This word originally appeared in my Fall 2017 Harvard Crimson column, "Difference Tones," which can be found here.
When we consider what the components of music are, the answer we often give is melody, harmony, and rhythm. However, it’s apparent that these means of description are not useful for all types of music. In the case of Sam Smith’s “Too Good at Goodbyes,” the chordal harmony is actually a banal feature of the music. It is more illuminating to point out the track’s gospel chorus feature, jaded lyrics, and the cathedral-like reverberations that bloom around Smith’s voice as he lets out long, high notes. Acoustical reverberation, or “reverb,” is a component to this Smith track that is particularly worth noticing as a listener. Before recording technology advanced to its modern capability, the acoustics of a piece of music would be fixed to whatever space it was performed in. With the modern capabilities of processing audio through a digital reverb software, however, producers are able to modulate the “space” surrounding the music just as flexibly as they may choose melodies, harmonies, instrumentation, and lyrics. Such a tool allows reverb to form the musical narrative of a song. In Smith’s “Too Good at Goodbyes,” the expanding and contracting of reverb from section to section amplifies the track’s themes of loneliness and relationship, as well as the lines between sacred and secular.
Reverb is a physical phenomenon present in all spaces. When a sound is emitted, like when somebody claps in a large empty room, the sound of the clap travels all around the space, bouncing off of the walls, ceiling and floor, until its energy dissipates. When you hear that clap, you are receiving the sound waves once directly from the colliding hands, a second time from sound waves that bounce from one surface of the room and then to your ear, a third time bouncing from surface to other surface to ear, and so on. This is why a large room carries a longer reverberation of the voice than a small room. The sound waves take longer to travel from surface to surface to ear drum. Physiologically, this is one way the human body is led by the ear. We enter a space, and by hearing any sound inside it, we comprehend the nature of the space, its size, material, even how crowded it is. Poetically, it is powerful to understand how the environment we inhabit literally takes part in amplifying and silencing certain voices.
In Smith’s “Too Good at Goodbyes,” the presence of reverb swells with the energy of the lyrics and density of instrumentation. The song opens with a lonely pairing of a piano and Smith’s voice. I picture Smith standing very closely in front of me, his quiet voice singing into my ear. No reverberations are heard, only sound directly entering my eardrum. The entrances of finger-snaps and a cello in the pre-chorus recalibrate my imagined listening space. It becomes a little bit larger, making space for the person playing the cello. Notice Smith’s treatment of the word “mean” here. He gives it a slight volume swell, very slightly activating a larger acoustic reverberation, foreshadowing the expansiveness to come. As Smith leads into the chorus, jumping to the upper octave of his range, a bass enters as well, expanding the low register of the frequency space. Reverb blooms around Smith’s voice. This sense of a soaring vocal, paired with the lowness of the bass, dramatically expands my imagined frame of listening. We are no longer in a small room, but something much larger and reverberant. The chorus climaxes with Smith’s title drop: “I’m way too good at goodbyes.” Simultaneously, a gospel choir enters with an orchestra, singing that same line, acting as human reverberators, echoing Smith’s words over and over again. What began as a small cocktail lounge of piano and solo voice has revealed itself to be a huge cathedral full of singing, musical bodies.
This reverb-trip engages my imagination not just in the physical realm, but also the poetic. Music with such instrumentation and reverb is most often heard for me in church. The gradual transition from a cocktail lounge piano bar to a cathedral full of gospel musicians prompts me to think about the boundary lines perceived between the “sacred” and “secular,” and how such a dichotomy is not so black-and-white for Smith. I find these themes present all over Smith’s music. The lyrics in his newest album speak on devotion, love, and disillusionment, often keeping the mode of address ambiguously fitting to either a romantic partner or a god.
When we hear a sound and its reverberations, we are also hearing the space that sound inhabits. In the case of Smith, that space is not just a large one. The physical expansiveness connotes themes of loneliness as well as of religious and romantic devotion. Chord sequences don’t convey such meaning. And as the relevance of classical music shrinks, the ability to perceive such harmonic activity becomes less relevant to experiencing pop music. Reverberation, however, is a physical phenomenon, felt by all. Its use in music production, as well as our perception of it as listeners, unlocks potential expressions where there were none before.