World Soundscape Project | The Canadian Encyclopedia


World Soundscape Project

World Soundscape Project. Founded by R. Murray Schafer in the late 1960s with headquarters at Simon Fraser University. This research group has secured Canada a place in the forefront of the study of soundscape ecology.

World Soundscape Project

World Soundscape Project. Founded by R. Murray Schafer in the late 1960s with headquarters at Simon Fraser University. This research group has secured Canada a place in the forefront of the study of soundscape ecology. It was highly productive until the late 1970s, then had to slow down its activities, but emerged in the late 1980s with renewed energy in its interdisciplinary quest to understand the principles of acoustic ecology. 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 have provided financial assistance.

After the original research group was dissolved, distribution of the World Soundscape Project's publications, as well as maintenance and expansion of its archives, were continued by Truax and Westerkamp who have also disseminated and developed the project's legacy through publications and recordings of their own work and by courses in acoustic communication at the Communications Dept at Simon Fraser University. Gradually the World Soundscape Project's work has taken root internationally among a variety of groups and individuals of many different professions, partly as a result of Schafer's continued lecture and workshop tours to many parts of the world. Interest in the project's work has increased in tandem with a growing concern for the world's ecological balance in general, and for the acoustic environment specifically. By 1991 the international, interdisciplinary community of professionals which had evolved over the previous 20 years had done much work in connecting soundscape studies with science, aesthetics, philosophy, architecture, sociology and other disciplines. The publication of The Soundscape Newsletter (1991-) underlines the effort of the project to give this network coherence.

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.

The basic tenet of the World Soundscape Project lies in its name. 'Soundscape' like landscape is not an ontologically existent reality outside of human perception. Instead, 'the term 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' (Truax, Acoustic Communication). Thus 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,' where the sounds give the inhabitants a 'sense of place' and the place's acoustic quality is shaped by the inhabitants' activities and behaviour. The meanings of a place and its sounds are created precisely because of this interaction between soundscape and people.

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's first and perhaps 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 soundmakers and their responsibility towards the soundscape.

The World Soundscape Project posits that listening and soundmaking stand in a delicate relationship to each other. The quality of a sonic environment can be measured by examining whether this relationship is balanced. If, for example, 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 also is 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 for us to lower our voices or not to 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. Under those conditions we can find a balance between listening and soundmaking and this balance gives us inner vitality. This then can 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 the '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.

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, 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 which evoke personal responses based on collective and cultural levels of association.

While the scope of the World Soundscape Project is global, particular emphasis has been placed on Canadian and European soundscapes. Studies of specific environments have documented salient features, identified differences, and noted trends. Present and future research topics include studies in new sounds; studies of schizophonia, ie the influence of the pervasive presence of electroacoustic sounds in the soundscape, including Muzak, radio, and the walkman; an archive of lost and disappearing sounds; a glossary of sounds in literature; sound association tests; soundscape analyses (eg, events, entertainments, and community soundmarks); the structural analysis of radio programming, car horn sounds and counts, and the sonic environments of schools; the design of acoustic parks; sound typology and morphology; the semantics of sound; the meanings of silence, and other related topics.

As might have been predicted, it was found that too often the modern soundscape is 'lo-fi' - the signal-to-noise ratio is unfavourable, ie, discrete sounds cannot be heard clearly because of a high ambient noise level. The delicate balance between listening and soundmaking, ear and voice, is disrupted by too much exposure to urban noise and creates loss of energy. Both voice and ear are neglected physical entities in the city and stress is a common experience for the urban person. Often, however, people consider noise an inevitable by-product of technological progress. This lack of awareness is dangerous not only from the ecological point of view - the data on the harmful effects of sound pollution are overwhelming - but also from the aesthetic.

Beyond fighting sound pollution, sound ecologists eventually may help to design healthier and more pleasant sonic environments by tapping 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 (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. This turning of the negative spectre of a polluted sound world into the possibility of creation and perceptual development has been a central preoccupation of the World Soundscape Project.

See also Acoustics research in Canada; Psychology of music.


Schafer, R. Murray. The New Soundscape (Don Mills 1969)

- The Book of Noise (Vancouver 1970)

- A Survey of Community Noise By-Laws in Canada (1972) (Vancouver 1972)

The Music of the Environment Series, ed R. Murray Schafer (1973-8):

1 The Music of the Environment (Vienna 1973)

2 The Vancouver Soundscape, with 2 cassettes (Vancouver 1974)

3 European Sound Diary (Vancouver 1977)

4 Five Village Soundscapes, with 5 cassettes (Vancouver 1977)

5 A Dictionary of Acoustic Ecology (Vancouver 1978)

Truax, Barry. 'Soundscape studies, an introduction to the World Soundscape Project,' Numus West, 5, Spring 1974

Sound Heritage, entire issue, vol 3, no. 4, 1974

Davis, Bruce. 'FM radio as observational access to wilderness environments,' Alternatives, vol 4, Spring 1975

UNESCO Courier, entire issue, vol 29, Nov 1976

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

The Soundscape Newsletter (1991-)

Further Reading