An Introduction To Electroacoustic Music Course, or “How to Compose Your First EA Work”
School for the Contemporary Arts, Simon Fraser University (Vancouver)
Electroacoustic music has a long tradition at Simon Fraser University, and our program has produced a number of successful composers in the field . As well as having one of the pioneers of the field in Barry Truax, SFU has had a strong faculty that has included soundscape pioneer R. Murray Schafer and live interactive music pioneer Martin Bartlett.
Our introductory electroacoustic music course serves up to 70 students at a time, while a very successful version of this course has been created and offered through Distance Education. A distinguishing feature about both of these courses is that a majority of students are non-majors, and have no musical or compositional experience. However, final projects in this course have been of surprisingly high musical quality, and many students have gone on, within a year or two, to place very highly at national competitions in electroacoustic music .
Electroacoustic Music at SFU
Electroacoustic music courses at Simon Fraser University are offered through the School for Contemporary Arts, an interdisciplinary department containing areas in art and culture studies, dance, film, music, theatre production and performance, and visual arts. Our school is unique in that students receive interdisciplinary training outside their specialties, as well as fundamentals of disciplinary art production.
The music program has an innovative and experimental approach to music study through its focus on composition. A full range of acoustic and electroacoustic composition courses form the foundation of the program, augmented with courses in theory, history and criticism, world music, gamelan and performance.
Because of the focus upon composition, rather than performance, our program does not have the usual assortment of student ensembles available to our composers as would a more traditional school of music. As a result, our music students are exposed at an early point in the studies to electroacoustic music, often before they have taken any courses in acoustic composition.
Electroacoustic music has a long tradition at Simon Fraser University, and this tradition has greatly influenced how we teach electroacoustic music. The World Soundscape Project was founded at SFU in the early 1970s by Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer who was, at the time, a member of the fledgling Department of Communication Studies. At the time, courses were taught that combined acoustic and electroacoustic issues, while student work included exercises in creating and evaluating soundwalks, recording voice and environmental sounds, and creating imaginary soundscapes. Of particular importance was the fact that these courses were taught not within the Fine Arts, but within what would later become the Faculty of Applied Sciences. As such, many of the students had little or no musical training, yet were being asked to produce creative work.
Schafer left the university in 1975, and was replaced by Barry Truax who had joined the WSP in 1973 and taught courses with Schafer. Truax continued to teach these courses within the Department of Communications, spending time on studio technologies as well as introducing the notion of the sound object. It was within these courses that our current ideal of theory combined with practice was first initiated. Rather than separating the two elements, students learned audio theory in a lecture format, and then were immediately able to apply these ideas both functionally and creatively within weekly group labs and individual studio times.
Different approaches to soundscape composition began to evolve over the years . In terms of studio production, styles ranged, according to Truax, from documentary, aural history, through to soundscape composition, and more abstract sound design also followed, as well as soundtracks and mixed media work .
Barry Truax has this to say about the pedagogy of the electroacoustic communication courses at SFU:
From a pedagogical point of view, I can say that starting with the classic “sound object” exercise that is a staple with electroacoustic music, works remarkably well for all of the students since it focuses on listening, basic audio processing techniques and working with sound organization in perhaps its “purest” form. After that, students have a choice of style and genre, and many incorporate elements of many of the genres I listed above (documentary, aural history, soundscape composition, abstract sound design). The mix of music and non-music students is always useful as each influences the other. 
These courses are still currently taught within the School of Communications, including a Distance Education version of one course.
In 1976, Simon Fraser University established the Centre for the Arts, an interdisciplinary department offering programs in the fine and performing arts. Music was one area within this department, and faculty were recruited with experience in both electroacoustic and acoustic music. Barry Truax was cross-appointed (with the Department of Communication); Martin Gotfrit was hired in 1981, and Martin Bartlett a year later.
Courses were developed within the Centre that focused upon composition and creativity, particularly the use of a newly created electronic studio as a compositional tool. In the early 1990s, when the Centre for the Arts became the School for the Contemporary Arts, the existing electroacoustic music courses were expanded and redesigned into our current offerings: an introductory course (FPA 147); a course on live performance and MIDI (FPA 247); a timbral composition course focusing on the sound object (FPA 347); and a computer synthesis course (FPA 447).
SFU operates upon the tri-semester system, although most of the course offerings in the School for the Contemporary Arts are limited to the Fall (September – December) and Spring (January – April) semesters. Our semesters are thirteen weeks long.
The practical element of our courses are taught in our computer lab (the Computer Lab for Music and Sound, or CLMS, which consists of 14 Emac computers with Mboxes) and our upper level electroacoustic studio (G5 with a Digi 002, eight channel diffusion, as well as a G3 controlling Audiobox diffusion software). Students can work independently in either CLMS or three additional workstation based studios (Emacs with Mboxes).
