Tag Archive: theory

“The microphone is an instrument which acts toward the ear as the microscope does to the eye. It will render evident to us sounds that are otherwise ablolutely inaudible. I have heard myself the tramp of a little fly across a box with a tread almost as loud as that of a horse across a wooden bridge.” W.H. Preece

One of the basic effects of “acousmatic listening” is probably underestimated: hearing our environment at higher volume through the headphones of mobile recording devices, is one of the most revealing experiences. When playing back field recordings of places that we are familiar with, we hear the environment in a different way, deeper, with more detail, with an integral perspective. The type and position of the microphone or the time window we choose of a certain sound recording etc. are already artistic or subjective decisions made during the process of recording, but for the perception of the acousmatic recording the difference in volume compared to the „real“ experience is the most powerful. And this is even more true with recordings of single sound events, that we do in studios with the possibility of close up micing and the exclusion of atmospheric „disturbances“ from background noises. The quietest sounds of any sound bodies can produce a totally different aural image when the level is pushed up to the maximum. It appears to be common sense but we should consider this as one of the strongest instruments of sound manipulation (under the precondition that we do not want to use sound processing like time and pitch change and all the other effects common in digital sound processing today). One example to elucidate this: when I do sound recordings in public places and people approach me that are unfamiliar with what I’m doing, I let them listen through my headphones to the acoustic environment. Because the recording equipment already amplifies the soundscape at a certain level people are mostly very surprised by what they hear. They are able to listen to a well known place in a different way, they hear things they usually do not pay attention to. The headphones and the microphones are like acoustic magnifying glasses, from near by we can hear things that were hidden in the first place.  

Pierre Schaeffer (1910 – 1995) is considered to be the founder of musique concrète. Trained as a radio engineer instead of a composer, he saw in the invention of radio, tape recorders and phonographs the potential for a new experience of sound, seperated from it’s source allowing sounds to have their own existence. He coined the term „sound object“ (objet sonore), that paved the way for a new kind of perception, the „acousmatic listening“. Unfortunately Schaeffer’s theories are not translated in english (at least I didn’t found something, if anybody know…), there are only excerpts in the book audio culture and some scattered writings on the net. I’ll try to round up his ideas from what I found, to make myself a bit more accustomed to his thinking and why other theorists try to find ways beyond those concepts, as in the book Sonic Experience or in Andy Hamilton’s Aesthetics & Music.

For Schaeffer, the „sound object“ is an intentional representation of a sound. With the rise of new audio technologies the „sound object“ recorded on magnetic tape or phonograph (or every other medium that followed after on) is not indicating to a sound source such like: this is the sound of a violin or of a guitar, rather the „acousmatic experience“ refers to sounds that one hears without seeing the causes behind it. Acousmatics were the disciples of Phytagoras who demanded them to listen to his teachings while he was hidden behind a curtain, without seeing him, only hearing the voice of their master. The acousmatic experience reduces sounds to the field of hearing alone. The attention shifts away from the physical object that causes the auditory perception back towards the content of the perception. Schaeffers insights were inspired by the progress of recording technology, he claims that the playback of a sound recording through loudspeaker immediately performs the acousmatic reduction: the recorded sound is without its original cause. By removing sounds from the flux of causality the sound object is irreducible to a physical core, and therefore can be studied in a specialtity untill then unimagined. The new mode of listening enables the listener to construct a taxonomy of sounds, capable of organising and classifying the entire sound universe. Hearing itself becomes the origin of the phenomenon to study. Schaeffer was very much influenced by the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl, who layed out a philosophy that Schaeffer could apply on his concept of „sound objects“.

