Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Music Design: The Definition

I have been trying to formulate the definition for what exactly 'music design' is. So here goes -

Music Design is the selection of music to fit in with the characteristics of a particular space in which it is played. The process of music design occurs when the activity of listening to music is considered to be secondary behind a more important task being done at that time. This is a relatively new phenomena introduced with the popularity of recording media and the ubiquityu of music through loudspeakers several decades ago. Before this time, music design did not really exist as music was heard either in concert halls (symphonies for the privileged few) or as part of a live communication within sections of society (tribal music, folk music) where 'listening' was always the primary activity.

There are lots of examples of music design in our world today, such as:

1. Music design for a car journey (e.g. music selected as 'driving music' which fits the journey and passengers, but is secondary to the primary activity of driving the car'.)
2. Music design for a dinner party (e.g. background music to fit the primary activity of eating and socialising that fits the type of guest attending).
3. Music design for background music in a commerical premises (e.g. Muzak, in-store radio, Open Ear where music is secondary to shopping, eating or drinking).
4. Music design for film (selection of existing music tracks to fit the environment created by scenes in the film)
5. Music design for advertisments. i.e. selection of existing music to fit a TV or radio advert
6. Music design for bars usually selected by a DJ but always secondary to drinking and socialising (NB. this is not the same as listening to a DJ in a club which I would class as being the primary activity of a club-goer and in the last 20 years has been accepted as a 'performance'.)
7. Listening to music on a walkman or iPod (although a bit of a grey area). The best example of this at the moment is LCD soundsystems composition of a track designed to be used for Joggers with Nike shoes and an iPod.

This is NOT to be confused with these which are not music design
1. As stated above, DJs in a club
2. Listening to music at home (primary activity is listening)
3. Going to a concert
4. Sometimes listening to music on a walkman or iPod

The reason I believe the term 'music design' must be accepted as a credible practice is because it is an extremely valuable skill for those who are good at it. In much the same way as interior designers gain credit for their ability to create inhabitable spaces, 'music designers' should exist and be given credit for their ability to expertly design music to fit in with its surroundings, including the style and visual design of the space, the people who use the space and the brand or business which owns the space. The same can be said of 'music designers' in film and TV who are not composers or producers, but rather use different skills altogether to source and select existing music which fits perfectly with a scene or represents a product perfectly.

Good music design for commerical premises can helped generate much more business for that space by helping create an atmosphere that makes people stay longer, enjoy the experience, spend more and be more likely to return. On a much more personal level, good music design for activities such as jogging can help keep one more motivated, and good music design at a dinner party can make conversation easier as the atmosphere is more relaxed. Bad music design has the opposite effect and has a serious detrimental effect on mood, behaviour and motivation.

One of the reasons I feel that music design is not properly valued at this point is because of the overwhelming preference we have for visual stimuli in our lives. Sound is much more of a subconscious thing and not immediately obvious unless you train yourself to focus on aural stimuli. However, many studies show just how important sound is in effecting our behaviour, mood and mental health.

To take a parallel example, film studies always explains that sound is of equal importance to visuals. This is one of the reasons the cinema industry still exists as one has the opportunity to experience hi-fidelity sound on a 10.2 (or larger) surround sound set up. When asked, your average cinema goer would attribute their love of cinema down to the larger screen, but I believe it is an equal combination of the large screen and sound which creates the experience and makes going to the cinema attractive.

To sum up, I believe the ability to design music to fit in with a certain activity or space is a very important and much undervalued skill. With the term 'music design', I hope to introduce to a wider audience the importance of good music design in the aural environments that we all live.


Barry said...

Selecting "high quality" music for a space hides many important secondary issues.

All sounds shrink the acoustic arena of other sounds. One must also consider which other sonic events will become inaudible. The aural space coexists with visual space. Injected sounds are like erecting visual walls. But with sounds, one cannot "see" these new boundaries.

For example, when wearing headphones, the listen is existing in another aural space, having been transported out of the current space into the sound engineers version of a musical space. Any loud music creates functional deafness to sonic events in the immediate area.

