Module WXK-3235:
Acousmatic Composition

Module Facts

Run by School of Music and Media

20 Credits or 10 ECTS Credits

Semester 1 & 2

Organiser: Prof Andrew Lewis

Overall aims and purpose

  1. To compose original 'sound-art' using sound as creative medium, and digital studio technology as the means.

  2. To encourage bold artistic experimentation and the development of musical ideas beyond conventional notions of 'music'.

  3. Through composition, to explore the possibilities of a variety of innovative digital technologies and to become adept in their use.

  4. To study the compositional techniques of a variety of acousmatic composers, and to apply the lessons learned to the composition of original musical works.

  5. To consider aesthetic, philosophical and musicological issues of relevance to acousmatic composition, and to explore the implications of these through the act of composing.

  6. To contribute to the personal development of student composers through the development of their creativity as individuals.

Course content

Acousmatic music is sonic art which uses sound as its basic material and the loudspeaker as its mode of delivery. This module aims to introduce students to acousmatic composition in a more focused way than is possible in the Year 1 Practical Music Technology module, and with a more creative emphasis. It aims to equip students with the basic technological, compositional and aesthetic knowledge and understanding necessary for acousmatic composition. (This module is not intended for students wishing to compose popular music, or music using conventional approaches to harmony, melody or rhythm.)

Assessment Criteria


The crucial element is the creation of musical ideas. Factors which may limit a mark to this level include: a simplistic or over-complex global structure not supportive of or supported by the material of which it consists; musical argument only intermittently discernible with only limited exploration of materials; musical ideas few and/or of questionable value; an imbalance in unity and diversity at the expense of sustained interest (especially through uncritical repetition of material verbatim); variability in the appropriateness of the use of instrumental, vocal, sonic and/or technological resources; technique restricted to a rather basic level; some basic, though not always successful, attempts to achieve musical shaping and control of phrases, gestures, pacing, tempo, dynamics, sonorities and textures; mostly adequate presentation, though with some significant lapse, and materials that may need some revision to be of practical use in performance.


The distinguishing quality is the creation, technical realisation and organisation of imaginative musical ideas to create an aesthetically convincing overall outcome. The composition exhibits a majority of the following: a well articulated and effective global structure; a clearly discernible musical argument, constructed through the exploration and development of musical ideas and materials; imaginatively conceived and articulated musical ideas; unity and diversity well balanced, such that the composition achieves a good degree of interest and coherence; appropriate and effective use of instrumental, vocal, sonic and/or technological resources contributing to creative ends; assured use of appropriate technical means; good sensitivity to the shaping of phrases, gestures, pacing, tempo, dynamics, sonorities and textures, showing an appreciation of their overall effect on the musical outcome; presentation of a good standard, with good attention to detail and some evident consideration of the practicability of performing materials.


The distinguishing quality is the creation of a compelling, engaging and aesthetically satisfying overall outcome through sustained musical imagination and technical command The composition exhibits a majority of the following: a coherent, tightly constructed global structure; a cogent, convincing and sustained musical argument, constructed through the exploration and development of the full potential of musical ideas and materials; musical ideas conceived and articulated with evident flair and imagination, and some degree of originality; an entirely appropriate (but not necessarily equal) balance of unity and diversity, such that interest and coherence are sustained throughout; distinctive, creative and idiomatic use of instrumental, vocal, sonic and/or technological resources; confident, fluent and discerning use of appropriate technical means; evidence of acute sensitivity to the effectiveness of, and assured control over, the shaping of phrases and gestures, pacing, tempo, dynamics, sonorities and textures, and the combination, juxtaposition and relationship of ideas and materials; impressive presentation, with excellent attention to detail and full consideration of the practicability of performing materials (whether for live performance or the realization of electroacoustic presentation).

Learning outcomes

  1. fluency in the creative use of the electroacoustic medium

  2. a good level of confidence in working with sonic materials and resources

  3. confidence and independence in working with the tools and techniques of the composition studio.

  4. the ability to use balanced self-criticism as part of the creative process

  5. the ability to compose music which offers a rewarding listening experience

  6. originality of thought and creative independence.

  7. the ability to compose music which takes full account of contemporary acousmatic practice

Assessment Methods

Type Name Description Weight
COURSEWORK Coursework 1

Part 1 – source recording and editing

Submit TEN examples of original ‘sound-objects’ you have recorded for this semester’s composition, properly edited (‘topped-and-tailed’)

These need not be ten different physical sound-producing objects, you might produce ten interesting ‘sound-objects’ from just one physical object.

They need not be ten very different sound-objects. For example, you might submit three versions of striking the same physical metal object to produce similar but clearly different resonances with different distributions of partials (‘harmonics’). These would be three different ‘sound-objects’.

Essentially the question to ask is whether including two or more versions of the same type of sound really increases the musical possibilities open to you when composing.

Part 2 – source development

Using just ONE of the ten sound-objects submitted above, submit FIVE examples of that one sound-objects processed or transformed in different ways PLUS FIVE further transformations of just ONE of the first five.

COURSEWORK Coursework 2

Using the sounds you submitted for Coursework 1, and/or other newly created sounds, create 12 single sound objects, each of which consists of a number of sounds combined.

Your 12 sound objects should consist of 6 sound objects of the following types and characters:

  1. short percussive attack
  2. longer attack/resonance
  3. sustained non-pitched texture
  4. sustained pitched sound
  5. a sound with an evolving spectro-morphology
  6. an object made up of discrete sub-objects

The other 6 sound objects should be slightly different version of the first six (so: 1, version of 1, 2, version of 2. etc.)

