Discover the exciting world of electroacoustic music and learn to make music with sounds.

Modes of Listening

Learn to listen in different ways. Either to the properties of the sound itself (musical listening), or to the source of the sound (contextual listening).

Listening in Different Ways

The way in which we listen to sounds can change. Often when we listen, we try to hear the source that is creating the sound.

But, we can also listen to the sounds on their own, free of their source. When we listen to sounds on their own, we hear them musically.

Hover over the image to hear the audio


Musical Listening Contextual Listening
Listening to sounds themselves, for their musical properties of texture, pitch, rhythm and dynamics. Listening out for the source of the sound, and what it might mean in a specific situation.


Listening Challenge

Play the following sounds, and try to listen to them contextually and musically.

Sound One

What are the properties of the sound? / What does it sound like?

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Sound Two

What are the properties of the sound? / What does it sound like?

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Sound Three

What are the properties of the sound? / What does it sound like?

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Sound Four

What are the properties of the sound? / What does it sound like?

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Discuss what you hear with a partner. What do you hear when you try to listen musically? What do you hear when you listen contextually?

Contextual or Musical?

Sometimes we want listeners to make a connection between the sound and its source. Other times, we want the sound to be listened to on its own.

When Schaeffer, Pierrea radio engineer and composer who founded the group that became the GRM (Musical Research Group). He studied sounds and developed the idea of Musique Concrète.More infoPierre Schaeffer recognised that people listen in different ways, he identified that the most important difference was whether sounds were recognisably linked to things from the world or not. He described these as either concrete or abstract (contextual or musical) ways of listening.

The extent to which a sound is recognisable can be either a useful tool, or an annoying hinderance to music made of sounds. Some sounds, even if they are generated, will be recognisable to listeners as sounds linked to something in the world.

The Magical Power of Transformations

Through his experiments with sound, Pierre Schaeffer also recognised that you can change the way in which people think about sounds by looping them.

Looped Sound

The sound begins and we hear the source, but soon the rhythms and qualities of the sound emerge and take over.

In this way, the sounds have moved from being concrete to abstract. From having a contextual link (a place and real world link), to being heard musically (as rhythms).

Composition Task

Experiment with looping and duplicating sounds in the Compose with Sounds software.

LoopTo loop a sound is to continuously repeat it. More infoLoop

Can you hear the way in which you listen to these sounds change?


Other transformations are also able to change the way in which we listen to sounds:

  • FilterA filter changes the frequency makeup of a sound by making parts of it weaker. Filters allow you to focus on parts of a sound that are of interest to you, or to take away parts that you don't like.More infoFilters
  • TranspositionA manipulation which changes the pitch of a sound. More infoTransposition
  • Time-StretchingA manipulation in which the Duration of a sound is altered. Time stretching can be used to make sounds longer or shorter.More infoTime-stretching
  • Reverseto play a sound backwards.More infoReverse
  • SpliceTo cut up a sound file.More infoSplice