Music Sound Art
Mandy-Suzanne Wong
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0106


“Sound art” refers to a large variety of artistic practices that involve sound and/or comment on the way sound functions in various cultural arenas. But what exactly an artwork needs to be in order to qualify as sound art remains disputed. Sound art has no stable definition. Some practitioners, such as William Hellerman, believe that sound art must have visual components or, as Helga de la Motte-Haber contends, consciously explore relationships between sound and space. Others disagree, including Yann Novak and Richard Chartier, and create sound artworks using sound alone, in bare rooms or for recording media. Some sound artworks are completely silent, such as Christian Marclay’s visual works. And some believe that the term “sound art” is misleading and superfluous, denying any real distinction between sound art and experimental music or multimedia art; Max Neuhaus is one example. Depending on one’s perspective, sound art may include (or explicitly exclude) sound installation, sound sculpture, performance art, concrete poetry, experimental music, ambient music, noise music, new media art, video art, field recording, soundwalks, soundscape compositions, sound design, circuit bending, sonic games, and conceptual art. Sound artists tend to overtly challenge the boundaries and definitions of artistic genres; many refuse to categorize their work according to generic categories. They therefore provoke ontological questions such as “what is art?” and “what is music?” Often sound artists explore the relationships between sound and space or environment; sound and technology; sound and listening; the aural and the other senses, especially the visual and tactile; and among audiences, artists, and art objects. Many sound artworks comment on other aesthetic cultures, such as art-museum culture and commercial-music culture; or on social concerns, such as the effects of technology and urbanity on aural landscapes. The term “sound art” was first used by the American composer William Hellerman in 1983. But prior to that date, several creative and technological movements from around the world inspired and enabled the development of sound artworks; for instance, Italian Futurism’s aestheticization of noise and machinery; John Cage’s inclusive approach to listening; Harry Partch’s invention of idiosyncratic musical instruments; Pierre Schaeffer’s invention of sampling; Edgard Varèse’s and Iannis Xenakis’ multimedia, architectural, and musical compositions; and Fluxus artists’ interactive performances; as well as Marcel Duchamp’s readymades and Robert Morris’s minimalist sculptures. Inventions such as radio, photography, sound recording, video, and digital audio processing provided the technical means for the production of sound art. Thus far, research of relevance to sound art has been primarily undertaken by scholars of the visual arts rather than by musicologists, albeit with notable exceptions, such as Joanna Demers’s work. While they do not always mention sound art directly, researchers in sound studies, concrete poetry, multimedia studies, voice studies, philosophy, acoustic ecology, and many other arenas also address several of the concerns that tend to motivate sound artists. However, these extensive fields of study are beyond the scope of this article.

General Overviews

Attempts to provide a general definition of sound art, and assessments of the problems incumbent on such attempts, appear in articles, monographs, and collections, each of which adopts an idiosyncratic approach to the problem. Licht 2007 compares sound art to music and describes historical developments that enabled the creation of sound art. Licht 2009 systematically describes various techniques employed in the creation of sound art (sound installation, field recording, etc.). LaBelle 2008 analyzes works by major sound artists and discusses their philosophical impulses. De la Motte-Haber 1999 provides a thorough discussion of the aesthetic issues at stake in German sound art or Klangkunst. Engström and Stjerna 2009 compares the German and English traditions by reviewing the relevant literature. Any of these works would provide valuable introductions to readers approaching sound art for the first time. With its rich array of color photos and accompanying CD, Licht 2007 provides an especially vivid introduction to the world of sound art.

  • de la Motte-Haber, Helga, ed. Klangkunst: Tönende Objekte und klingende Räume. Handbuch der Musik im 20. Jahrhundert 12. Laaber, Germany: Laaber-Verlag, 1999.

    Definitive German text on sound art. Comprehensive discussion of definition, history, production, and aesthetics of sound art by leading authors in the vast field of German sound-art scholarship. Emphasizes the use of sound to engage and create space in sound art, especially in sound installation and sound sculpture. No English translation.

  • Engström, Andreas, and Åsa Stjerna. “Sound Art or Klangkunst? A Reading of the German and English Literature on Sound Art.” Organised Sound 14.1 (2009): 11–18.

    DOI: 10.1017/S135577180900003X

    Survey of German and English literature on sound art. Suggests that German literature emphatically defines sound art as an aural and visual practice, whereas English literature insists on a fluctuating definition of sound art and centers its discussion on aurality. Strongly biased in favor of German approaches.

  • LaBelle, Brandon. Background Noise: Perspectives on Sound Art. New York: Continuum, 2008.

    Monograph by an important sound artist and theorist. Thorough explanation, through examples, of aesthetic issues explored in sound art, such as sound’s relationship with silence, sound in public spaces, sounds of the natural environment, and sound in sculptures and digitally networked pieces. A highly readable but rigorous introduction to sound art.

  • Licht, Alan. Sound Art: Beyond Music, Between Categories. New York: Rizzoli, 2007.

    Introduction to sound art suitable for undergraduates and advanced scholars. Offers history and definition of sound art and related concepts, comparing sound art to music. Describes sound art’s position in the art world. Color photos and accompanying CD of examples. Brief biographies of important sound artists at end of book.

  • Licht, Alan. “Sound Art: Origins, Development, and Ambiguities.” Organised Sound 14.1 (2009): 3–10.

    DOI: 10.1017/S1355771809000028

    An even more concise introduction than Licht 2007, with descriptions of sound artists’ techniques, such as sound installation, sound sculpture, soundscape composition, and soundwalking. Relates sound art to other creative sonic work, like sound design. Also discusses history of sound art, technical challenges involved in producing sound art, and relevant literature.

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