What is a Soundscape?

Welcome to this series of blog posts that aim to provide a general background with regard to soundscape design, terminologies, methodologies, analyses and so on, all in relation to Building Instruments. In short, this blog aims to:

  • Introduce the concept of soundscape within urban design
  • Highlight the difference between sound and noise
  • Provide examples of where a soundscape could be both positive and negative depending on context and perception

Please check back for updates to this and other blog streams as the Building Instruments project progresses.

Now to begin…

What is a soundscape? 

How to start… Well, please let me start by posing the question, what sound makes you most relaxed? Now, if possible, please take a moment to think, breathe, stop for a bit and honestly reflect…. What sound makes you most relaxed….. ?

Is it the sound of robins tweeting in the distance as you sip a cup of warm lemon water overlooking the canal as the boats gently putter across? Or is it the sound of trees rustling as you walk through the city park in that spare 10 minutes you have for lunch? Or is it even the sound of your favourite band playing your favourite song at the concert you have been waiting almost two years to get to?

As you can interpret from these 3 simple questions, there are a range of sounds that might make you, I, or someone else more relaxed, whilst equally not always being the most pleasurable sound for either of us at any given moment. In short, soundscape could be seen as very personal. One’s perception of sound where they are. Still, at the same time, humans are social creatures, therefore, as we share the space within which we live, we must also share the sound within it, especially in our urban areas.

According to the first International Standard for Soundscape Design: ISO 12913-1:2014 Acoustics — Soundscape — Part 1: Definition and conceptual framework, a soundscape is defined as:

“the perceptual construct … [ of ] the physical phenomenon (acoustic environment), and … [ the perceptual construct ] …  exists through human perception of the acoustic environment.”

While perhaps sounding a little little nebulous, this definition is broad enough to be applied universally, allowing us to infer that to understand a soundscape, we must understand how humans perceive the context of the acoustic environment. The ISO even includes a handy schematic which further deconstructs this key concept, see below. Note also how responses relating to the interpretation of a soundscape can further influence the context before a final design outcome is derived.

Elements in the perceptual construct of soundscape [ ISO 12913-1:2014 ]
For me, I like to describe a soundscape as an individual’s perceived sound within the context of perception. Soundscape can also be imagined in conjunction with the definition of architecture, i.e. being not solely regarding the design of buildings and structure, but about the design of spaces where people live and exist. Therefore, it should also be noted that soundscape design, in full, is a multi-disciplinary field involving the following disciplines, social science, anthropology, urban planning, acoustics, landscape, art, ecology, architecture and hydrology, to name but a few.

So, what do we mean by sound (and noise)?

Let’s start with the definitions we shall use moving forward:

  • Sound – the audible vibration of particles propagating through a medium
  • Noise – sound that is too loud, uncomfortable, distracting, unwanted

Using the above definitions, we can highlight and understand the importance of soundscape and context with an example scenario that reflects what may be a typical experience within an urban environment; an evening walk to meet some friends for dinner.


At around 8:00pm on a summers evening, you walk through an empty street with the rear side of buildings either side of you and nothing particularly eventful occurring, the only sound audible is due to your footsteps. How does this make you feel? Eventually you meet your friends for dinner ‘al fresco’ at around 8:30pm. The music is soft, you can converse easily with those around. Would you say there is a particular ambiance? As the evening moves on, 11:00pm hits and the restaurant becomes a lively bar. Would your perception of a lively social soundscape be the same to a resident living next to the restaurant who is trying to sleep because they need to be up at 4am?

Then flip it and change it… what about if it was at 12pm or even 9am…. ? Would the soundscape perceived be the same for you or anyone else? Even though this above scenario may be trivial, it handily provides three linked contexts each with differing perceptions of 1) A ‘quiet’ or ‘solitary’ soundscape, 2) A ‘social’ soundscape, 3) A soundscape that can be deemed as lively or a cause for a potential noise complaint.

Historically, the method for addressing acoustic matters relating to urban design and construction has been to mainly focus on the issue of noise by following the methodology of, identifying the source, assessing its impact, applying constraints to the design and prescribing mitigation strategies or design upgrades / adjustments, during consultation phases.

Whilst this process is wholly necessary for dealing with annoying or disturbing sound (such a lively bar to a sleeping neighbour), to noise due to construction and motorways and also not forgetting that noise is the “second worst cause of ill-health in Europe”, inducing cardio-vascular related problems, a noise-only focus of acoustic design leaves out considering what sounds have potential to add value to people’s lives through improved wellbeing. Therefore, as sound in itself as the potential to be beneficial or detrimental, defining sound as having potential value, as well as, noise as an unwanted cost is a more holistic view of an acoustic climate, which further widens the incentive to design better.

