World Soundscape Project | The Canadian Encyclopedia


World Soundscape Project

The World Soundscape Project was a research and educational endeavour founded in 1969 by Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer at Simon Fraser University (SFU).

The World Soundscape Project was a research and educational endeavour founded in 1969 by Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer at Simon Fraser University (SFU). The project established the modern field of study known as acoustic ecology or soundscape studies, which is concerned with raising public awareness of sound, documenting environmental sound and its changing character, and establishing the concept and practice of soundscape design as an alternative to noise pollution. The project's ultimate aim is to find solutions for an ecologically balanced soundscape where the relationship between the human community and its sonic environment is in harmony. Among Schafer's associates in the early stages of the project were Howard Broomfield, Bruce Davis, Peter Huse, Barry Truax, Hildegard Westerkamp and Adam Woog. The Donner Canadian Foundation, the Canada Council and UNESCO provided financial assistance.

Notable Works

The Project’s activities have included extensive field recordings made across Canada and Europe, archival and educational work, and the publication of many documents and recordings. Most important are R. Murray Schafer's The Book of Noise (1970), The Music of the Environment (1973) and The Tuning of the World (1977), as well as project documents which include A Survey of Community Noise By-laws in Canada (1972), The Vancouver Soundscape (1974), the 10-part CBC Radio series Soundscapes of Canada (broadcast in 1974 as part of the Ideas series), Five Village Soundscapes, European Sound Diary (1977) and the Handbook for Acoustic Ecology (1978).

Although the project has not continued as a group effort, courses in acoustic communication and soundscape studies are still taught at SFU. Individual composers, however, continue to develop soundscape themes, such as in the Soundwalking series of radio programs by Hildegard Westerkamp, and through soundscape compositions. In 1993, at the Tuning of the World conference in Banff, AB, an international organization called the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology (WFAE) was formed to promote soundscape awareness worldwide.

Basic Tenets

The term "soundscape" indicates how the environment is understood by those living within it. Indeed, the individual listener within a soundscape is part of a dynamic system of information exchange. Soundscape ideology recognizes that when humans enter an environment, they have an immediate effect on the sounds; the soundscape is human-made and in that sense, composed. Soundscape is the acoustic manifestation of "place," in the sense that the sounds give the inhabitants a "sense of place" and the place's acoustic quality is shaped by the inhabitants' activities and behaviour.

Thus, the sonic environment (or soundscape), which is the sum total of all sounds within any defined area, is an intimate reflection of the social, technological and natural conditions of the area. Change in these conditions means change in the sonic environment. One of the main tasks of soundscape ecology is to determine whether and how the sonic environment can maintain its acoustic balance and ideally how its quality may be improved.

The World Soundscape Project posits that listening and sound-making stand in a delicate relationship to each other. The quality of a sonic environment can be measured by examining whether this relationship is balanced. For example, if what we hear (impression or sound input) is louder than our own sounds (expression or sound output) an imbalance has been created in this relationship. Or if the atmosphere of an environment is such that we are only permitted to hear or to listen, but not to speak or express, then there is also an imbalance. A noisy environment and an authoritarian environment can both have this effect: a noisy soundscape drowns out our footsteps, our breathing and our normal speaking voice; an authoritarian environment does not have to be loud to make us lower our voices or not talk at all.

On the other hand, our listening capacity is highly improved in an acoustically clear environment, such as a hi-fi soundscape, where the signal-to-noise ratio is favourable and the most discrete sounds can be heard clearly. In such a soundscape we experience a desire to listen as well as a desire to make sounds. This can then set the stage for a positive and constructive approach towards the soundscape.

In studying a specific soundscape it becomes apparent that the "image" of the soundscape is shaped by the listener's perception of it. The analysis of this "image" is based on cognitive units such as foreground, background, contour, rhythm, space, density, volume and silence. From these units have been derived such analytical concepts as keynote, signal, soundmark, sound object and sound symbol.

Key Concepts

Keynote as a musical term refers to the key or tonality of a particular composition. In soundscape studies it refers to a ubiquitous and prevailing sound, usually in the background of the individual's perception, to which all other sounds in the soundscape are related.

Signals, a term borrowed from communication theory, are foreground sounds, usually listened to consciously, often encoding certain messages or information.

Soundmarks, analogous to landmarks, are unique sound objects, specific to a certain place.

A sound object, as defined by Pierre Schaeffer, who coined the term ("l'objet sonore"), is "an acoustical object for human perception, and not a mathematical or electro-acoustical object for synthesis." The sound object is the smallest self-contained particle of a soundscape.

Sound symbols, a more general category, are sounds that evoke personal responses based on collective and cultural levels of association.


The World Soundscape Project's first and most important strategy towards balancing and improving the quality of the sonic environment is educational. Raising awareness of the present state of the soundscape through listening and "ear-cleaning" exercises is one of the group's major strengths and has been extremely successful in opening people's ears to the facts of the contemporary soundscape. Critical soundscape listeners question and evaluate what they perceive and ideally act upon their perception. As a consequence they also become aware of their role as sound-makers and their responsibility towards the soundscape.

Research and Findings

Research studies of specific environments, mainly in Canada and Europe, have included: studies in new sounds; studies of "schizophonia" (i.e., the influence of the pervasive presence of electroacoustic sounds in the soundscape, including muzak, radio and portable personal listening devices); an archive of lost and disappearing sounds; a glossary of sounds in literature; sound association tests; soundscape analyses (e.g., events, entertainments and community soundmarks); the sonic environments of schools; the design of acoustic parks; sound typology and morphology; the semantics of sound; and the meanings of silence.


Beyond fighting sound pollution, sound ecologists eventually may help to design healthier and more pleasant sonic environments by combining the resources of such seemingly diverse areas as acoustics, architecture, linguistics, music, psychology, sociology and urban planning. Continual sensitization of the ear, creative town planning, legislative action (e.g., noise abatement regulations), the design of acoustic parks and playgrounds, and the innovative preservation of worthwhile sounds of past and present may be among the means to achieve such ends.

See also: Acoustics research in Canada; Psychology of music; Musicology.


R. Murray Schafer, The New Soundscape (Don Mills, 1969), The Book of Noise (Vancouver, 1970), A Survey of Community Noise By-Laws in Canada (1972) (Vancouver, 1972) and The Tuning of the World (Toronto, 1977); trans. Le Paysage Sonore (Paris, 1979).

The Music of the Environment series, ed. R. Murray Schafer (1973–78):

The Music of the Environment, vol. 1 (Vienna, 1973);

The Vancouver Soundscape, vol. 2 (Vancouver, 1974) [with 2 cassettes];

European Sound Diary, vol. 3 (Vancouver, 1977);

Five Village Soundscapes, vol. 4 (Vancouver, 1977) [with 5 cassettes];

A Dictionary of Acoustic Ecology, vol. 5 (Vancouver, 1978).

Barry Truax, “Soundscape Studies, An Introduction to the World Soundscape Project,” Numus West vol. 5 (Spring 1974).

Sound Heritage vol. 3, no. 4 (1974). [entire issue]

Bruce Davis, “FM Radio as Observational Access to Wilderness Environments,” Alternatives vol. 4 (Spring 1975).

UNESCO Courier vol. 29 (November, 1976). [entire issue]

R. Murray Schafer. The Tuning of the World (Toronto, 1977); trans. Le Paysage Sonore (Paris, 1979).

Five Village Soundscapes, reprinted in Acoustic Environments in Change, eds. Helmi Järviluoma, et al. (University of Tampere, 2009). [with 2 CDs]


R. Murray Schafer and Bruce Davis, Okeanos (1971). [90-minute quadraphonic tape composition]

Soundscapes of Canada (1974). Rental for broadcasts, World Soundscape Project. [10 hour-long radio broadcasts for CBC's Ideas series]

N. Ruebsaat and H. Westerkamp, Inside the Soundscape (1986). Unnumbered. [A 5-cassette series of compositions and sound documents about the acoustic environment]

The Vancouver Soundscape 1973/Soundscape Vancouver 1996 (Cambridge Street Publishing: 1997). [double CD]

A version of this entry originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada.

Further Reading