Making functional music


Illustration: Jordan Moss

When setting out to compose and produce, we don’t always consider the function of a production.

How will this music be used? When and where will its listeners enjoy it? Will the music accompany another activity, and if so, how might it enhance it? It’s easy and intuitive to simply make what you feel like making, but the oblique goal of ‘making something good’ is often an elusive target and can end up falling flat. It can be helpful for the creative process and the impact of your music to carefully consider its purpose.

Ambient music as a case study for functional music

In the 1970s, ambient music began to take shape with the innovations of British composers Delia Derbyshire and Brian Eno. In Eno’s words, “An ambience is defined as an atmosphere or a surrounding influence: a tint. My intention is to produce original pieces ostensibly (but not exclusively) for particular times and situations with a view to building up a small but versatile catalogue of environmental music suited to a wide variety of moods and atmospheres. Ambient music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.” Among the genre’s landmark albums was Ambient 1: Music For Airports, which brought function right into the title of the record and presented four long-form arrangements made to enhance the atmospheres of airports and the experiences of its visitors.

Reflecting across industries

The worlds of design and film offer interesting glimpses into ways in which function is considered. A chair is designed according to its application, whether it supports a posture and sense of focus that lends itself to work, or promotes physical and mental relaxation. When a film is made, the intention is often set for it to make its audience laugh, cry, contemplate, or engage with a particular emotion. Reflecting on this level of thoughtfulness regarding purpose can be helpful inspiration for our music making.

Examples of functional music

Physical and everyday applications

One of music’s earliest applications was likely as a means to dance and express oneself physically. It can also play a powerful role in other physical activities like exercise while bringing ease to everyday and domestic applications like waking up, going to sleep, eating, and cleaning the dishes.

Abstract and cerebral applications

Music for many is a form of escapism or a vehicle for transformative experiences. It can also be a massage for the brain, offering deep contemplative listening or an aid in meditation. It almost goes without saying that music is a powerful tool for shaping one’s mood. Some listen to happy music when they’re sad, while others find catharsis in sad music when they’re feeling down. Every emotion in the spectrum of feeling distilled through music can have a profound impact on a listener, and this is something worth considering when making music. You might already ask yourself how you’re feeling when sitting down to create, but try expanding that reflection to others: “How do I want to make other people feel?”

Political activation and intellectual engagement

In some cases, it can be worthwhile to consider your political or philosophical beliefs. Bringing them into your work can give it a function beyond music for music’s sake.

Function within a larger musical context

Artists have often described that before they finish their record, they think about how the music will fit within a specific place in their sets, or what role it will fulfill in an album’s narrative arch.

Zooming Out

Zooming out from the song level, you can explore the potential purpose of an album, a project, and even one’s artistic identity. No matter what the purpose, placing value on the function of a creative outcome brings heightened meaning and everyday value to its audience.

June 16, 2020

Erin Rioux Erin Rioux is a record producer and co-founder of the New York label Human Pitch. As a member of the Splice team, Erin creates sounds and content.