The Definition of Soundscape and the World Soundscape Project

_ Uygur Vural

Raymond Murray Schafer coined the phrase “soundscape” which simply stands for “sonic environment.” According to Schafer, “the term may refer to actual environments, or to abstract constructions such as musical compositions and tape montages, particularly when considered as an environment.”

During the 1960s, Schafer began his research about environmental sounds. He aimed to draw attention to our world’s soundscape and the ability to hear and perceive acoustic events. Hence, together with his associates, Schafer founded the World Soundscape Project (WSP) as a research and educational group at Simon Fraser University in the late 1960s.

 Through an ecological approach, he organized lectures about the various aspects of the soundscape and workshop tours to experience and listen carefully to the environmental sounds of many places. Originated from Schafer’s concern about noise pollution and the contaminated nature, the project’s work resulted in educational booklets such as The New Soundscape and The Book of Noise, plus a compendium of Canadian noise bylaws. Their innovative work, notably the “Vancouver Soundscape” and the “Five Village Soundscapes,” which was developed during a tour through several cities and villages in Europe, has influenced a variety of groups and individuals of many different professions worldwide.

After the original research group dissolved in the 1980s, they have continued their research and offered educational programs at Simon Fraser University School of Communication. They also established a “Sonic Research Studio” belonging to the university, which is still in use today.

A Brief Aural History: The History of Soundscape
Schafer’s writings are considered to be a starting point for aural history and soundscape studies. Therefore, the aural history will be summarized in accordance with Schafer’s point of view.

Sound is produced by dynamic events either through man-made actions or natural events; a static world does not create sounds. The first dominant element of the world’s soundscape that man could hear was the “voice” of the seas. The everlasting movement of water and wind-generated waves create powerful natural sounds. In addition, the constant roar of waterfalls and crackling rain were part of the ancient aural environment.

Another natural element is the wind, which is powerful and contains a number of vocal variations like the water’s sound. The wind can be described as the performer of the soundscape in a forest that composes a symphony with the tree’s wood and leaves combined with wind waves.

Shortly, all natural dynamics and tectonic activity like an earthquake or a volcanic eruption, as forceful examples, created the soundscape of the earth before human life. Thereafter animal sounds extended the variety of the sonic environment: for instance, the birds’ twitter embellished the world’s composition in contrast to the distracting buzzing of insects, flies and bees, whose wing motions use a high amount of the pitch range in the soundscape. The wing cycle of butterflies is between 5 to 10 Hz. that produces only low sound and thus impossible to perceive for a human being by hearing as the human ear is able to hear within the range of 20 Hz. to 20,000 Hz. Yet, the frequency of mosquitoes, which have been measured up to 500-600 cycles per second (500-600 Hz.), constitute a dominant place in our sound environment together with other powerful animal sounds such as lion growls, wolf howls or dog barks and pig snorts.

With the development of human life, the soundscape of the world changed tremendously. In his work on soundscapes, Schafer compares rural environments with urban sonic environments. He categorizes the former as high-fidelity (hi-fi) that describes the sound quality of rural landscapes, and in that they had a “favorable signal to noise ratio”. Schafer further explains:

The most general use of the term is in electroacustic. Applied to soundscape studies a hi-fi environment is one in which sound may be heard clearly without crowding or masking.


The hi-fi soundscape is one in which discrete sounds can be heard clearly because of the low ambient noise level (country), in ancient times more than modern.

The “lo-fi” soundscapes are typical urban settings characterized as “noisy” with a jumble of several overlapping sounds. Drawing a comparison between hi-fi and lo-fi soundscapes, Schafer clarifies that countrysides, ancient times, night times have more hi-fi than cities, modern times, day times.

In the Futurist manifesto “The Art of Noises” from 1913, Luigi Russolo explores the origins of man-made sounds and notes:

Ancient life was all silence. In the 19th Century, with the invention of machines, Noise was born. Today, Noise is triumphant and reigns sovereign over the sensibility of men. […] After all, if we overlook the exceptional movements of the earth’s crust, hurricanes, storms, avalanches, and waterfalls, nature is silent. In this scarcity of noises, the first sounds that men were able to draw from a pierced reed or a taut string were stupefying, something new and wonderful.

In the same way as Schafer, Russolo states that “noise” is a man-made production and came into existence as a result of the industrialization.

With the invention of machine-based manufacturing and the advancements in agriculture techniques, the Industrial Revolution had a profound effect on the cultural and socioeconomic conditions. As much as it influenced nearly every aspect of daily life – especially the living standards and the population growth – it also changed the soundscape of the world. A multitude of new mechanized and technological sounds became dominant in the aural environment.

Unfortunately, since the industrial revolution, an ever-increasing number of unique soundscapes have completely disappeared or submerged into the cloud of homogenized, anonymous noise that is the contemporary city soundscape, with its ubiquitous keynote – traffic. These technological developments affected our soundscape. Factories, cars, engines, speakers vs. changed quality of our aural environment. All those sounds are called Low Fidelity ( Lo-Fi ).


Fig. 1 Geographic level recording of typical flat-line and impact sounds.


