Discussion Paper

November 24, 2008 at 4:39 pm (Further Research & Contextualisation)

Sound Analysis; Perspectives on Compositional Modes of Listening

In this discussion paper I will be situating my methods of listening to and understanding sound material in relation to several composers affiliated with electroacoustic music. I will also discuss how these various perspectives on analyzing sonic behaviour can be used to form meaningful relationships between sounds, and how this compares with my own compositional approaches and methodologies. I have chosen to focus on composers associated with electroacoustic music because I share with them a common belief in ‘the inherent musicality in all sounds.’ (Smalley. 1986: 61) At the heart of the genre’s oeuvre lies a questioning of the traditions of Western music; a vernacular dominated by ‘metrically organized harmonic and melodic relationships.’ (Smalley. 1986: 61) This questioning arose in conjunction with the advent of new technologies, which not only expanded the palette of sound made readily available to composers, but also provided them with different means of manipulating this sonic material. (Teruggi. 2007) Technology became a catalyst for the development of new methods of listening, analyzing and composing with sound, and it is these methods that I will discuss in this paper, beginning with French composer Pierre Schaeffer.

Pierre Schaeffer, founder of musique concrete, was interested in developing ways of perceiving sound once it had been removed from its context via recording and playback over the loudspeaker. He used the term sound-object to describe his approach of apprehending sound ‘without seeing the causes behind it.’ (Schaeffer 1966: 91). This method, which he called reduced listening, sought to draw the listener’s attention to the intrinsic properties of a particular sonority (e.g. its texture, timbre and temporal transformation). (Wishart. 1996)

Reduced listening is an extremely useful technique that I’ve learnt to incorporate into my compositional practise. There are simple ways to initiate this mode of listening, such as closing ones eyes and auditioning a sound numerous times until any imagined connection to its source disappears. For me, reduced listening is a method that strives towards a more objective way of perceiving sonic behaviour; away from causality one can really focus on the inner detail of a sound and begin to form links between different sound-objects based on these intrinsic qualities. Whilst linking materials in this way is certainly a valid approach to the creation of a coherent sonic discourse, I feel that disregarding the source of a sound completely can eliminate the possibilities of utilizing the potential meanings inherent within its extrinsic features (e.g. the representational, associative and symbolic). In addition to this, a sole focus on the intrinsic features of a sound perhaps ignores the way people naturally respond to sound, since ‘studies of behaviour and aural physiology would suggest that our mental apparatus is predisposed to allocate sounds to their sources.’ (Wishart. 1996: 129)

Trevor Wishart developed a compositional aesthetic that integrated the Schaefferian analysis of the sound-object, as well as bringing the extrinsic features of a sound into play. He used the term sound-image to explain one of his methods of composition: transforming the visualization of a sound in the minds eye and making use of its extrinsic features to form symbolic links between these evoked images. In his piece Red Bird (1978) he transformed the voice of someone saying ‘Liss….’ (from the word listen) into birdsong (a metaphor for flight), allowing the voice to ‘take flight’ and suggesting a ‘metaphorical link with the concept of ‘imagination’’. (Wishart.  1996: 166)

I try to use a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic methods of understanding sounds when I begin working on a composition. In my piece Window Music (2008), I was initially drawn to the intrinsic qualities of the sound of construction work taking place across the road from my house; rich metallic timbres randomly struck in isolation, accentuating the acoustic character of street. Once I had spliced the recording into singular ‘strikes’, I began thinking about how to approach the material from an extrinsic point of view. The thunderous clanging of pipes and girders were the result of scaffolding being constructed, sonic signifiers of a new material structure forming piece-by-piece. I tried to reflect this in my additive approach to building a rhythmic structure with the construction strikes.

Whilst the sound-object and sound-image are both useful perceptual techniques, my compositional thinking integrates a sense of sound as being specific to a location as well. R Murray Schafer coined the term sound-event to describe this perspective: a sound that ‘occurs in a certain place during a particular interval of time.’ (Schafer. 1994: 131) Schafer was the founder of the World Soundscape Project, a collective of sound artists and composers who ‘drew attention to the sonic environment through location recordings and environmental advocacy.’ (Cox & Warner. 2004: 29) Together they defined an area of study called Acoustic Ecology, which was concerned with how the acoustic environment (or soundscape) impacts the behaviour of the creatures living within it. (Schafer. 1994: 271)

My practise incorporates the locational aspect of studying sound from a fixed position (as in Window Music), but also the transitional, by journeying through an urban environment in order to study the soundscape. The latter could be seen as a sonic interpretation of the Situationist ideas of Psychogeography and Dérive, an approach to understanding urban space through physical exploration, whereby the individual lets himself be ‘drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.’ (Debord, 2006: 50) In my Big Ben Composition (2008) I used a combination of fixed and transitional approaches, making two separate studies of the soundscape around Westminster Bridge, before finally amalgamating them both within a single composition. For the transitional study, I developed certain rules for my journey around the area, based on the sonic activity of Big Ben over the course of an hour. This dictated what material I collected, as well as the way I organized the sounds when composing. With the fixed study, I recorded 30 minutes of activity from one position (the bank opposite Big Ben), later analyzing and selecting the three key sounds present in the soundscape to compose with.

