For most of us, there’s a clear distinction between what we consider to be sound and what we consider to be music. Sigur Rós, Beethoven or Justin Bieber might invoke a sense of ethereal wonder for some people, while the whining car alarm outside is guaranteed to make you feel like you’re being trepanned by an invisible butcher. In this case it seems easy to categorise one as ‘sound’ and the other as ‘music’, but the two share more common ground than we think.

Both the wailing alarm and the most refined score are just a collection of complex frequencies piping into our eardrums and causing a neurological response, an electro-chemical cascade inside our gristly heads. So while traditional music might produce one kind of response, it’s not the only rewarding type of sound on the market.

There’s an entirely different experience waiting to be harnessed that’s bleeding from our environment and into our heads all the time. Everywhere we go, whatever we do, sound is profoundly affecting our conscious experience of life and we pay almost no attention.

Our acoustic environment is constructed from sounds that act as symbols, auditory psychoacoustic cues that trigger memories, emotions and sensations. There are weird subconscious references all around, acting as signposts that enable us to form a three-dimensional picture of our surroundings. Concentrate on a recording of a crackling bonfire and you can almost immediately feel the heat and taste the outdoors. What’s more, if you compare recordings of a fire indoors and a fire outdoors, they sound completely different. The sound behaves differently because of the reflections and reverberation, and your brain is extremely good at recognising these environments. This exploitation of sonic environments is a critical technique for synthesising an atmosphere and creating a genuine sensation of space in pretty much any imaginable multimedia. The effect is universal.

Right now, there’s an entire subcategory of artists capturing environmental recordings as art in their own right, mining the air for weird soundscapes and unique atmospheres. The possibilities are endless – walking on a frozen lake, wind and rain battering the windows, the creak of wooden floorboards, the sound of a steelworks, the hustle and bustle of a city centre. These soundscapes are so diverse, distinct and rich that you can see why many people are taking the time to record and study their acoustic environments.

In the ‘sound art’ world, the practice of capturing the natural soundscape is called phonography, or field recording, and there’s a strong subculture of this combined with sound mapping spreading across the UK. This kind of documentation is surprisingly important. Imagine how fascinating it would be to hear the soundscape of a Sheffield steelworks in the 1850s or a recording of a tram ride through the city in 1905. We take our day-to-day sonic environment for granted now, but it will be a rare and precious resource in the future.

The logical extension of phonography is electroacoustic composition. For a while now, composers have been extracting sounds from the air and manipulating them to form eerie compositions. In order to record precise 3D audio, composers like Matt Barnard have produced entire portfolios of sound art utilising a technique called binaural recording, meaning you put tiny microphones in your ears in order to capture the sound of an acoustic space exactly as you hear it. This effect is absolutely uncanny. Listening to binaural recordings on headphones has had me looking over my shoulder, expecting to see things that sound like they are coming from behind me. Compositions like Matt’s ‘The Billows That Break’ use this recording technique perfectly, and the effects are staggering.

Traditional western music has given us a sonic palette from which composers can excavate immeasurable beauty, but there’s more out there. There are entire landscapes around us that we ignore every day, bizarre spectral ecosystems that are profoundly affecting our experience of life without us paying any attention. Dig a little and you might discover there’s something profound going on under the surface. If you’ve never listened to any binaural phonography or sonic art, I’d suggest dipping an ear in and seeing what it’s like.

Nick Del’Nero is a composer and sound designer from Sheffield with a PhD in electroacoustic composition.
soundcloud.com/delneron
Matt Barnard is a lecturer in music technology at the University of Hull and has a PhD specialising in binaural recording.
soundcloud.com/mattt

Nick Del’Nero