top of page

Ear to the Earth - A Guide to Composing with Sound (125-page book) is an exploration of a bold assertion: that there is a powerful set of fundamental principles available to sound artists that can radically improve the quality of their creative work. These principles, drawn from nature, are split into four types of relationship (reflexive, interactive, indicative, and Gestalt) that combine to present a comprehensive and complete model for applied artmaking within the domain of music and sonic art.


I have, where possible, provided numerous musical examples for the purpose of mitigating by ear the claims I have made, that is, I have reduced the grandeur of the assertions put forward through the phenomenological experience of listening to music and sonic art. If this book it to speak at all, I believe it should be through the medium of sound. It must therefore be assimilated into readers’ own unique life experiences and journeys towards a richer understanding of the communicative potential of sound and music within the context of their own artmaking practices.

Chapter One: Modes of Listening presents the basis of the domain as one that it is predicated on the sound (rather than the note) as the base unit upon which the artform communicates. The chapter begins by exploring the cognition of human audition through the identification of several common modes of listening. It then presents a summary of Smalley’s tripartite model through a succinct description of the constituent parts - the indicative, interactive and reflexive relationships. A fourth mode of listening - the Gestalt relationship - is then proposed as a music-making/listening ideal. In essence the chapter provides an overview of the communicative qualities of sounds and their psychological effects on listeners for the purpose of identifying a comprehensive sonic vocabulary that might be used for artistic purposes.


Chapter Two: Expressive Musical Ideas examines emotionally expressive musical ideas and their formation in the early stages of the listening process. At the heart of the discussion is the proposition that expressive musical ideas are perpetuated by a reflexive relationship and that they might be more fully understood through scrutinisation of common emotional reactions to music.  The focus of the chapter is therefore fixed on creative ideas that are associated with expression, emotion, feeling, passion, intensity, poignancy, intonation, tone, nuance, artistry, spirit, free imagination, vividness, energy and force. They are ideas that are associated with right-brain intuition and listen/act cycles that are carried out quickly and without deep reflection - distinct from those that are associated with sustained auditory attention and/or contemplation.


Chapter Three: Abstract Musical Ideas addresses creative ideas that are perpetuated using the abstract qualities of sound. Here, formal qualities such as pitch, rhythm, and duration provide the basic building blocks for a more extensive musical language that can supply, and unsettle expectations for the listener such as tension, release, trajectory, cadence, structure, etc. This species of creative ideas relies on the interactive relationship - a mode of listening that embraces structural hearing, aesthetic attitudes towards music and sounds - and Schaeffer's concept of reduced listening. As Denis Smalley states, ‘It is possible to have an interactive relationship with any sound, although naturally some sounds will be more fruitful than others… Clearly an interactive relationship is necessary for the fullest appreciation of Western art music’ (Smalley,  1996, 7.). Several abstract frameworks in the form of image schemas are presented for the purpose of managing such ideas.


Chapter Four: Meaningful Creative Ideas presents aspects of musical discourse resulting from the formation of meaning through the experience of listening to indicative, referential and semantic musical materials. It proposes that there is an ideal class of meaningful creative ideas that - in their model form – display reciprocal relationships between their constituent parts; where functional techniques act as signifiers of discoverable meanings and where discoverable meanings justify the functional techniques employed. While not claiming to be a ‘magic formula,’ the discussion aims to bring to light the complexities of the assignment of referential meaning in music, specifically in relation to tools and techniques and their relationship with the presentation and reception of meaning. It presents an exchange of views surrounding these principles, providing sonic artists, composers, performers, and listeners with a method of examining message-bearing aspects of their own and others’ creative ideas and works.


Chapter Five: Sonic Alchemy presents pragmatic methods of achieving sonic alchemy through special methods of combination (of sounds) to form what has been termed the Gestalt relationship. The primary indicator of the Gestalt relationship is that the result (the experience of listening) is other than the sum of its parts; however, there are finer grained qualities too, that heavily contribute to the appreciation of sonic alchemy as a super-additive phenomenon. A key point of difference between the reflexive, interactive and indicative relationships (as a group) and the Gestalt relationship, is that the former are supported by intrinsic qualities within the sounds themselves, while the latter is not. It is merely supported by combinations of the three stated categories and/or combinations of same types. The chapter investigates ten common Gestalt principles as pragmatic methods of combining sounds with the aim of producing something other than the sum of the parts.     


Chapter Six: The Creative Process presents a model for contemplating the creative process as a whole and suggests a pragmatic step-by-step method of developing and improving creative ideas through the application of a general process model together with a series of questions forged from the examination of expressive, abstract and meaningful musical ideas ideally leading to sonic alchemy. The chapter provides a useful practical guide for composers and sonic artists who wish to cross-examine their creative ideas as well as a summary of chapters 2-5, which in turn, deepens understanding of the paradigm and encourages connections between its constituent parts.

bottom of page