As I began working on different mutations of these three key sounds (seagulls, police siren and Big Ben’s gongs), some interesting concerns arose regarding how much I should manipulate them. I used two stages of processing on the three sounds. The first stage involved subtle shaping of the sounds using EQ and re-sampling techniques in Logic, leaving them relatively ‘raw’ and still recognizable in terms of their source and behaviour. The second stage involved random pitch and amplitude manipulation in MaxMSP, which on occasion removed them quite far from their causality. Since I was trying to retain a sense of place, I had to reassess the degree of processing at the second stage; it obscured the source of the sound beyond recognition and hence severed the connection to location as well. Pierre Schaeffer highlighted the perceptual ambiguity a particular sound can take on through technological manipulation in Trois Microsillons d’Examples Sonores (1967), stating that one sounding body ‘“may supply a great variety of [sound] objects whose disparity cannot be reconciled by their common origin.”’ (Cited in Schafer. 1994: 130)

If listened to in isolation, the various forms taken by the seagulls, police sirens & Big Ben’s gongs in the final version of my composition, lie somewhere in between having ambiguous and recognizable sources. However, since the variations of these sounds are repeated at regular intervals in the composition and occur at the same time through layering techniques, I believe a sense of their source is still conveyed, and thus location as well. The repetition breeds a familiarity with the individual sounds in their different guises, whilst the layering allows them to establish a link to a certain place through the contextual recognition of their source; though one particular sound might initially be perceived as an unrecognizable form, its source may obtain clarity through its juxtaposition against the other two sounds and the setting implied by their synchronized occurrence. (Wishart. 1996: 150)


In this paper I have situated some of my compositional modes of listening in relation to three alternate perspectives on studying sound: the sound-object (intrinsic), the sound-image (extrinsic) and the sound-event (specific to time and place). I have explained how these three ways of understanding sonic behaviour can lay the conceptual foundations from which to build meaningful relationships between sounds, and how this compares with my own approaches to composition. Whilst these various perceptual methods and compositional strategies are certainly important to the electroacoustic composer, articulating their use is sometimes problematic. For example, creating the sense of location sonically in my Big Ben Composition is not only reliant on the apprehension of source, but also the familiarity the audience may have with this material. A Londoner may be able to link these three sounds to Westminster Bridge and grasp the symbolic associations with the material, whilst someone who’s new to the City may not. That said, perhaps the visual element accompanying transitional study in this piece perhaps counteracts this problem, as well as the use of repetition and contextual recognition in the sonic element of the locational study.

When implementing the three perceptual methods discussed in this paper, I must bare in mind that I can only obtain relative objectivity towards sound because of the gap between my perception and that of my potential audience. In addition to this, I must consider that these compositional methodologies may be slightly flawed, since ‘Sound-objects do not suggest their own montage in an objective way! There lies, above the process of aural choice advocated in this approach, a set of beliefs as to what it is that ‘sounds right’ in any given situation.’ (Emmerson. 1986: 21) To some artists, such as Francis Bacon, these instinctive reactions to material are paramount in regards to composition; ‘“If you manage to do something following your instinct as closely as possible, then you have succeeded…”’ (Archimbaud. 1999: 80) I feel I must endeavour to find a balance between my instinctual reactions to sound and more analytical strategies to perceive it. In this way I can form a dialectical approach towards composition that allows the various electroacoustic notions of sonic behaviour to play off my own individual understanding of sound and its compositional possibilities.


Archimbaud, M. (1999) Francis Bacon in Conversation with Michel Archimbaud, London: Phaidon Press Limited
Brougher, K. Mattis, M. Strick, J. & Zilcher, J. (2005) Visual Music: Synaesthesia in Art and Music Since 1900, London: Thames & Hudson
Cox, C. & Warner D. (2004) Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music London: Continuum
Dann, T. (1998) Bright Colours Falsely Seen: Synaesthesia and the Search for Transcendental Knowledge, New Haven: Yale University Press
Debord, G. (2006) Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography, In: Knabb, K. Situationist National Anthology (Revised and Expanded Edition, AK Press
Emmerson, S. (1986) The Language of Electroacoustic Music, London: Macmillan Press
Harrison, J. (2001) Synaesthesia: The Strangest Thing, Oxford University Press
Nyman, M. (1999) Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond, 2nd Edition Cambridge University Press
Schaeffer, P. (1966) Traité des Objets Musicaux, Paris: Le Seuil
Schafer, R. M. (1977) The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment & the Tuning of the World, Vermont: Destiny Books
Smalley, D. (1997) Organising Sound, Cambridge University Press
Teruggi, D. (2007) Technology and Musique Concrete: the Technical Developments of the Groupe de Recherches Musicales and their Implication in Musical Composition, Cambridge University Press.
Wishart, T. (1996) On Sonic Art, London: Routledge

Music / CDs
Wishart, T. (1996) On Sonic Art: Accompanying CD, London: Routledge

1 Comment

  1. Artist’s Statement & Reflection Paper « Zai Tang said,

    […] visual element to a minimum and focusing on sound as the main carrier of meaning. My research in to electroacoustic music and synaesthesia in art has informed my approach to soundscape composition, which I view as an […]

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