In the words of Jonty Harrison, “acousmatic music on the whole continues the traditions of musique concrete and has inherited many of its concerns. It admits any sound as potential compositional material, frequently refers to acoustic phenomena and situations from everyday life and, most fundamentally of all, relies on perceptual realities rather than conceptual speculation to unlock the potential for musical discourse and musical structure from the inherent properties of the sound objects themselves – and the arbiter of this process is the ear.“ The term “acousmatic” used to imply that the sounds are selected for their sonic qualities only, without reference to whatever produced them. Today the concept appears a bit strict and hermetic: relying on perceptual realities rather than conceptual speculations seems to reject a wider context or political issues. Ambrose Field expressed his reserve concerning Schaeffers concept of “sound objects”: “by compartmentalising real-world sounds into objects and suggesting that listeners might focus their attention solely on the timbral activity within a sound, Schaeffer had effectively invented the electroacoustic equivalent of the note.” The “sound object” then would be without any specific meaning, as the musical note is without. The acousmatic experience of sounds excludes it literal qualities. Andy Hamilitons objections towards the acousmatic thesis comprise its neglection of the importance of timbre, space and virtuosity. He instead proposes a twofold thesis embracing a literal as well as a metaphorical dimension to musical experience, thus bringing back the sensuous pleasure in sounds that was excluded by the acousmatic perception. In the case of singing, he suggests, the experience can become threefold: “one can listen non-acousmatically to the voice, attend to its musicality acousmatically, or focus on the meaning of the words”. Nevertheless Pierre Schaeffers role in modern music history is eminent: sound art is mostly negotiating his concept of acousmatic listening, deliberate or not (in performances of Francisco Lopez this is most evident…), and as a composer he prefigures today’s music producer, an amateur explorer working directly with the sound material.

Further reading in PDF-format here and here.

Last not least: there is a nice video excerpt of his piece Treatise on Musical Objects:


In a word: this book is very rewarding reading: loaded with indepth theory and surprising new concepts about the classification of sound phenomena, it took 10 years to translate this work into english. Nothing for someone new to philosophical considerations about music, sound and  noise, nevertheless the best summary in this area I know so far. I will give a little introduction to the thinking, but will come back to the book in later posts because there are so many ideas to start from that I can just scrape the surface of this research.

This multidisciplinary work focusses on the soundscape of urban live and attempts to analyse precisely the acoustic properties of all possible sonic effects in this surrounding. The first important thesis is that „no sound event, musical of otherwise, can be isolated from the spatial and temporal conditions of its physical signal propagation. Sound is always shaped subjectively, depending on the auditory capacity, the attitude, and the psychology and culture of the listener. There is no universal approach to listening: every individual, every group, every culture listens in its own way.“ In order to examine the sonic instrumentarium of urban environments, older theories do not realy meet the expectations of the authors. Namely the theory of the sound or sounding object (l’objet sonore) by Pierre Schaeffer and the concept of soundscape coined by Murray Schafer (funnily the pronunciation of both names is similar, thus it is a reprise in the definition of the book?) lack the applicability to explain and design all perceptible sound forms of the environment, be it noise or music. „The concept of the soundscape seems too broad and blurred, while the sound object seems too elementary (in terms of level of organization). (…) To use a linguistic analogy, the soundscape corresponds to the whole structure of a text, while the sound object corresponds to the first level of composition: words and syntagmas. We are short of descriptive tools to work at an intermediary level, that of sentence grammar or- to leave the linguistic comparison – the level of a code defining possible configurations between the three terms to consider in our observation: acoustical sources, inhabited space, and the linked pair of sound perception and sound action.“

The authors introduce the term „sonic effect“ that was first used in social science to integrate the fields of applied acoustics, architecture (urban planning) and psychoacoustics. In this thinking the environment is split into three terms: „environment“, „milieu“ and „soundscape“ that represent „the given, the interactive and the aesthetic and can be applied to any constructed space. The concept investigates the sonic effect in a specific context, whether it be the interaction between the physical sound environment, the sound milieu of a social-cultural community or the „internal soundscape“ of every individual.

This is quite a paradigm shift in terms of definition and interdisciplinarity, suddenly we can speak about the astonishment a sound effect can have on us, or the spatial propagation of sound in urban spaces and have a glossary of such effects at hands in the form of this book. Halfway between the universal and the singular, simultaneously model and guide, the authors deliver a taxonomy of sonic effects, a repertoire of acoustic phenomena that is distinguished between 16 major effects and 66 minor effects. The book can be read in different layers, depending on the interest and focus of the reader, the major effects are described from the perspectives of physics and applied acoustics, architecture, physiology of perception, sociology, musical and textual aesthetics and expressions. Not for the non-initiated and apart from some typographical errors the reading is inspiring for everybody working in the general area of sound. The authors aim to rehabilitate the auditory sensitivity is certainly sharpened through this work and the question is why it took so long to make this groundbreaking text known to the english speaking world.