The Perceptual Foreground
Imagine being in a room where everyone is trying to get your sole attention, like a celebrity bombarded by the press. Would you be able to fully focus on what each person is saying?
Human comprehension has its limits, especially in the realm of concentration. This fact extends to musical perception: a bunch of melodies fighting for our attention at the same time is no better than a bunch of reporters.
While people solve the issue by not talking over each other, we tend to like it when songs have multiple elements playing at a once. This poses its own problem: how does one write a piece of music using multiple elements that’s still intelligible?
The answer lies in the successful manipulation of the 'perceptual foreground', the focus of this article.
We’ll come to understand what about a particular melody captures the listener’s attention compared to other musical lines, and see how the songwriters in the French touch style balance all of the elements in a track to write the sensible pieces of music that they do.
The Perceptual Foreground
An attention-grabbing moment in a musical line calls our focus to it, putting it in the spotlight. It is in the ‘foreground of our perception’ from there on.
This, then, is the basis of the perceptual foreground: the focus of the listener's attention as it shifts from one musical line to the next throughout a song.
Listen to the chorus of Justice's Civilization (1:05) & note how your ear naturally moves from one element to the next.
Done well, multiple musical lines will respect one another and the listener’s attention will be seamlessly guided from one episode of interest to the next. Done poorly, the lines will instead step all over one another and obscure the listener’s focus.
Overall, there are two aspects that capture the listener’s attention:
These can manifest in a musical line in several ways.
Throughout a melody, there will typically be moments of inactivity. This is to help make the melody more easily comprehensible to the listener.
It’s similar to how we talk: a person is much easier to understand when they space out the content of their speech through pauses. Compare this to a person who constantly rambles. Rambling can be hard to follow and, at worst, becomes incoherent. The same danger can exist for a melody, so it’s often beneficial to let it ‘catch its breath’ at times.
While it’s important for a melody to rest, doing so for a considerable amount of time can start to affect the musical momentum. What if one wants to keep the musical momentum continuous while the main line takes a needed break?
The answer: introduce another musical line(s) to fill in the space left over by the melody in question.
This brings us to our first characteristic of attention-catching: rhythmic activity. As the two (or more) lines trade-off rhythmic activity between each other, the more active of them at any one moment becomes the ‘star’ for that time being. Listen to how the above is realized in Mr. Oizo's Skatesteak (0:04).
Songwriters are cognizant of this phenomenon and tend to coordinate additional melodies in a way that covers the space left over by the other existing lines. This ends up giving each line its own moment in the spotlight while safeguarding them all from the risk of stepping over each other.
A fantastic example of this is found in Daft Punk’s track Something About Us. The duo felt the need to add one last element to cap the song off, which resulted in the addition of the muted guitar melody near the end. This guitar line seems to have been sculpted out of the space left over by the rising ‘whow-whow-whow’ melody that was presumably written first. Listen to how the two swap between being the line of interest (2:32).
They even join up rhythmically at the end for emphasis, as covered in our rhythmic consonance article. What’s more, the drums end up filling in any considerable inactivity between the two, keeping the overall musical momentum consistent.
The sounding of additional notes isn’t the only way for a line to be active: a change to its timbre, dynamics, or really any perceptible difference through time will tend to catch our ear. This is what is meant by ‘general animation’.
Why is this? People are more sensitive to change than they are to the state of things. A friend’s hair is much more notable after a new cut than it is with their typical style; a bug that zips by all of a sudden immediately distracts you from the relatively static surroundings.
With a notable portion of the French touch style donning ‘filter house’ as an alias, it’s no surprise that the effect is commonly used as a means to create interest.
For a classic example, we can look to Thomas Bangalter’s Colossus. There’s a part in the track that uses a very resonant filter (1:55). Notice how the content of the sample fades into the perceptual background while our ear becomes more fixated on the animation of the filter. This is made more so by the fact that the sample itself repeats/introduces no new material, bringing no further attention onto itself.
Interestingly, while the filter is perceived as an animation of the timbre’s sample at first, it eventually becomes its own full-fledged musical line as it gets more resonant.
The chorus of SebastiAn’s Love In Motion (0:37) has a very animated phaser applied to the accompanying chords. If it weren’t for the effect, they would eventually be taken over by the rhythmic activity in the drums.
Despite the chords being static in terms of rhythm, they remain active through their timbral animation. This keeps them in the foreground.
