Foreground Middleground and Background
In any sound or combinations of sounds, some aspects or elements will sound more prominent while others will seem to recede. We use the spatial terms foreground, middleground and background to help us differentiate the various elements we hear. Something loud, high, low, or which contrasts with its surroundings will sound as if it is 'closer' than something softer or less distinguished. Furthermore, the foreground, middleground and background can constantly change and shift. They do not necessarily have to be fixed.
Robert Erickson in his book, Sound Structures in Music (p.139) writes:
'Foreground elements have the character of figure in relation to a ground; they are more distinct, more formed, and "closer" than ground, which is less distinct, less formed, and "farther away" one could substitute words such as "louder/softer" or "duller/brighter", but the experience is undeniably spatial, and not entirely different from the visual space of everyday life.'
Cantigas de Amigo (14th Century)
In example two you will hear a long sustained note played by a hurdy gurdy. This is heard in the background as the singers voice is clearly heard in the foreground. Can you imagine what this would sound like if the singer's voice was in the background and the drone was in the foreground?
However, it is not always as obvious as in Example Three. Any sound can emerge into the foreground. Some pieces tend to have more stable foreground middleground and background structures than others. Example Three is a very clear example of relatively stable foreground, middleground and background structures.
LISTENING EXAMPLE THREE
Washing the water, Peter Gabriel (1992)
The voice is obviously foreground as this is where our focus is continually placed. The piano accompanies or 'tracks' the voice functioning as a middleground. The percussion begins in the foreground but recedes into the background when the voice and piano enter. However, are you aware of the sudden shifts in focus to the percussion when there is an accent in the drumkit. Automatically, your listening shifts to the kit and then, just as quickly, moves back to the voice again. Can you imagine what the piece would sound like if you reversed everything: voice in background, percussion in the foreground?
LISTENING EXAMPLE FOUR
Concerto for Clarinet in A, K.622, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1791)
The concerto form of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries explored many types of foreground, middleground and background relationships where the three levels constantly shifted. In example five, the clarinet is clearly heard in the foreground, but often, the orchestra moves into the foreground when it needs to contribute musical material and then recedes into the background. Can you identify these moments when the clarinet or orchestra are in the foreground either singularly or together?
There are not many examples of music without foreground nor background. A well known example is white noise (eg. the sound of a radio or TV channel when it is not broadcasting).
LISTENING EXAMPLE FIVE
In white noise one hears many frequencies and elements at a very fast rate. In fact, they are so fast that they merge into a whole unit or mass of sound. Your ear, unable to focus on any individual element, tends to blur all the elements into one sound shape with no perceived background, middleground or foreground.
In the next example each newly introduced sound is heard as a foreground sound which consequently places the preceding sounds into the middleground and background. In order for this to be successful it is important that each new sound is distinctively formed or shaped.
Running Up That Hill, first verse, Kate Bush (1985)
In Example Six each newly introduced sound is heard as a foreground sound which consequently places the preceding sounds into the middleground and background. In order for this to be successful it is important that each new sound is distinctively formed or shaped.
Introduction and verse.
first foreground: crescendo on two long sustained notes
second foreground: drum machine (first foreground recedes)
third foreground: portamento violin sounds (drum machine recedes)
fourth foreground: voice solo with voice and chordal accompaniments in background (violin recedes)
A new background layer is added on the lines "if I only could" consisting of a high pitch glass rattle. At the end of the first verse on the words "If I only could", the portamento violin (layer three) becomes the most foreground layer. Which sounds do you hear as background and middleground?