When is a soundscape Positive… when is it Negative?

For the last section of this blog, let’s delve a bit deeper. Based on notions described above, it is possible to deem a soundscape as ‘positive’ or ‘negative’, through analysis of the combined perceptions of individuals within the context of the acoustic environment. The following juxtaposed sound source examples should help  shine a light on how much perceptions of the same and different contexts can differ. 



If you work in a busy urban area and need to take some respite in a park, you might like to sit under a tree in the shade in a pocket park and allow the birds to serenade you. But if you are on holiday in a new place and do not usually hear the 4am dawn chorus of crows and seagulls, then you may describe the soundscape as negative.



Flowing water can be described as a natural sound that is often comforting to humans, perhaps due to physical and psychological connotations with  life. 

Still, imagine being right next to a raging mechanical waterfall, compared to a gently ebbing and flowing stream? Each water flow with its own unique energy and timbre creates a different acoustic context.

Mechanical (vehicle)


Mechanical sound from vehicle motion can be split into two sources, the engine and the tyres. Up to a certain speed engine noise prevails over tyre noise. An interesting context is where semi-pedestrianised areas use cobbles to make driving above a certain speed troublesome. A consequence of this road surface design is the increase of sound from types above the sound of the engine.. 

Looking at this from a soundscape perspective, is the engine sound as bad as the sound from tyres, or are they equal? 

Music (live)


Hearing a busker as you are walking by. Does whether you find the experience pleasant depend on the song, time of day or whether the player is good, or just the fact that it is a human playing music live…? ….

Music (recorded)


…. then comparing a live musician to recorded music. Is there a difference to your perception when you hear your favourite song out of the speakers of a street food festival, or a DJ musician crafting a new rendition / mix / splice of your favourite song?

Social (restaurant)


When does the ambiance* of the al-fresco restaurant dining experience, where the soundscape is influenced by social sounds of chatting and laughter, become a cacophony of noise affecting the general ambient* soundscape of others who are not dining? 

Mechanical (building services)


… then looking at the rear of the restaurant, where the building services plant recycles and or cools the air within the building, BS 4142:2014+A1:2019 Methods for rating and assessing industrial and commercial sound, can be employed to assess noise specifically in this context. Still, the broadband whirring sound of an air source heat pump can be pleasant for some.



Can chimes with interesting timbres that sway in the wind provide a calming effect similar to rustling trees and birdsong?

Can ‘noise’ in the city be modulated into something more acoustically comfortable, or at least sonically interesting?

Does the art installation reflect the context / people / time of day?


Given the background context, definitions of sound and noise and different acoustic context examples we can begin to see the opportunities that can be pursued in order to overcome the challenges that relate to soundscape design in an urban environment. This being said, this is only the start. Iterative analysis of perceptions, as well as, the efficacy of design decisions / interventions is vital for exploring soundscape design. Welcome to the start of the Building Instruments journey.

Thank you for taking the time to read this introduction to soundscape. Further blogs shall explore more of the Building Instruments research project as well as, key underlying research notions. Stay tuned!


P.S. if you found this blog insightful, perhaps share it to investigate how much sound perception of those you know might differ from your own?


All audio edited from:

https://freesound.org/people/Nox_Sound/sounds/490951/ https://freesound.org/people/Marnenagel/sounds/408468/ https://freesound.org/people/Timbre/sounds/126153/ https://freesound.org/people/Bronxio/sounds/238567/ https://freesound.org/people/Audeption/sounds/425168/ https://freesound.org/people/Robinhood76/sounds/74825/ https://freesound.org/people/InspectorJ/sounds/365915/ https://freesound.org/people/arnaud%20coutancier/sounds/56771/ https://freesound.org/people/rucisko/sounds/322231/ https://freesound.org/people/MacFerret_20/sounds/144148/ https://freesound.org/people/Timbre/sounds/126153/ https://freesound.org/people/ollisuoranta/sounds/351313/ https://freesound.org/people/Bronxio/sounds/238567/ https://freesound.org/people/Marnenagel/sounds/408468/ https://freesound.org/people/Moulaythami/sounds/541684/  https://freesound.org/people/InspectorJ/sounds/353194/