How to Add Depth and Character to Your Music

Contributed by Ryan Harrell

I remember the first time I heard Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon. I couldn’t have been older than 9 (way too early for Floyd) but the strangeness of the soundscapes stayed with me. That you could use the crinkle of a cash machine as a percussion tool – as in “Money” – was a revelation, and it shaped much of my future music tastes.

When I stared making music, I sought out new sounds and rhythms. For a while, I was obsessed with Indian classical music and its (to Western ears) strange rhythms. This was followed by a foray into South African music (mostly after a revisit to Paul Simon’s Graceland).

During this journey into uncharted musical terrain, I’ve learned a thing or two about adding character to your tracks. I’ll share a two of my best tips below:

Experiment with New Rhythms

Do you remember that brief period in the 1960s when nearly everyone was following George Harrison’s lead and experimenting in sitar music?

As I experimented with different music, I discovered that Indian music has a lot more to offer than just strange instruments and stranger sounds. Its biggest departure, compared to western music, is in its use of rhythms.

The Carnatic tradition in Indian music (which many consider to be “pure” Indian music) uses a complex beat system called “tala”. Instead of the rather mathematical rhythms in Western music, the tala system is far more dynamic.

For example, the most common tala in Carnatic music is called Drutam (notated as ‘O’), which is basically two beats. You count this by slapping the palm of the right hand into the left hand (1st beat), then slapping the back of the right hand again into the left palm (2nd beat).

Since it is tracked by actual clapping instead of a metronome, it creates a more dynamic rhythm that feels decidedly human.

Here’s a brief video explaining the tala system:

It can be difficult to understand for Western ears, but in the flat, computer-created music world of today, this humanness is precisely what can help your music stand out.

Add “Found Sounds”

One of my biggest musical revelations was realizing that music doesn’t have to be musical to sound good. A rhythm section doesn’t have to come from a drum kit, nor does a melody need to rely on a piano or guitar. The bite of an apple, the singing of a bird, the rustle of leaves – these can all be “musical” with the right manipulation.

In musical parlance, these are called “found sounds”. You can use samples, but a growing number of musicians are recording the sounds directly. The Books, for example, used PVC pipes and recordings of children speaking on their track “A Cold Freezin’ Night”.

“Found sounds” are different from sampling in that the original sound is seldom reworked to fit new rhythms. Rather, it might be pitched up/down and repeated to create rhythms and fills.

A great example would be the phrase – “oh my God” – before the drop in Skrillex’ “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites”. This sound-byte was directly lifted from this video of a girl exclaiming after breaking a cup-stacking record.

If you were to look at the top featured songs on this list of top music blogs, you’ll find that an increasing number of artists, especially in the electronic genre, are using such “found sounds” to add depth and character to their music.

There are countless other ways to make your music sound interesting – experimenting with triplets, using complex time signatures, changing tempos, etc. But these two tips will definitely make your music stand out, especially if you can borrow influences from unexpected sources.

Ryan is a growth marketer turned DJ turned producer. He blogs about music, marketing, and all things in-between at MIDINation.com