New Musical Element Added:
Continuing on the thread of novelty, a new musical element being added all together will catch the listener’s ear. Remember, we are more sensitive to change than we are to the state of things. Having something manifest from nothing is a fair bit of a change, to say the least.
Paul Johnson’s Hear The Music sees a new melody introduced later in the song (1:24), atop the already established accompaniment.
It’s the only novel element at the time of its introduction, as everything else has already been well established previously, so it has no issue with catching the listener’s ear at first. The line’s lack of activity and animation, however, sees it hand the torch back to the accompaniment sooner rather than later.
One last note that's worth pointing out: the song is built upon a fairly active sample which doesn’t leave much room for a very lively melody; including one could risk intelligibility at large. Opting for the chaste line that he does showcases Johnson’s expert sensitivity to the musical dynamic.
The unique micro-sampling style of Todd Edwards results in a rapid fire rate of novelty in the C section of his track Show The Way (1:12).
Despite continually introducing one novel element right after another, Edwards is able to keep it comprehensible by having each element play a short, relatively modest gesture. It would be a different story if each line were trying to play its own virtuoso solo concurrently.
Implications on Mixing:
We've heard how characteristics in the songwriting will affect the perceptual foreground, but what about the choices made at the mixdown? The two are more intertwined than one would initially think.
Listen to how the string sample's processing in Justice's Stress is automated to prepare for the new material that closes the track (4:15).
Why did they make the changes to the sampled string ostinato that they did, and how do they affect the perceptual foreground?
It's muffled: a less technical way of saying 'they removed high frequency content from the sample'. A lack of high frequencies gives the impression that a sound is farther off in the background, especially compared to brighter elements.
It's quieter: volume is a big component of what will catch your ear; this is fairly self-evident. A TV on near silent will be obscured by regular conversation, but its speakers at max will cut through even a house party's hollering.
Its transients are more contained: this means that the difference between the louder & quieter portions of the sample were minimized, making it less dynamic and therefore less animated.
Here's a version with the sample unaltered, showcasing why they didn't simply leave it be:
Justice still wanted the movement from the driving strings (the musical texture would have been very intimate otherwise, which they evidently didn't desire for the studio version) while preventing a perceptual clash between the sample & the novel material. The solution was in the mix processing they settled on.
Let’s next listen to how the processing of the percussion in Daft Punk’s Face To Face is affected by its shifting role on the perceptual stage. At the beginning of the track it’s our only element, so it sings loud and proud. Once the rest of the instrumental is introduced, however, the percussion's processing takes on a very different character: much quieter, less high frequency content, contained transients. This, again, is to support its new role in the perceptual background.
There’s a brief moment in the musical phrase where the percussion is again the sole element sounding, bringing it back to the perceptual foreground for a short time. These levied-on processes are scaled back a bit as a result, but only for as long as the line's short return to the spotlight.
While I tackle these concepts from the standpoint of mixing, they've been known & utilized by musicians for an unfathomable amount of time. A skilled pianist will generally play the accompaniment in the left hand softer than the lead melody in the right in order to keep the focus on the tune (quieter sounds in the real world also contain less high frequencies, which further helps). A conductor will direct one already-sounding section to quiet down once a new section enters to help direct the listener's attention (listen to how the men's voices are louder during their fill than when they sing under the women's afterwards). The principles are timeless, no matter the context or method used to enact them.
We've covered one of the most important perceptual concepts in music, the perceptual foreground, and have seen how it affects both the songwriting & production of some of the greats.
As always, the best way to truly grasp these concepts is to play with them yourself. Here's a few exercises I leave to you, in order to aid understanding:
1) Make note of how your ear moves from line to line when listening to music. What causes it to do so?
2) Take your favorite music and change parts of it that contribute to a shift in the perceptual foreground, study the results.
3) Write a little song with the perceptual stage in mind at every point, shifting lines upon it by using the concepts covered in this article.
Send me what you find/create on Twitter or via e-mail, I'd love to hear it!
You'll find that the way you hear music will have changed quite a bit after being aware of these forces at play. Have fun discovering a new layer to all of your favorite tunes.
I'll be Tweeting additional content related to this article for the next few weeks as I work on the next segment in the series. You can find my Twitter here. Make sure to subscribe to the e-mail listing near the bottom of the site to get updates on when I make a new posting as well!
See you next time,