The Sounds of Music

Professor Richard Beaudoin recognizes the sounds made by the bodies of performers and their recording equipment as music—whether their creators wanted them there or not.

Music is often referred to as a language, but Richard Beaudoin has always considered it the other way around—that language is music.

"My sensibility began in childhood, when my mother and grandmother spoke to one another in Polish, a language that I did not understand," Beaudoin says. "Wanting to decipher their conversations, I paid careful attention to paralinguistic information: breaths, hesitations, and other small sounds. I bring the same ears to music."

When writing his first book, Sounds as They Are: The Unwritten Music in Classical Recordings, newly published from Oxford University Press, he realized that he was "codifying" his own way of hearing.

"Historically, music theory is founded upon books that present personal, idiosyncratic, and potentially illuminating ways of hearing," says Beaudoin, a music theorist, composer, and assistant professor in the Department of Music.

The book details a new methodology for studying musical recordings: inclusive track analysis, or ITA, analyzes the musical function of all audible events on a given recording: sounds of breath, touch, effort, and surface noise. The new approach recognizes the often-overlooked sounds made by the bodies of performers and their recording equipment as music. 

In a Q&A, Beaudoin reflects on the value of paying attention to sounds "as they are," the suppressive culture of the classical music industry, and how inclusive track analysis informs his own work as a composer.

Why is it important to analyze sounds of breath, touch, effort, and surface noise in recorded music? Aren't many of these noises unintentional? 

In all my work, I ask a simple question: What can be learned by paying attention to all sounds that appear on audio recordings? It turns out: a lot. Take breath sounds. They are normally overlooked, but their location and duration are meaningful. If you and I were having a chat and I took a sharp inhale between every word of every sentence, you might be concerned for my health. Which is to say the location, duration, and frequency of breath sounds is, by nature, expressive.

By 'expressive' I don't mean necessarily beautiful or elegant; I mean revealing of some truth. As such, when audible inhales appear on recordings (in any genre), I pay attention to them, asking the same questions of these sounds that I ask of notes, chords, and rhythms. The same holds true for sounds of touch, sounds of effort, and surface noise. I hear all of these as serving musical functions—not as 'extraneous' noises or 'unconscious' additions—but as integral elements of an audio track.

You write that you chose to focus on classical tracks "because it is there that unwritten music is least resolved and most often dismissed." From the field of music theory to classical performers themselves, who do you think perpetuates the dismissive culture of classical music? 

The last few weeks have seen new albums by Beyoncé and Taylor Swift. Both are replete with foregrounded—even highlighted—inhales and exhales. Such sounds are commonplace in pop and jazz, to name just two genres, where record producers sculpt breath sounds and use them to expressive ends. In classical music, on the other hand, such sounds are not (normally) notated by the composer and, as such, they are often suppressed.

That fact says a lot about the hierarchy at work in classical music, where producers, recording engineers, and performers have seemingly joined forces to present recordings where traces of the performer's body are minimized. The composer's score is understood to be paramount. The industry often caters to the belief sounds made by the body of the performer 'get in the way' of the music. ITA accepts these sounds without judgment. For example, Beethoven did not notate inhales in his piano music, but when they occur, say, in Hélène Grimaud's recordings of his sonatas, I pay attention to when they appear, when they subside, and the expressive work they do as music.

You might wonder why I have devoted an entire book to sounds that the composer, performer, sound engineer, and even many listeners might gladly remove, if they could. One answer is because these sounds are expressive. Another is that these sounds have always existed, they have just been overlooked, ignored, and often denigrated. It is here that my methodology, ITA, comes alive. I am not studying songs or scores or performances, but tracks, in all their granular detail. The field of music theory spills a great deal of ink on music's macro-level environment (harmony, meter, form) while the micro-level of recordings teems with less-studied life. 

In classical music, advances in sound engineering and recording technology over the past few decades enabled the creation of tracks with minimal extraneous noise and musical errors. Do these advances correlate with less expression of non-notated sounds across all musical genres? 

I'm glad you asked that. Firstly, ITA does not consider any sounds as 'extraneous,' nor do I judge any to be 'errors.' Music theory needn't be a field that decides what is proper or correct about any given track. It should be a field that remains attentive to those who participate in music and to the documents that record their effort.

Take Enrico Caruso's 1902 recording of Donizetti's aria "Una furtiva lagrima." The recording exhibits a prominent, groovy, hissing surface noise superimposed upon the sound of Caruso's singing. Instead of listening past (or listening through) the surface noise, I ask what can be learned by listening with it. As it turns out, the aria is about nonsynchronous pulse patterns. Caruso is singing about fusing the sound of his sighs with the heartbeat of his beloved. Listening with the surface noise—which sounds very much like a heartbeat—allows this early recording to portray the lyrics of Donizetti's aria. Such an appraisal is inaccessible to listeners who dismiss the 'noise' of the recording and playback machine. 

Recordings that include hissing surface noise are as interesting to me as those made in modern, 'silent' recording studios. Put simply, recordings are works of art, not exams whose answer key is the score being performed (if there is one). Likewise, I don't consider recordings with audible inhales to be more or less expressive than those without them. What you refer to as 'advances' in recording technology are simply techniques that allow certain sounds to be prominent over others.

To be clear, I don't always enjoy recordings with audible inhales, grunts, or surface noise, and I don't assume readers of my book like these sounds, either. But music theory is not about what we enjoy; it is about what is

The last chapter of the book shows how the utility of "attending to sounds of breath, touch, and effort" extends beyond classical music. In one example, you detail how there are almost no audible exhales in Tracy Chapman's 1988 song, Behind the Wall, which addresses police indifference to violence, and how this generates expressive tension. What most surprised you about your efforts applying inclusive track analysis to genres and contexts outside of classical music?

You've touched upon a blossoming aspect of my research. I used classical recordings to create a typology for sounds of breath, touch, and effort, but these categories are abundant outside of classical tracks. Sounds as They Are concludes by expanding its findings to other genres of music, even to recordings that are not often considered music, such as recorded speeches and poetry readings. Regarding what surprised me about expanding ITA into popular music: it is undoubtedly the sonic variety.

For example, I have just written a paper on expressive inhales in recordings by Fiona Apple, Icy Simpson, and Toni Braxton. Listening to Braxton's "Un-break My Heart," I encountered a triple-pulsed, fluttering inhale, the likes of which I'd never heard in my lifetime of listening to recordings, classical or otherwise. Braxton is an exquisite singing communicator, and her inhale required a new analytical category to be created. (If you'd like to hear Braxton's extraordinary fluttering inhale, it occurs at 2:59 in her studio recording of the song—which appears on the 1996 album Secrets—between the lyrics "Don't leave me in all this pain" and "Don't leave me out in the rain.")

You're a composer yourself. How has this research influenced your own compositions and creative process?

All my life, my work has flowed between composition and scholarship. My music is rooted in the same microtiming analyses that populate my research. Each informs the other. The pendulum-like swing between them creates a kind of perpetual motion machine that produces my publications and performances. It also makes for a varied academic career.

Last year, London's Royal Academy of Music gave a concert devoted entirely to my music; this year, they invited me to speak about my book. Here in Hanover, I've received a similarly enthusiastic reception for both my scholarship and compositions. My music has been performed at the Hopkins Center for the Arts by artists including Roomful of Teeth and Sally Pinkas, while Sounds as They Are is part of the collection at Baker-Berry Library. Everyone at Dartmouth—the deans, my colleagues, and our students—welcomes my fruitful scholarly/creative duality, which is one of the reasons why I love teaching here.