Soundscapes and the Sonic Environment

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?

Look the images whilst listening to 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.

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.

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?

o    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.

o    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).

o    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.

o    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 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?

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.


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.

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 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 SoundsAcoustic EcologyContextual ListeningEnvironmental soundField RecordingSound sourceSound Walk