So What Exactly is Spatial Music Anyway?


Spatial music is simply any form of music in which the placement or movement of sounds in space is a composed aspect of the work. While it is often associated with the development of electronic and electroacoustic music in the 20th century, spatial music is in fact much older. Call and-response patterns can be found throughout history in many different cultures and musical traditions, and this is of course by definition a rudimentary form of spatial music. In Europe, the antiphonal call-and-response of medieval church music developed into the increasingly elaborate polyphonic choral music of composers such as Adrian Willaert, Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli, and Orazio Benevoli. One notable example of this type of spatial music is Thomas Tallis’ Spem in Aliumwhich was composed in c. 1570 for forty separate vocal parts divided among eight choirs (the Spatial Music Collective had lots of fun creating an electronic realization of this piece for eight loudspeakers at the 2009 Dublin Electronic Arts Festival!).

In the twentieth century, composers such as Charles Ives, Henry Brant and Karlheinz Stockhausen composed numerous works of spatial music involving multiple orchestras (Charles Ives – The Unanswered Question (1908), Karlheinz Stockhausen – Gruppen (1955-57)), large numbers of loudspeakers (Iannis Xenakis – Hibiki-hana-ma (1970)), and in one case, the entire city center of Amsterdam (Henry Brant – Fire on the Amstel (1984)). So what exactly is it that motivated these different composers to write this type of music?

Well, one of the advantages of spatially separating different groups of musicians or loudspeakers is that multiple, independent lines or musical layers can be more easily perceived and followed. Composers such as Charles Ives, Henry Brant and Karlheinz Stockhausen often used a spatial distribution of musicians or loudspeakers to facilitate both the performance and the audience’s perception of music containing many, simultaneous and complex layers of independent and sometimes quite dissonant material (described beautifully by John Cage as the “co-existence of dissimilars”). Of course this spatial separation is a practical necessity when musicians are performing entirely independent material at different tempos and in different keys, and these practical performance issues are another important aspect of this type of music (something which this blog will return to at a later date).

For electronic music, the use of more than two loudspeakers is also beneficial in all sorts of ways. Surrounding the listener with loudspeakers allows you to put the listener inside a recorded or synthesized sound scene in a way which cannot be easily achieved using simple stereo. In addition, the ability to dynamically move sounds around the listening space can be a hugely expressive aspect of electronic music, and can provide a really strong sense of physicality and gesture in the invisible or acousmatic music for loudspeakers alone. I can still remember the first time I encountered this type of music and being immediately struck by just how different this was to the electronic music I had encountered before. It’s been a source of fascination ever since and the focus of much of my work since both as a composer and academic.



So spatial music is definitely not a new idea, however, what is new is the ability to record matching audio and video from all directions using 360 audio/video hardware, and virtual reality. Something which we’ll look at in the next post!


3 thoughts on “So What Exactly is Spatial Music Anyway?”

  1. I guess the 1997 album from the Flaming Lips, Zaireeka, qualifies, the album was designed to be played simultaneously on four separate audio systems.


    1. Yeah indeed, as would the DVD release of Yoshimi Battles…..
      That’s not the best example though as the drum kit just spins around in a circle for almost the entire album, which is a bit surreal and leaves you a little dizzy after a while!
      The Quad mix of Dark Side of the Moon still holds up well, depending on your tolerance for Pink Floyd?

      Liked by 1 person

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