COURSEWORK Assignment 1

Compose a piece of 5 to 7 minutes duration which makes full use of the unique possibilities the acousmatic medium

Also submit a brief ‘programme note’ for your piece (about 100 words)

COURSEWORK Coursework 3

Make a graphic score of the first four minutes of Gilles Gobeil's Le vertige inconnu, using the supplied score template.

Label your score to show as many of the gestural types as you can. You may like to use the gestures listed here, but the list is not exhaustive - you can use your own words, or gestural types taken from Smalley's article 'Spectromorphology: Explaining Sound Shapes'. (If you make up your own, remember that we are trying to find implied human actions, so the words will most likely end with '-ing')

COURSEWORK Coursework 4

Step 1

Record some sounds, choose some of the best, and form sounds which could be use to form many of the musical gestures identified in Coursework 1.


You can process the source sounds if you wish, but some sounds will not need much processing to make these gestures.

These different gestures need not be from different physical objects. For example, a ceramic tile could be hit (initiating, terminating etc.) or scraped (continuing, receding etc.)

Note also that the same sound could fulfill more than one gestural type: for example, an initiating gesture could also work well as a terminating gesture. (In other words, gesture is not just dependant on the nature of the sound itself, but on its functional context.)

For some kinds of gestures (for example, 'withdrawing') the gestural character may not arise directly from the sound itself, but might be a function of the way it is shaped or treated (for example, 'withdrawing' can be suggested by gradually fading out a continuous sound'.

Step 2

Using the sounds you have recorded (and transformed if you wish) create six different gestural 'strings'. That is, chain the gestures together one after another to make a sequence of gestures.

a) initiating > continuing > receding

b) approaching > continuous > terminating

c) preparing > initiating > continuing A > diverting > continuing B > terminating

d) initiating > continuous > interrupting > silence > resuming > continuous > receding > interrupting > (silence)

e) a gestural string of your own invention

f) a gestural string of your own invention

(Please leave 5 seconds of silence between each of the gestural strings)


You can re-use sounds in different 'strings', but you don't have to. However, 'continuing' A and B should be different to each other.

COURSEWORK Assignment 2

Compose a piece of 5 to 7 minutes duration which uses at least 8 spatial channels of audio, and which makes full use of the unique possibilities the acousmatic medium

Also submit a brief ‘programme note’ for your piece (about 100 words)


Teaching and Learning Strategy


In each semester there will be 11 studio-based classes of 1.5 – 2 hours. Other classes coinciding with an acousmatic concert or the visit of a composer or ensemble may also be arranged as appropriate.

Private study 156

Transferable skills

  • Computer Literacy - Proficiency in using a varied range of computer software
  • Self-Management - Able to work unsupervised in an efficient, punctual and structured manner. To examine the outcomes of tasks and events, and judge levels of quality and importance
  • Exploring - Able to investigate, research and consider alternatives
  • Critical analysis & Problem Solving - Able to deconstruct and analyse problems or complex situations. To find solutions to problems through analyses and exploration of all possibilities using appropriate methods, rescources and creativity.
  • Self-awareness & Reflectivity - Having an awareness of your own strengths, weaknesses, aims and objectives. Able to regularly review, evaluate and reflect upon the performance of yourself and others

Subject specific skills

  • Musicianship skills – recognition, classification, contextualisation, reconstruction, exploration
  • Creative skills – conception, elaboration, adaptation, presentation, collaboration, preservation
  • Technological skills – digital capture, digital expression, digital innovation
  • Skills of personal management – self-motivation, self-critical awareness, independence, entrepreneurship and employment skills, time management and reliability, organisation, etc.
  • Enhanced powers of imagination and creativity (4.17)


Reading list


Michel Chion, Audio-vision: sound on screen. Translated by C. Gorbman (New York, 1990).

Simon Emmerson, The Language of Electroacoustic Music (London, 1989).

David Moore & Adrian Moore, Sonic Art: Recipes and Reasonings. (e-book, 2011!/file/sonicart_recipesandreasonings.pdf last accessed 17 September 2014.

Pierre Schaeffer, In Search of a Concrete Music. Translated by Christine North and John Dack (Berkeley 2012).

Trevor Wishart, On Sonic Art (London, 1996).

–––––– , Audible Design (York 1994).


Francis Dhomont, ‘Acousmatic Update’, Contact! (8(2), 1995) pp. 49-54. Jonty Harrison, ‘Sound, space, sculpture: some thoughts on the what,how and why of sound diffusion’, Organised Sound (3(2), 1998), pp. 117–127.

Denis Smalley, ‘Spectromorphology: Explaining sound-shapes’, Organised Sound 2(2), 1997) pp. 107–126.

––––––, ‘Space-Form and the Acousmatic Image’, Organised Sound (12(1), 2007) pp. 35-58.

Simon Emmerson, ‘Aural Landscape: musical space’, Organised Sound (3(2), 1999) pp. 135- 40.

Musical Works

Francois Bayle, Toupie dans le ciel (1979)

Christian Calon, Portrait d’un visiteur (1985)

Francis Dhomont, Points de fuite (1982)

Paul Dolden, Veils (1984-85)

Gilles Gobeil, Le vertige inconnu (1993-94)

Jonty Harrison, Klang (1982)

Jonathan Harvey, Mortuous Plango, Vivos Voco (1980)

Robert Normandeau, Rumeurs (Place de Ransbeck) (1987)

Bernard Parmegiani, De natura sonorum (1975)

Åke Parmerud, Repulse (1986)

Denis Smalley, Pentes (1974)

––––––––, Wind Chimes (1987)

Trevor Wishart, Encounters in the Republic of Heaven (2011)

Pre- and Co-requisite Modules


Courses including this module

Optional in courses: