When I began thinking through each of the five senses, I felt that "Hearing" (Spotify) should be an instrumental song. That was my starting point. Though our voices are a vital part of our experience of sound, typically when we think of our sense of hearing, we aren’t thinking inwardly of hearing ourselves. We are more often thinking outwardly, of the sounds we experience.
While learning as much as I could about the sense of hearing, I was reminded of some videos I had seen a while ago, of people hearing sound for the very first time. One video after another, brought me to tears. The videos are of people who have lived most of their lives without sound, who just had cochlear implants installed in their ears and turned on, allowing them to hear sound for the very first time. It’s incredibly beautiful. So after watching every video I could find of that amazing, life-changing experience, I decided that I wanted this song to be the soundtrack to that experience, to sort of be a film score of sorts for some of those wonderful videos. I watched this compilation over and over as I wrote.
In some of my research on cochlear implants, I learned that when they are turned on for the first time, patients often say the sound is kind of “digital” or “mechanical” sounding, which is entirely normal. I guess the ears and brain eventually normalize the signal and things begin to sound more natural. I thought that was entirely fascinating, so I made it a part of my song. The piano that starts out the song has a digital/mechanical feel, and there are layers of harmonics that weave in and out as the melody moves forward, almost like ringing in the ears. Slowly, the mechanical feel of the piano falls away and transforms into a richer, more real piano sound, and more and more natural instruments are introduced as the melody repeats. All to nod to the experience of the cochlear implants being turned on for the first time; subtle and strange at first, as a world of sounds get pulled into focus.
Though this song is mostly an instrumental, I had a few words in mind that I knew I wanted to be a part of this song. Actually even before I began writing the Atlas: Year Two songs, I wrote these 4 words down as something to work into the song for our sense of hearing:
“love is an echo.”
It’s faint, but you’ll hear that lyric being repeated here and there throughout the song. To mirror that lyrical concept, I decided that the entire musical structure of the song needed to be an echo. It was a fun limitation to construct the entire song with only one primary melody/chord structure repeating over and over. The challenge was to keep it interesting and always building. Had a lot of fun with it! Somewhere along the way I decided that if this was meant to be a score of sorts to those amazing videos of people hearing for the first time, maybe I should approach the music like a score for a film trailer, where the music just keeps building and getting bigger with every section. So that was my goal here.. keep pushing the echo louder and louder each time.
Side note: I don’t do it in every song, but on occasion I toss in some subtle morse code in the background of each song. I thought that this was a fitting song to include it in, so you’ll hear “love is an echo” in morse code. In fact, if you watch this video, mute the volume on the youtube player, press play on my song at the same time, and the morse code in my song lands right when the little boy says “I hear beeps!” in the video.
Since “Smell” was recorded in mono and is a rather small song in terms of sonic space, I knew that “Hearing” had to be the polar opposite. I had so much fun using up as much of the sonic space as I possibly could.. in fact, there are so many tracks on this song, I completely maxed out the 120 track limit. I aimed to use as much stereo space as I could too, so you’ll notice lots of instruments panning left to right as they play. I had fun with a trick a friend of mine, Jeremy Larson told me about. It’s called “Ghost Reverb” and by flipping the phase, things can sound like they are sort of behind you and in front of you, giving the listener a weird sense of space. Like 3D sound in a way. I used this little trick on a few background sounds in this song.. the best way to hear it is to crank it up loud and through some speakers (not as noticeable on headphones).. Another side note: the final lyric of the song right before this one, “Smell” is: “maybe this time without words” - that's a tiny nod to "Hearing" being an instrumental.
I invited a couple friends to be a part of this song, Joanna Hui played all of the Violins you hear throughout, and Sharon Gerber played all of the Cellos! They make some of my favorite sounds in the universe, so I had to enlist them on this song! So grateful for the gorgeous playing they were kind enough to contribute.
I crammed this song FULL of easter egg stuff. I won’t tell you where they are all hidden, but here’s a list of a few fun things that can be heard throughout the song if you listen real closely:
- The first known recorded sound EVER by anyone. Recorded in 1860 by Édouard-Léon Scott. Pretty cool sounding (and scary). Look it up.
- From her first ultrasound, my daughter’s first recorded heartbeat. (it's the first sound ANYONE on earth has ever heard her make!)
- Thump Piano that my awesome brother-in-law HANDMADE for me for Christmas! (See image here)
- Tibetan Singing Bowl my friend Chris and Phileena gave me. (See image here)
- Old micro-cassette recordings I made as a teenager. (See image here)
- This doesn’t really count because it was unintentional, but every time at around 3:00 into the song, I hear a phone ring and check my phone. I guess it’s just some combination of sounds that make up similar frequencies as my ring tone! Weird. I kind of like it though.
That’s about it! I had SO much fun with this one and hope you enjoy it too! Next up my Atlas: Year Two series is the final sense, “Sight” - can’t wait to share!
Love, Ryan - Sleeping At Last