Like their visual counterparts, sound artists often create physical works but use sound as the primary medium for expression. Common examples of work include sonic installations that are produced to a brief on commission. The installations can often be part of bigger projects driven by arts and culture sectors around the world, shining a light on historical events, contemporary issues or other important concepts. As such, sonic artists exist as storytellers or thought-provokers who use non-linear and non-conventional forms of composition.
Alongside commissions produced for third parties, sound artists will also create pieces to fulfil their own artistic needs, telling a story or conveying a message to draw attention to common problems or issues found in society.
“People who work as a sound artist, none of them like to be referred to as such . This is because the history of sound art comes from three separate disciplines; fine art, experimental music and performance art. So the musicians or people from that background tend to call themselves composers, the artists tend to call themselves artists and the performance artists tend to call themselves performance artists, even though they might all be doing very similar things.”
- John Matthias (Composer, musician and Head of Research at dBs-i)
There is a lot of variation in the day-to-day of a sound artist. They are often engaged with multiple projects at one time and will also have to multitask on things like researching ideas, finding new work and networking. With this role being a freelance pursuit, sound artists will balance their tasks by working on a different thing each day or by splitting their day between creative and other activities.
A typical day for a sound artist could start with focussing on creative elements for a project. This could include recording audio on location, conceptualising how to tell a story with sound, programming audio within a digital audio workstation (DAW), designing or creating any physical items that are needed for a project (like custom instruments) and generally working on their art.
An afternoon might include admin tasks such as responding to emails, applying for funding to start a project, meeting with others also working on a commission or looking for new work opportunities. Work in this sector can come from open briefs where artists pitch their work for a commission with the most appropriate pitch being chosen for the job. Other sources of employment are drawn from the network an artist has built within the industry.
There is a large social element to working as a sound artist and many opportunities to travel. Commissions can come from anywhere around the world, meaning sound artists often get the chance to explore new places and meet interesting people along the way.
Networking is also of great importance and going to industry conventions also plays a big part in a sound artist’s schedule.
“Depending on what I’ve got coming up, I'll either start working in the studio or I might need to create some assets. Maybe I'll go and film something or maybe go and record something outside. Or I might not feel like I can do any of that at that moment so I'll sit down for an hour and reply to emails, which sounds really boring, but it’s such a big part of getting new bits of work off the ground, networking and making sure I’m being responsive to people”
- Kayla Painter (Portfolio musician and experimental producer)
“My day-to-day is incredibly varied and I tend to work in parallel on five or six projects. Some of the day will be determined by what comes in my inbox and how I have to respond with various projects, some will be initiated by me where I move things on, some of the things might involve working with other people...A lot of work as an artist or musician, whatever I want to call myself, is about planning and bringing things together, finding partners, making partnerships, applying for funding and all of those things” - John Matthias (Composer, musician and Head of Research at dBs-i)
If you are interested in subjects like music composition and performance, technology, art, science and wider social and cultural issues, becoming involved in sound art offers the opportunity to explore and marry sets of interests together. Creatives who find themselves working in sound art often have ideas or concepts that they want to explore or bring to life in unique and innovative ways or they might have an idea about a process that they want to investigate.
An appreciation for some of the more conceptual works in the history of sound art would be a good reason to explore the subject in greater depth. Some examples include Alvin Lucier’s “I am sitting in a room”, John Cage’s “As Slow As Possible” and Jem Finer’s “Long Player”. These pieces have more of a conceptual approach to composition and people who tend to think in this way or who are drawn towards these ideas might consider getting into sound art.
“The practice of music was always something that fascinated me, but I quickly realised that I was more interested in the potential of sound and technology to intervene in people’s lives rather then the expression of my own feelings or stories singing into a mic”
- Emmanuel Spinelli (Sound artist and Innovation in Music Production tutor at dBs Institute)
Working as a sound artist can take you around the world collaborating on projects with other people who operate in sound and other art disciplines. Where you will travel depends on the job and the type of people you meet along the way can also be varied too. They include artists, entrepreneurs, philanthropists, architects, academics, musicians, pioneers of social change, people in government and members of the general public who often show interest when you are recording on location.
A sound artist’s career doesn’t necessarily follow a predictable path and work in this field is often gained through reputation, networking and having the right artistic style for the job. With that being said, many commissions are put out as open briefs and if your work resonates with whoever is posting the commission, you will likely get picked to work on the project. Landing your first big project can lead to the start of building a reputation and developing connections in the industry.
Although you will find work based on merit and reputation, being commissioned for work and writing to a brief means there can be some artistic constraints now and again. Having good people skills will help with pitching ideas to stakeholders or other collaborators. With many creative minds on some jobs, you will need to win people over to your creative vision at times.
"All of the best pieces of sound art are works where you kind of look at it, you experience it and go ‘wow this really works because everything fits together beautifully’. Hand in hand with that is the ability to collaborate and communicate… It’s really the ability to see things in a different way; to look at a context and then think, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting if…" - John Matthias (Composer, musician and Head of Research at dBs-i)
Artistic - sound art is often produced using concepts and ideas from different practices. Being an artistic person with an appreciation for fine art, music performance and composition will give you a rounded perspective and skill set that is well suited to sound art.
