Wherever you are right now (considering it’s safe and you’re not in a hurry), take a moment to stop. Sit down, close your eyes and listen. Everything you can hear right now, is your Soundscape. Soundscape is quite an ambiguous term and rightly so. Upon hearing it most will think about the sound design within a film or game: ambience, environment, room tone and one-shots all coming together to ‘decorate’ a scene with the impression of life.
Others, however, have seen potential in the soundscape of different environments, even building a career on them. There are several albums dedicated to the expression of a certain environment through its sound design. What a forest, beach or city sounds like can be captured and implemented as art itself, evoking particular thoughts, emotions and memories.
Soundscapes can also be captured as a whole or slices to then be used in compositions for the same reasons above, or as an essential structural, musical or creative component. Especially in certain ‘dance’ music, the sound of a crashing wave can replace a crash symbol, or the chopping of wood as a snare drum.
An especially influential piece of Soundscape art is John Cage’s “4’33”. Upon first listen you assume this piece to be 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence split over three movements. However, the piece is actually a concept, that concept being that any sound produced within this 4 minutes 33 seconds (cough, sighs, drones, trees, cars) is the piece itself. Your soundscape has become the music. If every piece of music is made up of sounds and every noise is sound, then every sound must be music, and every soundscape must be music. Cage’s philosophy was “Everything we do is music”: This worldview opens up so many more creative opportunities and ideas when composing or creating soundscapes/ sound design.
A lot of people won’t realise, that every individual has their own personal, completely unique and ever-evolving soundscape that only they can hear. It’s always playing, always audible and never noticeable, it is essentially whatever you can hear at that moment. Now that may not seem very impressive. “I can hear a few cars, a couple of birds…some people talking”, and on the surface you may be right. These sounds are part of our everyday lives, you don’t even notice them whilst you’re running for the train, they don’t do anything.
Try and think of it like this. Your Soundscape is a story, it is the story of you in that moment.
All your actions, thoughts and emotions are somewhat influenced by what you can hear. It’s a channel of information that shapes you in that very moment. You can hear cars off to your right and you know not to walk straight into traffic. You hear birds to your left, and you’re reminded of a scenic walk through the woods you once took, which fills you with joy. You hear people talking, you gain a sense of the common mood of people for the day, are they happy, sad, aggravated? If they are aggravated does that then affect your mood for the day? Make you unapproachable for a few hours? Every sound is shaping the world around you and the processes within you, knowingly or not.
A world without sound would be a very dizzy one, as heads would be constantly turning to access all the information they need at that one point. Sound may seem irrelevant due to the fact that it is so accessible and processed so quickly by the brain, you don’t have to take any active action, it’s all done for you. Soundscapes do it for you.
Why exactly is this applicable to your work?
Taking the time to actually sit patiently and listen to the details can make your sound design work so much more impacting. By noticing the sounds that are to the average ear unnoticeable, you will be able to elevate your sound design work to new levels of realism, so believable that it will be part of the audiences natural Soundscape, part of their life and part of their story. In fact, it will take over their soundscape, and place them exactly where you want them to be. Being as natural as possible is the key to providing realism and, inevitably, immersion to your audience (Sure, it may be so natural your audience won’t actually notice your amazing work, but that’s part of the cruel world of being a Sound Designer. Do a really good job, and people won’t know you have done anything at all).
A Soundscape can be described but within that description it has already evolved into something else, completely fluid, adaptable and hungry. This is what makes it so unique, powerful, informative, beautiful, horrible and un-resolving.
Take the time to appreciate your soundscape, whatever it is right now is part of the story of you.
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