Sound Qualities of Material

by 10. July 2019
Materials surround us everywhere. In every creative discipline they form an important substance with which objects, products, print media, clothing and architecture are designed. In the choice of materials in the design process, the focus is more strongly on the tactile and optical perception of textures, forms and surfaces. The tonal potential of materials is often underestimated during the design process.

About hearing

Remote events have an indirect effect on us through sound waves. We can therefore participate in them. Sound is always connected with actions or movements. This sound energy in the form of vibrations of elastic media is processed in our ear as a stimulus. This events of our environment are brought to awareness through hearing. The environment acquires a character through its sound world. But also the physicality of sound sources (e.g. we connect high sounds rather with small objects and low sounds with large bodies) and their dynamic processes of events (tearing, crumpling etc.) are audible with the ears. The materiality of the sound source can be sensed by the ears, but requires further senses to identify it (seeing and touching). The auditory sense needs the visual sense as verification: “We hear what we see”. The reflection of the sound from the materials in the room form the sound of a room. This individual sound helps us to identify in which space we are and whether it is open or closed. Engineers, architects and designers are concerned with two phenomena in room acoustics that they specifically employ: the reflection and absorption of sound energy. In the acoustic design of rooms, objects, textures or elements are installed in the room which specifically change the sound. A balance of both phenomena has to be considered. For example, a room with too short reverberation time will choke any sound, while again the reflections with too long delay (long reverberation time) will be confusing due to their overlapping. While we can use the visual sense to look at resting objects, hearing always has to do with movement and action. Here a constant sound level (corresponds to constant movement) can be understood as rest (or ignored). Sudden level changes (e.g. abrupt silence) first attract our attention.

A brief glimpse into the history of material sound

The constant technical developments of the last 200 years have shaped today’s soundscape. Noise can be a pleasant or noisy (disturbing) indicator for technical and social developments. They signal impending innovations or necessary changes, such as the steam engine and the railway. The greatest social upheaval was the emerging interplay of technology and manual work in the soundscapes of 18th century factories. After the industrial revolution, the attention for the sound was still increased by the sound conservation. The developments of Edison (phonograph) and Berliner (gramophone) made it possible to reproduce the sound and the ambient noise not only in a fixed position, but also in a temporally and spatially offset manner – in relation to the source. In the first half of the 20th century, there was a flood of noise and, as a result, a transformation of the noise environment. A sound environment sets a certain development to music in the form of a sound vision. While a large part of the population would describe the sound sphere of the early 20th century as an expression of technological progress, we would undoubtedly perceive this world of sound today as a noise nuisance.
If the Roman-antique poet Vergil perceived the sound of war as pronounced loudness, the lute sphere of that time was regularly calm. Vergil describes above all the sound of brass and iron as the sound of war. For centuries, loud monotonous sounds were only used in wars and religious ceremonies. The running pace of the infantry, the roar of the warriors or the drumming of the soldiers until the early modern age, was always also a frightening of the enemies. The supernatural and supreme was always produced by a constant volume and had a psychologically devastating (warlike) or sublime (religious) effect on those involved. The sounds and materials of the industrial revolution were characterized by new materials such as cast iron and steel, but also by new sources of energy such as coal and steam. At first, the new world of noise extended over the large cities of England, but slowly spread to the countryside as well. Where once singing and work still existed as a unit, there is now a mutism among the workers and a noise at the threshing machines and railways. Murray Schafer sees in the acceleration and continuity of the acoustic impulses of the modern world, which eventually merge into new sound energy, a loss of experience and a pronounced sensual indifference of man to his environment. Schafer describes the term and the task of the acoustic designer as follows. Acoustic design must not be controlled from above, but must rediscover a significant auditory culture. This means that the acoustic designer must regulate the effect and enable complex, diverse acoustic experiences. He formulates the interventions of the acoustic designer more clearly as follows: “Eliminate imbalance, slow down tempo, reduce monotonous tones and introduce exhilarating sound“.

Glossary of Hearing

Acoustic Design Acoustic design is an interdisciplinary field that deals with the aesthetic quality of the acoustic environment and transforms this sound sphere. The acoustic designer acts according to the principles of extinguishing or damping certain sounds, testing and releasing newly created sounds to the environment, preserving existing orientation sounds and primarily locating, placing and creating an acoustic environment. Acoustic Ecology Acoustic ecology deals with the effects of sound worlds on the physical behaviour and reactions of the beings living in them. Amplitude The amplitude describes the or intensity of sound oscillation. Audible Range The audible range describes the perceivable pitches and volumes of a human being. Pitches can be perceived between 20 Hz and 20,0000 Hz. The volume is limited downwards by the hearing threshold (the quietest sound a person can hear). At the top, this area is closed off by the pain threshold. In this area, sounds can cause permanent physical damage to the human auditory organs. Bandwidth The bandwidth is the frequency range of a sound. Basic tone The deepest sound of a sound. In the study of the phonosphere, a fundamental sound also describes the background sound of a particular society. For example, the wave noise of a community by the sea. Envelope Curve The temporal course of an amplitude is described with the envelope curve. A sound event is divided into a transient phase (attack), first damping (decay), body (sustain) and decay (release). Frequency The vibration frequency of a sound vibration is specified in Hertz. One Hertz is one oscillation per second. Hi-fi Stands for high fidelity and in electroacoustics describes a high signal-to-noise ratio of the sound information to the background noise of the recording. Murray Schafer also uses the term in lute sphere studies. Here, he describes a hi-fi environment whose sounds are clearly audible and without trapping or overlapping, i.e. are perceived in detail and clearly. Lo-fi In electroacoustics, low fidelity refers to an unfavourable distance between sound information and the background noise of the recording. The noise is noticeably disturbing in the information level of the foreground signal. Murray Schafer uses this term in lute tube studies as an expression of a Lo-fi environment that is flooded with signals. Loud Noise / Din Loud noise refers to various sounds and phenomena. It can be used to describe 1) unwanted sounds, 2) unmusical sounds, 3) strong sounds or 4) signal disturbances. Noise is used almost exclusively as a subjective expression. Noise Is sound with undefined pitch and timbre. The wave-shaped representation shows a chaotic frequency image without recognizable repetition. Signal sound A sound that draws special attention to itself. In the phonometric studies, the signal sound is compared with the fundamental sound. Sound Sound is a complex superposition of fundamental and overtones. Animal sounds and the sound of musical instruments are called animal sounds. Soundscape The sound environment and all its excerpts are described as a sound sphere. Sonority Sonority is the comprehensive term for audible and inaudible sound energy. Sound waves below 20 Hz are called infrasound and sound waves above 20,0000 Hz are called ultrasonics. Tone In acoustics, a tone is an (artificially) generated sound that oscillates in only one frequency. It has no overtones. Tone color The timbre is formed by specific overtones. This allows us to clearly assign the tone of an instrument to a flute or a violin, for example. Each individual has his or her own timbre when creating lutes. Volume The intensity of what is heard is described as the volume. The degree of intensity is perceived subjectively by each individual.


