(sonicArts) starting a musique concrete piece

Starting your first musique concrete project usually requires a new way of thinking about music and working with sound in general. To help you organize your work in the early stages, I’m going to summarize some key points, tools, and procedures.

sound sources

The starting assumption is that you want to create a piece of musique concrete that involves development through manipulation and transformation of sound sources. For a short concrete piece (1 – 2 minutes), three to five sound sources should be adequate. If you have too many sound sources, you will tend to not develop/transform them. If you don’t have enough source material, finding enough material to be creative could be a challenge.

Look for some sounds that do something, i.e., have activity and/or change in sound content. You can think of doing something as being like a musical motive or gesture. If a sound has some interesting activity in it, you will be able to find interesting transformations. In class, I often use a bird call and a glass breaking as examples of sounds that have activity.

Also look for sounds that have some type of static, yet rich, sound content. Once we start working with multi-track projects, creating a counterpoint between active sounds and static or slowing moving sounds can be an effective compositional strategy. For now, it can be useful to create a contrast between an active sound and one that is more static. Look for sounds that stay relatively constant for 10 – 30 seconds (or more), but that have a rich frequency spectrum (contain a lot of frequencies). You will still want to develop and make changes to your slow moving sounds through filtering, amplitude envelopes, time stretching, and pitch transposition. A sound that doesn’t have much frequency content will not be that interesting to use as part of a longer texture. Think about using machine sounds, air conditioners, trains (without horns or whistles), and car motors (or similar sounds).

organizing your sounds

Once you find and download some interesting sounds, you want to start thinking about good file management techniques. Collect the sounds you want to use into a single folder. I will usually copy them the sounds from other places on my computer, or else I will make a backup copy of all the sounds if I don’t have other copies. In any case, you want to have backup files of all your original sounds, and make sure that those backup files are somewhere accessible.

You should make a parent folder for the entire project as soon as you begin working on a new project. This folder will contain all your soundfiles and data files from all the applications you might work with. As you work, you will necessarily create many new soundfiles. I try to keep my original source files separate from any processed files I create. Make a new folder for processed sounds. Depending on the size of your project, you might want to make subfolders for processed sounds from each original soundfile. For longer pieces (say around 6? and longer), I make subfolders. For short concrete works, one folder for all your processed files is probably enough, provided you use understandable names for processed files. 

As you process your audio, save files with names that you can quickly recognize as to sound source and process. Names like cool.aiff and boom.aiff aren’t specific enough, which means you will have to listen to the file to identify it. If you can incorporate the source name and the process into the filename, you will be better able to quickly choose the appropriate file from a listing of names. glassbreak4x24d indicates to me that the sound source is a glass breaking, it was been stretched to 4 times its original length, and transposed 24 half steps down. Getting the name right takes only a few extra seconds when saving a new file, but will save you much more time when assembling/composing your piece.


Throughout the whole process, you need to do a lot of listening to your sounds. You need to get familiar with your material in order to make decisions about how to use it musically. As you listen, select portions of the audio to listen to separately. You can isolate parts of audio that make interesting gestures, then copy and paste them into new files to save and process separately. As you do this listening, you will be making compositional decisions. It could help you to write down notes about sounds interesting, and if you have any ideas about how to combine sounds (horizontally or vertically).


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