Soundscape Composition and Electroacoustic Music


In the late 1960s, R. Murray Schafer suggested the soundscape as the "universal" composition of which we are all composers. This bold concept led to the formation and evolution of the World Soundscape Project (WSP) at Simon Fraser University in the early 1970s.

The main purpose of the WSP's operation was to document acoustic environments and to increase public awareness of the significance of the soundscape.

The Soundscape Composition is a form of electroacoustic music, characterised by the existence of identifiable environmental sounds and contexts, the purpose being to raise the listener's associations, memories and imagination related to the soundscape. It grew naturally out of the pedagogical intent of the WSP, to foster soundscape awareness.

The initial intention of Soundscape Composition was to document and represent recordings of various sonic environments to the listener, in order to foster awareness of sounds that are often ignored, and hence, to promote the importance of the soundscape in the life of the community.

From its origins as an environmental movement based on listening to the world as a composition, Soundscape Composition is a heuristic means of acoustic design that encourages participants to learn from noise and imagine the possibilities of a healthy soundscape. It is based on poetic intention and educational drive. It has the potential to motivate the composer and the listener to learn from one another, engage in dialogue and become proactive about the possibilities of soundscape as a form of activism.

The Soundscape Composition always keeps a clear degree of recognizability in its sounds, even if some of them are in fact heavily processed, in order that the listener's association with these sounds may be invoked.

Soundscape Composition is context embedded. It is the intent of an artist to musicalize a recording of a certain location at a certain time.

Soundscape Composition might aim to computationally emulate self-organized biological or natural acoustic environments.

The Soundscape Composition is characterized by its refusal to separate sound entirely from its source and context.

What acousmatic music and soundscape composition share is the primacy of listening, the ability to extract information at different simultaneous levels, and a recognition of the ability of sound to shape space and time, including the creation of sound spaces through diffusion practices. Where they diverge is more of a matter of emphasis regarding the role of context.

Electroacoustic music recognises the abstracted aspects of its language while acknowledging its movement towards some point of absolute abstractedness, whereas Soundscape Composition begins in complete contextual immersion and moves towards the abstracted middle ground.

The essential difference between an electroacoustic composition that uses prerecorded environmental sound as its source material, and a work that can be called a Soundscape Composition, is that in the former, the sound loses all or most of its environmental context. In fact, even its original identity is frequently lost through the extensive manipulation it has undergone, and the listener may not recognize the source unless so informed by the composer. In the soundscape composition, on the other hand, it is precisely the environmental contet that is preserved, enhanced, and exploited by the composer. 

In my works, I implemented a slightly different approach. I recorded environmental and non-environmental sounds (e.g. sounds emerging from instruments or airplane sounds), and, after heavy transformations, I generated soundscapes which originate from instrumental and non-instrumental sounds (e.g.: Land of the Sirens: Original floghera sounds got transformed into bird-type sounds, e.g.: Icarus: Original airplane-taxiing sounds were transformed into 'human-breathing' sound textures.) This approach suggests that even if the original sounds lose their original identity due to very heavy transformation procedures, they obtain new identities that actually highly resemble environmental sounds. These procedures were actually implemented intentionally, in order to examine various ways in which environmental sounds can evolve through heavy transformations of source sounds of significantly different content.

The listener's past experience, associations, and patterns of soundscape perception are called upon by the composer and thereby integrated within the compositional strategy. The listener's awareness of environmental sound is also enhanced.

Subjectivity in Soundscape Composition (Example: François Bayle - Toupie Dans Le Ciel)

According to Schafer there are three main elements of the soundscape:

Keynote sounds

Keynote is a technical term used in music to define the principal tone around which a composition is written. In the same piece of music, there may be an infinite number of modulations, but the fundamental tone remains the keynote. It is always implicit, always present, even when in certain moments it may be dominated by other tones. Keynote sounds are constant sound phenomena of a certain context. They prevail and pervade a landscape. They are created by its geography and its climate, by wind, water, animals, stone, metal, wood and other elements that outline the character of a landscape and men living there.

Sound signals

Signals are foreground noises. We listen to them consciously. The term is derived from the theory of communication: a signal is a sound that attracts our attention, like message codes and information transmission. Although all sounds may take a specific role compared to others, signals regard the interest of a community. They are sounds that everybody hears, because they communicate a message that everyone must be able to perceive. For example: bells, whistles and sirens.


Soundmarks are unique objects and specifically belong to a certain place. Several of their traits make them special for people belonging to a community. In his 1977 book, The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World, Schafer pointed out that, "Once a Soundmark has been identified, it deserves to be protected, for soundmarks make the acoustic life of a community unique."

The elements have been further defined as to essential sources:

Bernie Krause, naturalist and soundscape ecologist, redefined the sources of sound in terms of their three main components: geophony, biophony, and anthropophony.


The geophony is non-biological natural sound coming from the effects of wind, water and earth movement.


Biophonies have evolved from relatively undisturbed habitats and are comprised of soundscape sources of sound corresponding to various combinations of non-human, non-domestic insects, reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals, depending on time of day, night, season or weather dynamics.


Anthropophony is human-generated sound – all of the signals that humans introduce into our environments – whether controlled, as in music, or entropic, as the chaotic noise we create with our electro-mechanical implements.

Noteworthy Soundscape Composers

R. M. Schafer, Bruce Davis, Peter Huse, Barry Truax, Howard Broomfield, Jean Reed and Hildegard Westerkamp

Characteristic works

Hildegard Westerkamp - Transformations (1996) - Listen

R. M. Schafer - Snowforms (1986) - Listen

Barry Truax - Islands (2001) - Listen

Barry Truax - Riverrun (1986) - Listen

Bernard Parmegiani - De Natura Sonorum (1974/1975) - Listen

Annette Vande Gorne - Bois (1986) - Listen

Natasha Barrett - Open Ocean (2007)Listen

Jonty Harrison - Streams (1999)

Jonty Harrison - Undertow (2007)


Epa Fassianos