A soundscape is a representation of events heard, or a reconstruction of an aural experience. The term ‘soundscape’ was first used by Schäfer in 1977, who derived it from ‘landscape’, thus referring to a reconstruction of events heard instead of seen. Whereas the collective of all sound present in any coordinate in space and time is referred to as the sonic environment of that given context, the term ‘soundscape’ emphasizes how that environment is perceived by those living within it.

Every soundscape consists of three different types of sound layers, referred to as keynote sounds, signals and soundmarks. These are determined by the significance attributed to them by the listener. Keynote sounds form the fundamentals of a soundscape. As in musical compositions, they set the key for the entire piece. Keynote sounds usually are products of climate, flora and fauna, such as the rustling of leaves in the wind and the footsteps of humans and animals. They are heard unconsciously and often become listening habits, or are perceived as background sounds. Signals, the second type of sound layer, are foreground sounds. Signals are listened to consciously, and they are usually meaningful to communication. Examples may include human speech – or chanting or singing – or an ambulance siren. Interestingly, since any sound can be listened to consciously, every sound can become a signal (or a keynote sound, by not focusing on it). Finally, the term ‘soundmark’ refers to a sound that is either unique or specifically noticed by people in a certain community. Examples may include the volcano rumblings that are specific to a certain area, a particular church bell or the announcements that can be heard at train stations.

When studying sound and reconstructing soundscapes, it is crucial to understand that the way in which we gather information from our senses is a product of place and time: what our senses actually perceive is biologically determined, but the way in which we interpret this information is culturally determined. Sensory experience thus changes over the course of history. Sound therefore is not only a cultural act, but also a social phenomenon, that connects our human selves to the outer world and contributes to the way in which we understand it.

Want to learn more?
– Schäfer, R. M., The Tuning of the World: Toward a Theory of Soundscape Design. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press (1977)
– Smith, Mark M., Sensory History. Oxford: Berg (2007)
– Kelman, Ari Y., “Rethinking the Soundscape. A Critical Genealogy of a Key Term in Sound Studies” Senses & Society 5 (2010) 2: 212-234