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

Soundscapes and the Sonic Environment

Discovering the soundscapes all around us.

Wherever we are, we are surrounded by sound. Soundscapes (just like landscapes) can be urban/rural, industrial/agricultural, busy/quiet, and so on.

Even though we are constantly surrounded by sounds, it is not very often that we stop and listen to them.


By recording the sounds at a particular location, we capture its unique sonic environment. We can then listen back to the soundscape, free from any visual distractions or dangers.

What can you hear in the following soundscapes? Are there any similarities? What is different?

Hover your mouse over the images to play the local soundscapes


Soundscapes can change over the course of a day, and the soundscape that we hear will change as we ourselves move about.

Hover your mouse over the images to play the local soundscapes

Rural Scene

Challenge One

Let’s close our eyes and listen to the sounds that are around us for a few minutes (you may need to remove your headphones!).

The basic properties of sound might prove to be useful starting points for describing what you can hear. Identify a sound, and then try to describe it in terms of:

  • Pitch – the quality of a sound or tone, ranging from high to low.
  • Loudness – the relative volume of a sound, ranging from quiet to loud.
  • Duration – the length of a sound from short to long.
  • Rhythm – a pattern of strong and weak sounds.

Click here for POSSIBLE ANSWERS:

One of the sounds that you probably heard is the whir of the computer. If you are in a classroom, you might have heard the rustle of your colleague’s clothes, the squeaks and creaks of chairs and maybe the sounds of voices or breathing.

What Do These Sound Like?

    • The whir of the computer is usually a medium pitched sound, fairly quiet (but getting louder and higher in pitch if the computer is very busy), very long (it will be heard for the whole time that the computer is switched on) and often very constant, with no recognisable patterns.
    • The rustling of clothes is likely slightly higher in pitch than the computer whir, and probably around the same volume. They will be short sounds and will probably have no clear pattern in the classroom (though, if a friend is wearing a shiny tracksuit and running out on the playing field, you might hear patterns in the rustling).
    • Squeaks and creaks of chairs will vary in pitch, being either low (bending) or high (squeaky); they will be fairly loud, quite short and possibly have some looping rhythmic pattern.
    • Voices will vary in pitch (everyone has a voice that sounds different – can you recognise people just by their voice?); they will probably be quite loud, short and medium length and have rhythmical patterns, although probably not the kind that loop and repeat.

Did you hear these things? What else did you hear?

Sounds All Around Us

Everything that moves or works makes a sound. This makes the world full of sounds.

The sounds that we hear in a certain location will relate directly to the ‘things’ in that place. Even with our eyes closed, we can recognise a certain location based only on its sounds.

Certain sounds will very clearly identify a particular location, these recognisable sounds are called Keynote SoundsThey form a background for other sounds and define a certain location, place or time. More infokeynote sounds. When we hear a keynote sound we recognise a specific time, place or location.

Listen to this example of a keynote sound:

Where do you think it was recorded? Did it make you think of a specific place?

Click here for more information about this keynote sound:

Seagull sounds are very loud and recognisable.
When we hear these sounds, it makes us think of being at the seaside or near to a large river. Seagull sounds are ‘keynote sounds’ in the seaside/river soundscape.

Because every location is different, the sounds in it will also be different. This means that there is an unlimited variety of soundscapes and sonic environments, just waiting to be discovered.


Test your listening skills by taking the Soundwalks Listening Quiz.

With the Compose with Sounds software, we can invent our own, completely new sonic environments from pre-recorded sounds.

Stop, Look and LISTEN – Sounds as Signals

We often rely on our ability to listen to aspects of the soundscape, however, we do not really recognise them when we are doing it. Sounds can send us information.

Screen shot 2014-05-31 at 15.52.51

For example:

  • Road crossings make a beeping sound to tell us when it is safe to cross.
  • Buses have a bell sound that rings when someone requests a stop.
  • The clock in the town centre will ring to signal the hour (and possibly parts of the hour).

When we hear these sounds, they send us a message. We can sometimes use these sounds to try and send messages to other people.


Every young person learns the famous saying:

“Stop, look and LISTEN before you cross the road.”

Not paying attention to sounds can be dangerous. For example, someone riding a bicycle and listening to loud music, won’t be able to hear the sounds of their environment (nearby cars, pedestrians). They will miss out on information about these potential dangers, perhaps until it is too late.


Sounds are all around us. They can tell us a lot about our environment: where we are, what is going on, etc.

All soundscapes sound different, they will change over the course of a day and as the weather changes. The sounds we hear come from the activities and actions taking place in that space. Keynote SoundsThey form a background for other sounds and define a certain location, place or time. More infoKeynote sounds are very recognisable and linked to a specific activity or location.

By recording a soundscape, or by listening with our eyes closed, we can focus on the sounds of the sonic environment itself.

Try to listen to the sounds around you; there are hundreds of exciting soundscapes for you to explore.

Abstract Sounds

Sounds which we are unable to link with a specific source (Sound Source). When we hear Abstract Sounds we usually think about them as sounds in their own right; we do not hear the source that caused them (see also Musical Listening).

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Acoustic Ecology

The study of the relationship between individuals (and communities) and the sounds of the environment that surrounds them.

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Contextual listening

Listening for the purpose of identifying and gaining information about a sound’s source. It is the opposite of Musical Listening. (also known as causal listening).

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Environmental sound

Sounds that come from the environment, this term might most often be used to refer to natural sounds (wind rustling through the trees, birds tweeting, waves crashing on a beach, etc.) but could also refer to sounds from an urban, man-made environment (machinery, cars, engines, etc.) .

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Field Recording

Recording that takes place outside of controlled studio environments.

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Sound source

This is the perceived cause of a sound.

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Sound Walk

A walk where the participant (or participants) concentrates on listening.

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