FPA 147 — Introduction to Electroacoustic Music
FPA 147 is an introduction to the history, social context, theory and practice of electroacoustic music. It is offered in part as a service course to the university, as well as an true introduction to the genre for our students within contemporary arts. Although it covers the entire history of electroacoustic music in its lecture material, practical assignments are limited to a classic tape music style approach using ProTools and audio editors.
In the last ten years, it has been taught by both Martin Gotfrit and myself, although I have taught it consistently in the last five years. Each year, substantial alterations are made to the course through a re-evaluation of how and what is being taught, as well as the desired goals of the course. The development of a Distance Education version of the course necessitated a reorganization of teaching materials and a formalization of lectures and labs; this process completely coalesced the course materials.
In the last five years, enrollments have varied between 40 and 70 students. Enrollment is limited by the number of students we can comfortably fit into our teaching lab (28 at two students per computer) and the number of sections of labs the instructor can handle (currently three sections).
A majority of students are from outside of Contemporary Arts, from such areas as Computing Science, Communications, Business, and General Arts. It is a mandatory course not only for our music majors, but also those students in theatre production, film, and students in Computing Science’s Multimedia Specialist program.
FPA 147 consists of a weekly two hour lecture and a two hour lab.
Lecture topics includes the following:
- an introduction to sound
- an introduction to digital representation of sound
- a history of electroacoustic music
- signal processing theory
- analog synthesis
- live performance
- acousmatic music
- computer music
Lectures are given in PowerPoint format; these presentations are subsequently available online to the students after the lecture . Lectures make use of a great number of audio examples demonstrating various concepts and techniques, as well as musical excerpts of stylistic and genre examples.
As well as covering the essential topics of electroacoustic music, a full lecture is dedicated to composition, both generally and specifically to electroacoustic music. Since this course is the first time many of the students have composed music, such an introduction is necessary. The issue of teaching composition to non-music students will be discussed more thoroughly later.
Labs are focused upon providing direct tutorials in the necessary skills needed to complete the assignments. Beginning with a general orientation of the computer and the difference between Mac OSX and Windows (we exclusively use Apple computers, while most of our students are more familiar with PCs), we quickly move into sound editing (Amadeus and Peak), and how sound is represented in the computer. Time is spent comparing what was heard in the lecture (the introduction to the parameters of sound) and which of these parameters are immediately available for alteration via software.
The labs are delivered in our computer lab, with students working at the computer, two per station. Smaller labs of one student per computer have been found to be less effective, since a student may become lost and fall behind, and be too embarrassed to ask for help. With two people per computer, occasionally one student may take over the mouse and keyboard, but just as often a method of co-operation can develop between them.
In keeping with our school’s ideal of combining theory and practice within a course, the labs are designed to reinforce the material presented in the lectures. After learning about Pierre Schaeffer in a lecture on the history of electroacoustic music, students learn to create their own musique concrete works: choosing sounds, recording sound objects, processing the sound objects, and finally combining these sound objects compositionally. After the lecture on soundscape, students learn how soundscape recordings can be processed differently than pure sound objects, and how to use processing to bridge between different sounds.
Lastly, successful previous student works are presented in the labs, and are discussed both aesthetically and technically. These discussions are very successful in encouraging the students, since they recognize that these projects were created using the same hardware and software that they are using, under the same conditions.
Assignments are a balance between practical work and listening based theoretical work. This course has slowly changed from one about the creation of abstract electroacoustic music, to one concerned with listening and understanding the more general forms of electroacoustic music. In its earlier offerings, a final creative project accounted for 40% of the final mark. Given that the majority of students are non-majors, this seemed unfair to those students; marks have now been spread more evenly with less emphasis upon creativity and a greater emphasis upon understanding material presented aurally. Curiously, student reviews of the course consistently support the creative assignments as being a highlight of the course, even from those students who have never had such opportunities.
Recognizing that the vast majority of students taking this introductory electroacoustic music class will never have heard any of the music the course revolves around, asking them to understand and create within the genre is, perhaps, a little daunting. For this reason a good deal of musical excerpts are presented (usually limited to three minutes) throughout the course in an effort to present as many examples as possible of successful music within the genre.
Students are required to keep a sound journal of the music presented in class. They are asked to discuss the music they hear, limiting themselves to one paragraph, and using the terminology learnt in class. Emphasis is placed upon an objective description of the music, or what they can actually hear, as opposed to a subjective description, or how the music makes them feel.
While some students complain about the preponderance of “historical” music within these journal entries, others have pointed to this assignment as being the most useful in guiding them in the creative aspects of the course.
Rather than take up lecture time with quizzes, online versions based upon audio materials have been found to be very effective.