The Lo-Fi Soundscape

In general, the term of Lo-fi means poor signal. Description of Schafer is:

LO-FI: Abbreviation for low fidelity, that is an unfavorable signal-to-noise ratio. Applied to soundscape studies a lo-fi environment is one in which signals are overcrowded, resulting in masking or lack of clarity.

This is generally used in electro acoustics such as when applied to an amplifier or recording. This term is used in soundscape studies as well; it is referred to when signals are overcrowded, resulting in masking and has less clarity.

Lo-fi is an invention of modern times, opposite of hi-fi, which was mentioned above. Low fidelity sounds are generally, strong and noisy. Thus, it easily covers the natural sounds and makes it difficult to hear most of the clear sounds in the environment. In short, it means polluted soundscape. In extreme cases, it may cause temporary to even permanent hearing loss.

Listening to a forest is a good example to understand the differences between lo-fi and hi-fi soundscapes. This type of soundscapes, which is far from man-made sounds, are closer to first man’s soundscape. However, living in such an area like a forest, which has a pure hi-fi soundscape, is not possible when present-day life conditions are considered.

All man-made sounds can be common elements of the lo-fi soundscape. Another important aspect of lo-fi is that one cannot hear it after a while if it is repeating a lot. Bill Fortuna explains this as, “Sound that repeat, that are continuous and that have long duration defy he natural acoustic mortality of becoming silent.”


Noise and Noise Pollution

As mentioned earlier, “low fidelity environment is a polluted soundscape.”
 Therefore, the question is: what is pollution? It is “Noise.” For Aldus Huxley, “The 20th century is, among other things, the Age of Noise. Physical noise, mental noise, and noise of desire...” Noise is one of the biggest inventions of the turn of the 20th century. It is everywhere. It takes place in our music, in our room, outdoors, indoors, deep in the sea, at the top of the mountain, everywhere! There are many different meanings of “noise.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, for instance, contains references to noise as “unwanted sound” dating back as far as 1225. Yet the most common and general meaning is “unwanted sound.”

There is no difference between noise and music in my work. I have no idea what you term ‘music’ and ‘noise’. It’s different depending on each person. If noise means uncomfortable sound, then pop music is noise to me.

The above quotation by Masami, however, displays that noise is nevertheless a subjective terminology. The perception of noise by people could be different. However, in the sound environment, things can change. We are constantly surrounded by environmental noise all the time, not just when we want. This is different from Masami’s music selection. You do not have the chance to choose the layers of your soundscape. If you are in a loud noisy building, you simply cannot switch of the layers that you do not like, this is the characteristic of the environment noise.

What makes this problem? Human! So, how did we create this? As Schafer argues, “Noise pollution results when man does not listen carefully. Noises are the sounds we have learned to ignore.”

One can ask: what are the sounds I am consciously not aware of? According to Schafer, I have recorded sounds of noise pollution as we have learned to ignore, which are part of our everyday life and do not possess deeper meaning and significance.

The concept of noise was a by-product of the Industrial Revolution.

The normal sound of the rural life – the bleating of domesticated animals, the chirping of birds and insects, the ping of hand-held tools shaping wood and stone – Whatever pleasant or not, were all recognizable. Here, however, the cacophony of sound in the nineteenth-century steer, factory shop, and mine – seemingly random and meaningless – could not be easily isolated or indentified. They become novel and potentially dangerous and the overworked human mind.

The “modern” ambient noise might be briefly characterized as heavy and continuous, with slow fluctuations that are difficult to identify and to locate, as this kind of noise tends to encompass us.

For instance, we can analyze a modern big building’s air-conditioning system. They keep blowing air continuously. This kind of systems has big air tubes passing through from all parts of the buildings, like the vessels in the body. In the building, you are completely surrounded by this noise machines. They are becoming one of the main elements of the noise-polluted lo-fi sound environment. As Philippot explained, this sound is heavy and continuous and has slow fluctuations. So they are encompassing us immediately.

The main reason of noise pollution is the population. The chart below displays simple chains of noise creation.


  • Bigger population - Bigger cities - Bigger structures - Bigger structural equipments - Bigger machines -- More Lo-Fi sound in the environment
  • Bigger population - Bigger consumption - More necessity - More and Bigger factories and transportation needs - More Lo-Fi sound in the environment


  • Bigger population  Bigger cities - Bigger cars - Bigger engines - More Lo-Fi sound in the environment



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It should be noted that the word “soundscape” is a borrowed term originally coined by R. Murray
Schafer. He explained this term as “the sonic environment.” See R. Murray Schafer, The Tuning of the World (New York: Knopf, 1977) and The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World (Rochester, Vermont: Destiny Books, 1994).

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Uygur Vural
Uygur Vural was born in Antalya in 1983. He majored in music at Antalya Anatolian Fine Arts High School. From 2001 to 2006, he studied cello performance and composition at İstanbul Bilgi University. He worked as a research assistant at the Department of Film and Television of the same university between 2007 and 2010. In 2010, he received his Master of Fine Arts in Visual Communication Design from İstanbul Bilgi University. He is currently working as a freelance instructor and performer in İstanbul. He gave lectures on Contemporary Media Aesthetics, Soundtrack, and Audio Craft. His research topics include soundscape studies, environmental studies, and experimental techniques in musical performance and improvisation.