Altruistic- A strong drive to use sound in a way that is beneficial to society and humanity is important in the sonic art world. Using art to draw public attention to important social and historical issues plays an important role. Having an altruistic nature will help draw you towards opportunities to use your art for the greater good.
Excellent communicator - Communication is key and being able to express your perspective effectively will help you find creative licence for your ideas to be used in big projects.
Abstract thinker - An important skill for a sound artist is the ability to look at things differently turning concepts and contexts upside down to create unique pieces of art that are intellectually stimulating.
Music Composition - Many people who work in sound art would consider themselves composers. Sonic artists enjoy exploring unconventional and non-linear forms of composition alongside more standard methods.
Music Performance - Music performers who are drawn towards pushing the frontiers of how music and audio is presented to the world will often create pieces of work that are considered to be sound art.
Art / Fine Art - Unlike other forms of musical composition, sonic art isn’t restricted to just using sound. The medium for delivery often requires a multi-channelled approach with visual aesthetics also playing an important role.
Working with technology - With such a broad range of contexts and projects to express yourself through, an affection for using new technology in creative works is common practice in sound art.
Music production - Having a strong background in music production as an avenue to create your compositions will provide you with a wider repertoire of delivery methods when working on sound art projects.
Working collaboratively - Being a good collaborator is one of the most important skills to have. The majority of work is with other people and the best ideas are often born out of conversation with fellow collaborators.
Organisation and time management - Most people in the arts world work on and manage multiple projects at once. Being well organised and having good time management skills will help commissions stay on track especially when there are multiple people involved.
Conceptualising - Although there are many important skills for this role, they would be obsolete without creative ideas being present. Being able to understand the context you are working in and develop concepts for expression is at the heart of being a sound artist.
Like most creative pursuits, finding that first significant opportunity can lead to more work and the chance to build your network. Within the sound art world, the majority of pieces being produced are collaborative and finding someone who has similar ideas to you or who thinks in the same way is an important first step.
The environment that cultivates great ideas is often a social one. Many projects start with a conversation between collaborators around a topic where they share a mutual interest. Therefore finding other creative people who share your interests is a big part of the creative process.
Photo: Jess Roth
“Most of the work in sound art is funded publicly through groups like the PRS Foundation and organisations like the Arts Council. The Arts Council is a really excellent organisation to apply for funding and a lot of work tends to be either commissioned or applied for through these agencies.” - John Matthias (Composer, musician and Head of Research at dBs-i)
“The most important skill is to have a good set of ears. The entire history of music theory is a deconstruction of how the ears and brain interact together with the external world, it’s just a way of putting things into boxes but as long as you have a functioning brain and ears then you’ll be fine” - Emmanuel Spinelli (Sound Artist and Innovation in Music Production Tutor at dBs Institute)
“Everybody you talk to usually has a different way of thinking. It’s usually a case of thinking about another discipline that you’re interested in but don’t know a lot about and finding someone that knows about it that you might want to collaborate with. So I guess it’s finding the right collaborator that’s probably the best advice” - John Matthias (Composer, musician and Head of Research at dBs-i)
“If I could go back and tell myself some advice I would probably tell myself to listen to my gut instinct a little bit more because there are a few times where I haven’t done that and I feel like that has led me down a path that has taken me away from what I do which has meant it’s taken a longer round route to get to where I am now” - Kayla Painter (Portfolio musician and experimental producer)
You can work on your skills and portfolio at any stage in your journey to becoming a sound artist. The most important thing to do is start. If you have an idea to express, subject to explore or story to tell you can begin working on pieces of sound art. As you develop your practice you will become more skilled and familiar with approaching art and composition in unconventional and non-linear ways.
As you become more accomplished it’s important to find collaborators who share your areas of interest to work on projects with. The more collaborators you find, the more your skills and portfolio will naturally develop. With a lot of work in sound art being commissioned via open briefs, it’s important to start applying to calls as soon as possible. When you land your first commission you will further develop your network and portfolio.
Our BA (Hons) Music Production and Sound Engineering and BA (Hons) Electronic Music Production degrees will enable you to build your technical skills in music production, sound design, composition, experimental practices and more. Gaining a high level of technical competence will be advantageous for anyone looking to work in the sound art world which often uses a multi-disciplined approach, delivering work across many different formats and mediums.
If you’re looking at postgraduate study, our MA Innovation in Sound, MA Music Production & Sound Engineering and MA Electronic Music Production degrees will provide you with a framework to hone your skillset, while introducing you to advanced techniques and ways of thinking that can translate into your approach to sound art.
Not ready for a university-level course? Both the Access to HE: DJ & Electronic Music Production and Access to HE: Music Production diplomas are the ideal starting point for anyone looking to build a career as a sound artist. You will gain the technical skills and industry knowledge needed to develop your ideas and explore the creative possibilities of working in sound art. These diplomas are provided by our education partner, Access Creative College.