What is Sound Art?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 01 November 2019
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Sound art is a contemporary art form that focuses on aural stimulation. Instead of interesting the eyes, like traditional painting, sound art uses music, produced sounds, and sound technology to create an artistic experience in listening and hearing. This relatively new art form has gained a passionate following as it reaches out to the art world in a new and distinct way.

One of the earliest sound exhibitions was by a collection of artists in 1983, held at the New York City Sculpture Center. The show was called Sound/Art and believed to be the origin of the term for the art form. The popular exhibit raised controversy in the art world, wondering if sound art is properly considered art, music, or a hybrid form of work.

Sound artistry can take many forms, and seems to be an ever-expanding form of artistic impression. Some artists create site-specific sound installations, where the sound objects develop over time. A viewer can choose to stay as long as they wish or leave as quickly as they want, but they risk missing out on crucial developments in the sound. These installations are often heavily dependent on their environment, and are considered by some to count as sound installations only if they have a structure that needs the specific environment.


There are many principles used in creating sound art, deriving from the science of acoustics and the effect of sound on the human body. Experiments have shown that sound vibration at certain frequencies can cause a reaction in the human body, even if the vibrations are actually too low to hear. Some low frequency vibrations can even cause nausea in the body. In some sound art, the listeners are part of the experience, as the sounds used create art in how they affect the body and the mind.

The definition of sound art is quite tricky, and even those considered founders in the field cannot come to a consensus on what it means. Some experts suggest that the term is to help describe the concept in relation to traditional art; a sound artist uses tones and audio effects the way a painter uses colors and shapes. Others suggest that the term distinguishes it from musical composition, as sound art relies on its environment and specific objects, rather than a piece of music that can be picked up and played anywhere.

Sound art has become a popular form of conceptual art, and installations are often to be found at modern art or experimental art museums. As a young form, the experience from one exhibit to the next may be completely different, have totally separate means, aims and technology used. For art or music enthusiasts, it is well worth a trip to a local exhibition to discover the new world being created by sound artists.


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Post 2

@klow – I disagree with you on your dismissal of the entirety of sound art. What you say about this type of sound being based more on texture than musical composition is true. It takes an open mind to appreciate and think about these types of artistic concepts. The article gets it right when it suggests that environment is important to and sometimes essential to a sound art installation.

For instance, David Tudor’s “Rainforest” was created and first performed within a sort of metal, resonant rain forest of objects that created the piece. The instruments were supposed to fit in space the same way that the sounds coming off of them do. When you experience and think about different sound art pieces this way, it becomes clear that sound art is indeed a form of art separate from conventional music with its own set of values and sonic possibilities.

Post 1

There is a bit of a rift forming in the academic world between musicians and so-called “sound artists”. Many of these sound artists tend to denounce traditional musical rules and concepts in favor of compositions that rely solely on texture rather than harmonic and melodic development. That said, it is hard and sometimes impossible for audiences to derive meaning from these pieces without their concepts having to be explained outright by the artists.

Often, these pieces end up sounding like an angry kid taking a baseball bat to an electronics store. In my opinion, many of these types of pieces are too self-indulgent to be taken seriously as art and to annoying sounding to be entertaining as music. I even consider myself a fan of experimental and eccentric musical styles, but most of what makes up “sound art” ends up sounding stupid and at worst, impossible to listen to.

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