To hear material, the material must go into action. This can happen between materials, or between a user and the material. For sounds to be produced, there must be movement that produces this sound energy. Materials can be …
  • rubbed against each other
  • torn
  • crumpled
  • pulled
  • depressed
  • pitched
  • rushed
  • stroked
  • crushed
  • pleated
  • crumpled
  • convulsed
  • beaten
  • etc.
With its BURGbeat – the pulse of Burg Giebichenstein, Rosenpictures shows an extensive insight into the world of sounds of the materials and tools of an art college. The sound sphere of the BURG is captured and dramaturgically exaggerated by film.
Nowadays, digital samples from audio archives are used in the dubbing of films. In the past, films were dubbed in real time by Foley artists. In the 1920s, Jack Donovan Foley at Universal Studios developed his own way of producing sounds and noises in a targeted and synchronous way to the film. In a single run parallel to the film, all sounds were generated by one or more sound makers. For this purpose, special apparatuses and room installations were designed which allowed the choreography of the live sound to be carried out as smoothly as possible. The artificial noises should resemble the originals as much as possible. If a thunderstorm was to be seen in the film, the rain machine and the thunder apparatus should also create as realistic an atmosphere as possible. They specifically used the sound properties of materials and objects to create the appropriate sounds. A selection is listed here:
  • Corn starch in a leather bag makes the sound of snow crunching.
  • An arrow or a thin stick makes a hiss.
  • An old chair produces a controllable creak.
  • Scorched plastic garbage bags cut into strips make a realistic sounding candle or soft crackling fire as the bag melts and drips to the floor.
  • Gelatine and hand soap make squeezing noises.
  • Frozen Roman lettuce causes noises from bone or head injuries.
  • Coconut shells cut into two halves and filled with padding make horseshoe noises.
  • Cellophane produces crackling fire effects.
  • Acorns, small apples and walnuts on a wooden parquet can be used for bone fractures.
  • Walnuts are used instead of ice cubes in a glass of water because they do not melt.
  • Large and thin metal plates can be used when bending to thunder.
To perfection, the Foley artist’s work was led through the studios of Walt Disney. Jimmy MacDonald, in particular, invented an enormous number of apparatuses and material combinations during his creative phase (1934 – 1977) at Disney in order to artistically stage sound effects.
Nowadays the craft of the sound designer is strongly supported by digital technology. Noises are generated digitally or extracted from digital sound libraries. This process saves time and allows post-processing. Nevertheless, the fascination with the Foley artist’s craft continues. In the advertising industry, the elaborate choreography is skillfully staged in order to charge products and brands with an image of the craft and its value.


In media design, sounds are used to enhance or change the effect of the content or to control the viewer’s focus. Digital media offer countless application possibilities. However, before the sound is separated from the generating object by digital playback possibilities, sound and material should be viewed together in order to better understand their application.
In a two-day workshop, Alexander Rex (student assistant at the materials library of the Burg Giebichenstein Art Academy) and students investigated the tonal properties of materials. The aim was to examine, describe and record the tonal dimension of materials in a selection and to get to know their sound range in order to arouse interest in the handling of materials. Participants of the workshop were students from immaterial and digital studies (MMVR + TIME-BASED ARTS). In the sound studio of the university, video and sound recordings were made, which give an insight into the sound world of materials.

Alexander Rex, July 2019

Further Reading

Adams, Tyler (2016), Sound Materials, Frame Publishers, Minneapolis (USA) Ament, Theme (2009), The Foley Grail: The Art of Performing Sound for Film, Games, and Animation, Focal Press, Burlington, MA Langenmaier, Arnica-Verena (1993), Akustik – Eine Aufgabe des Designs: Der Klang der Dinge, Verlag Silke Schreiber, München Luckner, Peter (2001), Verständigung zu Akustik und Olfaktorik als Material im Designprozess, Burg Giebichenstein, Halle (Saale) Rudolph, Axel (1993), Akustik Design – Gestaltung der akustischen Umwelt, Verlag Peter Lang, Frankfurt am Main Schafer, Murray (1977), Klang und Krach – Eine Kulturgeschichte des Hörens, Athenäum Verlag, Frankfurt am Main Schönhammer, Rainer (2013), Einführung in die Wahrnehmungspsychologie, Facultas Verlag, Wien

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