Dec 12, 2008

Sound Design v. Composition?

How do you deal with the blurry line between Sound Design and Composition?

For me, the best sound designers are those who think and hear musically, and it naturally follows that those who think musically are often musicians, and those who are musicians are often composers. As so much of what we do is the manipulation of music, it is inevitable that most of us (even those who aren't composers) will find us in a position where we're asked to compose music.

In the theatre, it's often difficult to find the line between design and composition. Is editing music composing? Is a mash-up? Is working with live musicians to totally restructure the music? Is sampling sound effects and playing them back with a musical sensibility? Is writing original text and melody based off of a non-original hook? Is combining musical and non-musical elements to underscore a monologue?

Which of these is composition, and which of these is not? Certainly, there's a continuum, and each of the ideas in the previous paragraph (all of which I'm doing on my current project) falls somewhere between 'pure' design and 'pure' composition.

So, what do you when you, as the designer, are asked to do things that range into composition? Are you comfortable in that role? Do you refuse? Do you subcontract out to a composer? Do you ask for an additional composition contract (and therefore, an additional fee)? Do you consider it part of your responsibility and just do it? Do you ask the theatre to hire someone else to compose?


  1. I think it largely depends on the production. In my experience it's based on what the design entails. Some shows related more to composition then to creating a soundscape or vica verse. I also think designers tend to pull their designs to aspects they feel more comfortable with and do better work through.

    Ultimately though it's a designers responsibility to know about composition and sound scaping. I also feel that music is what people most gravitate to since it's easier to keep it in the background and provide emotion. At least more so then a soundscape can.

  2. So I'll add this comment, as my first foray into the world of blogging. Is design not composition with sound? When I design a sonic event, whether a car pass or a full fldeged soundscape, I'll consider tonal, harmonic, and rhythmic content. Additionally, I consider the structural makeup (introduction-exposition-conclusion, ABA-ABB-ABC structures, etc)of a sound. A car doesn't simply pass, what kind of road does it pass over, where am I relative to the road, is there music playing in the car, is the car full of G-men on there way to a raid...

    The list of compositional elements involved in Sound Design can get quite lengthy.

    Conversely, the sonic elements involved in a 'musical' composition can be extremely varied. Just listen to the works of Varese, Cage, Stockhausen or any of the Musique Concrete composers to name a few. Even now, I'm working on a composition for piano and metal objects that might ake it's way into a piece.

    And then, to open another can of musical worms, theres generative and algorithmic composition, in which the human is controlling elements that the computer uses to 'compose' music. But I suspect this is grist for another mill....


  3. To comment on the computer generatied music. I don't think it matters how it is generated it is still composing. The Musique Concrete composers you listed above proved that you can compose music in all kinds of different ways.

    I would even say 3:44 by John Cage is most certainly music, as long as its preformed. I think sitting down to the piano and having the sheet music and counting it out is how it was intended to be preformed and that solves the issue of generative music.