Layering & Knowing When to be the Backdrop

Any music with more than one voice, or an instrument that can play more than one note at a time, is layers. The point in music, is how good you are at layering. Now we’ve all heard music where the layers are just smashed together like an earthquake. Chances are, we may have even contributed one of the so-called ‘layers’ in the earthquake. Hopefully, or I’m gonna be real lonely out here in my honesty.

What we need to do is to find our instrument’s musical space within any given song. And to learn that, if there is no more space left, don’t try to create any! If the chord is already being built, and there’s already more than enough 1st’s, 3rd’s, and fifths, don’t barbershop quartet it and decide that your musical space will be the seventh harmony, or the sixth harmony. Disgusting. Those are color notes, or jazz notes. If you’re not doing something jazzy or ‘Mainstreet Singers-ish’ (props to whoever gets that reference), don’t hang too long on anything that’s not a 3rd or 5th harmony, and even be careful too many of you aren’t playing the 3rd. And don’t turn on your Digitech Whammy and go up two octaves to find musical space. It’ll sound like bad Depeche Mode. Or what’s infinitely worse, don’t turn up louder and comandeer someone else’s space.

Instead, find your layer. It might be something rhythmic, melodic, harmonic, softer, heavier, etc. Something interesting that compliments the music. And remember, again, that that something might be silence.

This is my favorite example of layering. Notice how, when it’s all put together, you’re suddenly not hearing an earthquake of parts, even though there are many different parts. They all have their layer, and one isn’t as good without the other.

This is Moby, and it was in ‘Heat’, which automatically makes it cool; which it is anyway, but if it wasn’t, than it would be……still. Hmm.

See how everything had its place, and by the end, you couldn’t even tell the parts apart anymore? That’s totally what we’re striving for. Remember that 90% of the people listening to you can only tell your part if you totally kill it and stand out in a bad way. They can’t even tell when you’re solo-ing tastefully. (If you don’t believe me, turn on something live on tv, and watch when it comes time for the guitar solo, how the camera jumps to the bass.) But they will be able to tell if you’re the instrument killing the mix, or the layering. You’ve gotta find the part of the eq, or the part of the rhythm, or the part of the ambiance, where you fit.

Here’s another layering example. And if you cried on the Moby piece (I always do…hmm…so much honesty today), you might cry on this one, too……but for different and much more frighteningly awkward reasons:

Sorry, I absolutely couldn’t resist. I tried, but……no, I didn’t. John Michael Higgins is one of the most underrated ‘awkward factor’ actors ever.

I don’t want to beat this to death, even though I kind of do. But I’ll give a personal example. Sunday night, I’m playing for this church, and the first three songs are very, very electric guitar driven, and I definitely bogarted them. But that’s what the songs called for. So then the fourth song comes, and it’s new, and none of us have ever heard it. And it’s really pretty, and just feels like it needs to be worlds different than the first 3 songs. So my first thought is to not play, but, no dice, it also feels empty with just the instruments that are currently going on. So I stop and listen. Acoustic and piano are already in the same musical space. Bass and pad are filling the low end. The other electric is already doing some ambient swells, so ambiance is out. Drums are doing a rhythmic brush backbeat thing, so something rhythmic is out. Vocals have a sweet melody and a great harmony, so I don’t want to throw in a counter melody.

So I, in my infinite musical genius, decide to swell in with chorded fuzz. Hmmm…no. Okay, more guitar ambiance. Nope, muddy with the other electric. Just chords. No, not adding anything. May as well be quiet. Okay, silence. But the song still needs something. Finally, I remember this song by Loreena McKennitt. My wife and I saw her last year, and I was blown away by what her guitarist did in this song. He played two notes over and over; same timbre, same volume, same intensity, same octave, same rhythm. He let himself be the constant, while the band ebbed and flowed. So sometimes you could hear him, sometimes you couldn’t. So I did just that. The song we were playing was in C, and the chords were such that I could go up to the octave above middle C, and play straight 8th notes of G C octaveG C, over and over. Got rid of the pick, just using finger attack. Turned on some pad-ish delay, only on the delayed notes, a bit of modulation, and switched to the Strat on neck and middle pickup for a less ‘upfront’ sound.

And it seemed to be just what the song needed. So, I felt pretty proud of my insane musical prestige to think of such a wonderful layered part; and then I remembered that like everything I do, I just stole it from a better musician. And here is that better musician. Note the 3 notes on the acoustic guitar, the first 3 8th notes of every 2 beats. Always the same, he never changes……nobody will ever say that it’s the most amazing guitar part in the world (except me, of course, but I don’t really count), but it totally holds the song together.

Mmmm……Irish makes everything better. Just like delay. Hmm…maybe someone should put those two together! Oh, wait……they did already. It’s called ‘U2.’ Oh, snap! Blindsided! Thought a whole post was going to go by without some U2. Someone asked me one time if I could go a week without listening to U2. I did not understand the question, and I would not respond to it.

Figure out what the song needs, and work with the other sounds going on around you to create it. Sometimes the best songs are those in which none of the layers can really stand on their own; but together, it’s perfect.

‘And Gary…on the kick drum!’

10 thoughts on “Layering & Knowing When to be the Backdrop

  1. “that something might be silence” — can’t stress this enough. very hard to do but really brings out the texture of a song once done tastefully

    “…none of the layers can really stand on their own; but together, it’s perfect.” — great, great point. this is also true not only with the part but also with tone.

    very nice post! and yeah, i would like to do the kick drum! haha

  2. The fact that it’s okay not to play was a hard lesson to learn. It’s still really hard to stand there and not play. However, when you do come in, it actually has weight, if that makes sense.

    In orchestral music (I’m an orchestra teacher in school) there are a lot of examples of certain parts (like french horns) resting for like 80 measures, playing for 8 measures, then resting for the rest of the song. It’s probably kind of boring for the horns, but when they do play, it really means something.

  3. Dude, french horn can be freaking amazing in the right context. Granted, a horn played badly is probably one of the worst sounds on the planet, but in capable hands it can give you shivers (in a good way).

  4. Rhoy–thanks, man. And ya, I’m with you on the silence thing; so necessary, but so hard to do. hehe And tonal layers…I like that! hehe

    Glad to see someone actually watched that clip. My wife and I ran across that movie on tv, and were just crying after that scene. Sweet, sweet awkwardness.

    Philip–I had no idea, bro. More props to you. I adore classical music, but my talent level in that area is quite, uh, low. But ya……imagine if we guitarists actually stayed out completely for a whole song, and then hit one swelled note or something, and that was it. Supposedly Larry Carlton is a genius at this.

    Mike and Philip–haha!! That was pretty funny. But I have to say that I also love French horns. Mozart’s Horn Concerto No. 3 (K 447, I believe), always gives me chills.

    Larry–is that American Pie? Sorry, I never saw those movies. hehe But for the last 10 years I haven’t been able to say, ‘This one time’ without someone following it up with the obligatory phrase. 🙂

  5. I was mostly kidding, I do love horns. The most amazing single note of music I’ve heard was a horn… and they were just warming up or practicing or something. I was on a tour of the Boston Syphany’s performance space and I heard a horn player down the hall start out with a really subtle note that crescendoed into this screaming, longing, “don’t go” kind of note before reluctantly decrescendoing back to nothing. It blew me away. One note.

    … but it takes a good player to get good sound out of a horn and it sounds wretched in the wrong hands.

  6. haha Mike, I hear ya, brother. And I know what you mean……certain instruments are passable when played so-so; but certain instruments, like horns, really have to be played skillfully to sound even just good.

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