Some sounds are so short that we cannot hear them as individual sounds. Equally, some sounds are so long that they began before we arrived, and will continue after we leave.

How Long Is a Sound?

Sounds can be really long, very short or anything in between.

Sometimes, sounds are so long that they seem to be continuous; they start before we arrive and end after we leave.

And sometimes, sounds are so short that they begin to blur into one another, so that we can’t hear them as individual sounds any more.

Shrinking Beeps

The beeps get shorter and shorter, until they become so short that we can’t tell them apart and they merge into a continuous sound.

Length is one of the main parameters of traditional music and is really useful for allowing us to describe and work with sounds.

Composition Tip

When creating a work, it is often a good idea to use a mixture of long and short sounds.

This will add to the diversity in your piece and give you a rich texture.

Note Length and Traditional Musical Notation

Time and duration is notated horizontally in traditional musical scores, with different icons and shapes to indicate different note durations. This allows us to see individual note durations and groups of notes representing rhythmical patterns.

However, some sounds possess their own internal rhythmic patterns and cannot easily be described by using traditional notation.

When working with sounds, we can’t rely on a visual diagram of rhythms. We must rely on our ears and an ability to listen out for sounds as they begin, stop and interact with other sounds.

Difficult to Describe

It would be difficult to notate the different durations of every sound within this short clip.

Constant or Changing Duration?

Some sounds will be contained and constant, yet many sounds may change over time. Sometimes it can be difficult to tell if a sound is constant or changing.

Glass Ding – Speed Up

This looped sound gets faster and faster and the sounds within it get shorter and shorter.

Changing Durations

The sound durations in this clip are constantly changing.

Constant Duration

This looped sound is constant, the sound durations do not change.

Constant or Changing?

This file changes in texture, but the looping rhythm remains the same. If changes happen very slowly, it can be difficult to spot them.

Connections Between Individual Sounds

Even though sounds can be described individually, they often work together in groups or patterns (sometimes called gestures, textures or rhythms).

Smooth or Detached?

When these groupings happen, the sounds can relate to one another in either a smooth or detached way.


If the sounds flow into one another comfortably, we can describe them as smooth.


If the sounds are jittery or awkward and don’t flow well, we can describe them as detatched.

Duration of Textures/Gestures

Sometimes, it is more sensible for us to think about the duration of the texture/gesture, than it is to think about the individual sound events on their own.

It is more useful for us to think about the duration of this smooth granular cloud, than to think about the many individual small sounds that make it up. This is because the individual sounds all work together to create a larger texture.


Granular clouds are collections of very small sounds (in exactly the same way that clouds in the sky are collections of water droplets). They are highly textural, but can also have their own gestural direction.

See also: Granular Synthesis


Listen to some sounds and try to group them into duration categories (short, medium, long, etc.).

  • Are there any patterns?
  • Do these patterns change or are they steady?
  • Can you always hear the end of one sound and the beginning of the next?
  • How can you tell the length of the sounds, if you don’t know where they begin?
  • Do the durations change?

It is much easier if you can record the sounds and are able to listen to them again and again.


Perhaps a notation similar to traditional five-line notation is useful for some sounds, imaginative forms of graphic notation may better represent others.

See: Visual Representation and Graphic Score

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