For example, the first quiz is available after the first lecture unit, Introduction to Sound and its Parameters. Five short audio examples are presented as linked wave files, and the student must determine which parameter of the sound is most obviously changing over each clip’s duration. The first clip might have a recurring sound that has been processed so as to have a decreasing amplitude, for example. The intention in this first quiz is to aurally emphasize sound’s parameters and their potential for variation, using recognizable, “real world” sounds.
The next quiz, available after the lecture unit on processing, presents five audio files that have been processed dynamically, and students must determine which process was used (frequency, time, and timbre based processing). Students are encouraged to explore the original soundfiles on their computers to determine the process. The hope is that students will begin to link processes they hear with available tools, rather than approaching sound design as simply taking sounds and (randomly) applying processes to them.
The last quiz, which has proved to be the most difficult for the students, is available after the lecture on composition. Here, short (30–45 second) musical excerpts are given, often from more popular forms of electronica, and the students are required to determine which of the given compositional techniques is being explored in the excerpt. For example, variation through change in density, variation through change in one layer only, or variation through sectional change. The intention is to make the students recognize these techniques within music they might already be familiar with; however, students seem overwhelmed, and cannot easily separate out the given layers within the music.
I am happy to state that the course has no final exam (my firm belief is that exams, while providing a very convenient method of determining marks, demonstrate little of a student’s ability, other than knowing how to take exams). Instead, a final listening quiz is given, and the student must demonstrate an ability to extrapolate between lecture material and listening examples. Given two works that they have never heard before, they must hypothesize about the historical period, style, genre, materials, and methods used. The quiz is also presented online, and the students can listen to the works as many times as they like.
The first practical assignment occurs within the course’s second week in an effort get the students started on using the computers, but also to tie together material learned in the early lectures in a practical way. This initial assignment is based upon editing — edit a given text-based soundfile, removing all the consonants and sibilants and placing them at the end. While it introduces many of the concepts of audio editors, the assignment also familiarizing them with the relationship between what they hear and what they see. For example, students quickly learn to recognize visually the difference between the harmonic sounds of voiced vowels and noise based sounds of sibilants (concepts introduced during lecture).
The second practical assignment is based upon processing: process a given set of soundfiles in a defined way — reversal, frequency alteration, spectral alteration — and describe the results. This assignment introduces simple signal processing, and, more importantly, understanding (and hearing) the relationship of the resulting process to the original sound. I have found that allowing the students to freely explore a given process (such as pitch shifting) for the first time in a creative project tends to create a fascination with extreme processing; when they attempt to use these sounds compositionally, they cannot create anything other than a sound collage. Instead, students are directed to use defined processes in specific ways, such as bandpass filtering to remove all but midrange frequencies. Students are then required to comment upon the relationship of the processed sound to the original.
Has the timbre changed? Is the sound still recognizable? Would you consider the sound to be different from the original, or a variation of it? In the reversal example, students tend to feel that sounds with distinct envelopes (dropping objects, for example) result in new sound objects when reversed; filtering tends to produce, in their minds, a very connected variation. These concepts are followed up in the following creative assignments.
This last practical assignment is then expanded into the first creative project, which requires the students to create a one to two minute study based upon the techniques of musique concéte (discussed in the previous lecture on history). Again, limiting their processing to those techniques available to the tape composers of the 1950s (reversal, editing, speed/pitch change, delay), the students are encouraged to explore a continuum of variations within a given process rather than extremes: for example, pitch transpositions of successive tones in either direction of the original. This, it is pointed out, creates the possibility of presenting the original sound and varying degrees of processing to satisfy the compositional balance between unity and variation (presented in an earlier lecture on composition).
The final creative project is to create a four minute acousmatic work, or a six minute soundscape composition (the difference in time are the results of the potentially longer source material in the latter, and the lessened need to continually process such material). All processing techniques are available. As mentioned earlier, it is somewhat surprising to hear the level of sophistication achieved by the students in these projects. Comparing recent works with those of previous years has proven that the students’ creative and technical levels continue to rise, leading one to believe that either more competent students are taking the course, or the course material has been strengthened and focused.
One reason for the improvement in student projects has been the development of our Distance Education version of the course in 2002, and the application of its materials to the on campus version. The two courses virtually mirror one another, with the major difference being that students must work at home in the Distance Education version. In its most recent offerings (which have averaged between 35 and 45 students), the vast majority of the students were regular students, as opposed to those removed from campus in more remote locations.
One major difference in the Distance Ed version results from the prevalent home computer being Windows based, as opposed to our Mac based lab. Course material clearly states that no technical support can be given to the students using Windows machines, which has tended to exclude those students without sufficient technical skills. The course was originally designed around ProTools Free; a recent revision has made lab explanations of concepts and techniques available for newer versions of ProTools, Audacity (available for both Mac and PC), and Audition.
