recording some yourself.
If all music stems from the natural world it makes sense that we utilize these sounds in our songs. Whether for inspiration, mixing, or sampling, experiment with different sounds for unique results. It’s only natural.