That is both good and bad. In an automobile, it can be dangerous because one can no longer hear a truck entering the driver's blind spot. In a school chemistry laboratory, one cannot hear the warning sounds of zizzling chemicals.

Injecting music is an explicit form of being an aural architect. And that requires the language of architecture. What is the goal?

But this raises many interesting questions about why people like loud music. In my view, it is a kind of "drug" that changes the listener's ability to day-dream or tune out. Hearing is intense and not under control of the listener. There are no earlids. Hearing is 24/7.

Before trying to decide what music to inject, one should ask what about the goal. Intensity is probably far more important than content in terms of the social and emotional consequences.

For those interested in this subject, more information is available in my new book, Spaces Speak, Are Your Listening? Experiencing Aural Architecture which MIT Press just released. To get more information, visit or the MIT Press web site at

Brian Harvey said...

I agree that the most important question to ask is 'what is the goal?' when playing music in any space. All too often this question is not considered, as commercial spaces decide to play music because they feel
1. Everywhere else plays music
2. Any music ambience will effectively fill uncomfortable silences and create a suitable 'atmosphere'

However, these two points are clearly not enough to create suitable aural environments - If the 'goal' is not considered, spaces can become sources of noise pollution for many, leading to unsavoury aural environments.

If indeed, the main activity (such as driving, eating etc) is adversely affected by the masking effect of the music played, then action must be taken.

I believe this can be recitified by adopting a more conscious design lead approach where the music selection is derived by giving each particular sonic space a goal. This goal taking into consideration all the acoustical elements of the space, not just music.

This means we should not only consider the selection of each particular track to fit in with the users and function of the space, but also factors such as the acoustics of the space (reverberation time, SPL etc) and the loudness and EQing of the music system.

By treating all the sonic aspects of each spaces like one big musical composition, we can start to think more about each space's aural charateristic and how we can influence their acoustic design. Since it is costly/difficult to make structural and architectural changes, music design is one thing that we can influence, and one way in which we can immediately improve the way our spaces sound.

Barry said...

Without being explicit, you are actually saying that a "sound designer" is an aural architect. This would have been obvious except that the responsibilities, concepts, and language for this role are not well developed.

I have begun the process of established a common language by posting a draft of a glossary of terms and concepts, which can be downloaded from

Comments, suggestions, and additions are welcome.

Brian Harvey said...

Just to be completely clear about this, the term I am using was not 'sound designer', but 'music designer'. I bring this up because the discipline of 'sound design' is already well established and usually manifests itself in the production of particular sound or collection of sounds. The most obvious example being the foley artist who devises sound effects for film. The discipline of sound design is much more than just sound effects and is a true art form in itself, with sound designers such as Walter Murch being globally respected as practitioners of this art.

'Music Design' on the other hand, is not yet established and is the goal of my writings in this blog as well as my business Open Ear to help it become so. I can be explicit in saying that I think music design is intrinsically attached to aural architecture, but I would also argue for it's existence in its own right, possibly as a subcategory of aural architecture.

The reason for this is due to the fact that our world, especially when focusing on commerical and public spaces, is overwhelmingly saturated with music. More often than not in my experience (and of other users of this blog - see 'your experiences section), our musical environments are badly 'designed'. The is perhaps due to the lack of understanding in this area, and lack of wider acceptance of the discipline in the academic and business worlds.

My understanding of the role of the aural architect is that he controls the spatial characteristics - the architecture, the acoustic quality of the surfaces etc. The music designer, more specifically, deals with the use of commercially available music used in the space, much like how an interior designer would use different colours of paint or patterns of wallpaper to introduce a visual character to the space.

My feeling is that what we are talking about here with aural architecture and music design is the same as the difference between the disciplines of architecture and interior design. Whilst architecture is obviously the more widely accepted and traditionally 'important' discipline, western culture in the 21st century places more demand on the need to have a brilliant visual aesthetic which is provided by interior design practices, using tools such as colour, graphics, light and layout instead of making changes to the building structure itself.

It is for this reason, I would advise for the inclusion of 'music design' into your glossary.

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