Like its on campus companion, the Distance Education version is delivered via WebCT. Lectures are available as webpages, with all audio examples being embedded links to wave files. Labs are printed in hard copy, and available online as PDF documents.
WebCT offers a Discussion section in which students can post questions and/or discussion topics. While it takes some effort on the part of the instructor to initiate discussion, these forums have proven very interesting and valuable. Questions which may not have been raised in class are often posed in these forums.
Furthermore, the in-class presentation of previous students works is modified to work within the Discussion forum, with students being required to post an opinion of at least one of five works. Again, this has proven to be quite successful.
The major achievement of the Distance Education version has been the creation of all lecture and lab material in online documents. Because such documents allow for continued reference, comprehension is not dependent upon the individual student’s ability to take notes in class. This is especially true in terms of teaching composition.
A single lecture on composition will by no means guarantee a student’s understanding, particularly non-majors, of even the most rudimentary elements of such a complex subject. For this reason, many of the issues and principles that are introduced within this lecture are continually reinforced throughout the assignments and labs.
Of the many principles of composition that are introduced, the one that is stressed the most throughout the course, and seems the easiest for the students to remember and understand, is the balance between unity and variation. A great effort is made to explain such abstract compositional ideas through comparisons with popular music. For example, a recent pop song is always broken down to demonstrate form, and the sectional relationships are discussed to demonstrate the balance between unity and variation. The different instruments are discussed in their relationship to layers and density, and the difference between melodic “hooks” and sections is discussed to demonstrate the relationship between micro and macro structure, foreground and background. These concepts are continually stressed during the labs: for example, how to create layers, or how to vary density.
Despite the use of popular material to demonstrate these concepts, students rarely produce work that one would consider popular. This is partly due to the clear separation made very early in the course, between art music and music as entertainment. No value judgment is placed on either, simply a clear distinction that suggests art music implies foreground listening, and thus more thought towards variation of material. The use of rhythmic material is not discouraged in the creative projects; however, it is stressed that the rhythmic material must be thoughtfully treated and varied, rather than serving the simple purpose of establishing a constant groove.
The concept of gesture is also thoroughly discussed in both lectures and labs. Perhaps the most confusing concept taught, it is compared to what the students can recognize the easiest, a sung melodic phrase. Obviously, gesture in electroacoustic music is a great deal more, but giving the students a rudimentary understanding based upon something to which they can relate has proven quite successful. One element of the marking of both creative projects is the use of gesture; comments are returned to the students on how well they used gestures (and other elements), as well as suggestions on how to improve.
Lastly, earlier versions of the course tended to produce student works that exhibited the dreaded sound collage – a haphazard assemblage of weird sounds. This resulted from the students choosing various unrelated sounds from sound effects CDs, processing them in extreme ways, and then placed them in unrelated ways, one after the other, in ProTools. Much of the course has been focused, through the increased presentation of compositional methods, to avoid such projects, which are now increasingly rare.
At the moment, the course is evenly divided between an electroacoustic composition course, and a more general listening course within electroacoustic music. The move towards the latter seemed in the interests of the growing majority of non-majors, who at first had difficulties in creating effective electroacoustic music. However, through continual course revisions that have concentrated upon teaching compositional techniques, such difficulties have lessened, if not disappeared. The most urgent question at the moment is whether a course in electroacoustic composition is relevant for the non-major; but given the course’s popularity, as shown by its increasing enrolment, this question might be moot.
Truax, Barry. ‘Acoustic Communication Studies at Simon Fraser University’, in Soundscape, The Journal of Acoustic Ecology, 2(2),. December 2001, pp. 11–15.
Other Articles by the Author
‘Contour: A Real-Time Midi System Based on Gestural Input’, in the Proceedings of the International Computer Music Conference 1989.
‘Modelling Real-Time Computer Rhythm After World Music Improvisational Strategies’, in Diffusion! Canadian Electroacoustic Community Proceedings 1988.
‘Kinetic engine: Toward an intelligent improvising instrument’, in the Proceedings of Sound and Music Computing 2006.
- Alumni include Jean Piche, Paul Dolden, Hildegard Westerkamp, Arne Eigenfeldt, Susan Frykberg, Damien Keller, Chris Rolfe, Ben Wilson, Scott Wilson, and many others.
- Nine top five winners of the last four Prix Jeu de temps / Times Play, annual competition held by the Canadian Electroacoustic Community for young and emerging sound artists.
- see Truax, Barry ‘Genres and techniques of soundscape composition as developed at Simon Fraser University’, in Organised Sound, 7(1), 5–14, 2002 and ‘Soundscape, Acoustic Communication & Environmental Sound Composition’,in Contemporary Music Review, 15(1), 49–65, 1996.
- Personal communication.
- In the last few years, extensive use has been made of WebCT to deliver all course material and provide additional information.