Approaches to Composition of a Soundscape

Acoustic ecology is not a form or genre of music but a soundscape composition is, and often those individuals who study acoustic ecology as a research project often produce music in the form of soundscapes as part of the distribution of their research and work.

As music is an art form there is not one set path or approach to being creative, and there are many ways to approach the composition of music. Now we understand that a soundscape composition works with real sounds which have been recorded, we can start to understand that this type of medium will favour certain methods or approaches to creativity over others. Just like a composer of traditional classical music, the soundscape composer is still working with sound but the difference is that modern composers often work with computers and sounds that have been recorded ahead of their composition.

Stacks Image 1546

Photo: Avalon_Studio. (2013). Composition Frame in a Field of Wheat. Retrieved from

Soundscape composition came from the work started in Vancouver at the Simon Frasier University (SFU). The idea behind the concept is to use recognisable sounds to create a new piece of music which will stimulate the listener’s imagination, which will be both interesting and musical.

This concept grew out of the desire to create awareness of the natural environmental soundscape, which the World Soundscape Project (WSP) were engaged with.

There are some problems when we discuss the term ‘soundscape composition’ as it can mean different things to different people. Hildegard Westerkamp says that this term did not exist when she was composing what is now known to be a soundscape, back in the 1970’s. She, like Schafer, believes that a name must be given to ‘something’ which exists, or else it becomes difficult to talk about whatever that ‘something’ is - imagine trying to buy a car without having any words to describe it…there might be a lot of pointing involved. Read more about this at Hildegard’s official webpage which contains many of her writings.

One very direct way of using the sound is to rearrange them in a studio, using the same techniques used in any other modern day recording, to create a set of tracks with the key sounds found in that environment. This is a fairly straightforward approach and many composers choose to create something which flexes their artistic muscle by using the full range of the studio’s equipment.

Electroacoustic soundscape composition, as it’s known, can be considered to be rather close to the visual field of photography - images of an environment are captured, processed, and then presented to the audience. This is neither a direct representation of, nor an abstraction of the original environment.

We need to keep in mind that acoustic ecology is focussed on increasing awareness of environmental and political issues, as well as creating a representation of an artistic vision. Barry Truax (of SFU) believes that the sounds should be altered very little, as this will help to maintain the presence and nature of the original environment, rather than remove the listener’s ability to recognise it through the context and environment of the sounds.