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Is Sound Design Actually Music?

There is an art to creating good musical sound and texture, but should sound design be considered music?

Sound design can encompass a number of different things from special effects and foley in film production to ambient video game music.

Maintaining my uncanny laser-like focus, in this article I will only address the nature of sound design as a function of music.

Opinions vary among musicians concerning the nature of sound design.

On the one hand, sound design as a function of music involves the arrangement and organization of tones, rhythms, and harmony, just like traditional Western music.

On the other hand, music has... well... musicality.

Sound design defined and defended

If we were to accept "sound design" as pure noise, we could say that any amount of silence or any break of silence, as long as it is intelligently guided or overseen is music.

Let me argue the case for sound design being music and then we'll see if it stands up to scrutiny.

When composers design musical textures, ambient music, and even silence, the music is thought to be part of the natural evolution of music itself, particularly that of the Western tradition.

John Cage knew that the general public would have difficulty embracing this kind of music because it lacked what he considered to be the tradition's oppressive restraints.

Truthfully, music has always evolved over the course of time, and it continues to do so. The music of Richard Wagner would never have been embraced by J.S. Bach.

Music should evolve. Boundaries should be stretched. Expectations should be subverted.

Consequently, traditional tonality and instrumentation had to be abandoned at some point.

After all, music is a language, and like any language, evolution is a necessity – agreed?

Of course, but here's the problem... languages typically evolve naturally and gradually. Evolution cannot be rushed or forced. It has to be part of a natural progression.

If sound design is to function as a subset of music, it should function in much the same way as the music of serialism and postmodernism – in the context of what has already been widely accepted and understood.


Because languages are designed to communicate.

Languages have rules and any attempt to communicate outside the boundaries of those rules is more effective when used in the context of what is already familiar.

This means that if sound design is being created as an intellectual exercise, then it can work in isolation. However, if it is designed as music, which by necessity strives to communicate, it needs context.

There is certainly a need for the creation of sound design. It has a rightful place in the world of music. But it can only truly be understood in the context of the familiar.

So, how do you feel about "sound design" in this context? Does it work in isolation? Can it be understood only in the context of the familiar? Let me know in the comments...


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