21M.380 | Spring 2016 | Undergraduate

Music and Technology: Sound Design

Instructor Insights

Course Inspiration and Design

In this section, Dr. Florian Hollerweger discusses his inspiration for teaching 21M.380 Music and Technology: Sound Design, his decision to develop the course around Andy Farnell’s (2010) textbook, Designing Sound, how he clarifies the focus of the course for students, and how he tries, through his course design, to help students learn to hear the world in a new way.

Finding Inspiration in Aestheticizing Everyday Sound Experiences

21M.380 Music and Technology: Sound Design grew out of my research interests in sound art and everyday auditory perception. I’m fascinated by listening to the world around me in a musical way and finding artistic means of aestheticizing everyday sound experiences. In the course, we take real-world sounds and try to understand how they work. We then recreate them from scratch without using any recordings. Instead we rely on oscillators, noise generators, and filters, which we control through computer programs that students learn to write as part of the course. In this way, our process is similar to the work of visual artists, who have always tried to recreate and represent the world around them using various media and tools. Painters use brushes. Sculptors use hammers. We use a programming language. The prospect of engaging with students in the process of aestheticizing everyday sound experiences was a major impetus for teaching the course.

Situating Andy Farnell’s Book Designing Sound at the Center of the Course

"Teaching 21M.380 Music and Technology: Sound Design has helped me keep an open ear towards the world around me."
— Florian Hollerweger

I also developed the course, in part, because I wanted to study, in-depth, Andy Farnell’s fantastic book, Designing Sound. His textbook addresses specific sound design problems and provides a practical introduction to Pure Data (Pd), the programming language we use in the course to synthesize sound. As an instructor, I’d always taught courses in which materials were pulled together from many different sources. In 21M.380 Music and Technology, I made the deliberate decision to structure the course mostly around Farnell’s textbook. There are not many books that I would entrust an entire class to in this way, but Designing Sound is one of them. Over the course of teaching the class several times, I then added more and more materials of my own, in particular the practical sound design and programming assignments.

The sound design problems in Farnell’s text range from natural phenomena like wind or thunder, animals such as birds and insects, to machines like car engines and clocks. My hope is that this breadth appeals to the broad interests of the MIT student population. I knew that for each sound design problem, there would likely be a student in the class with intimate background knowledge of the underlying physics. For example, an aeronautics student knows how a helicopter flies, or an earth science student is aware of how a thunderstorm develops over time. These properties directly shape the sounds resulting from these phenomena, and students’ knowledge of them informs the models that we devise in class to recreate these sounds.

Clarifying the Focus of the Class

The subject 21M.380 Music and Technology is offered every fall and spring semester, with topics varying each term. In the past few years, I’ve focused the spring semester on sound design, alternating with a fall semester course on recording techniques and audio production. Because the subject has a somewhat generic description in the course catalogue, at the beginning of the semester, I make sure that students understand what the focus of the class will be. I emphasize that we will recreate sounds from scratch rather than record them, and that we will focus on sounds from everyday life rather than design musical instruments.

This clarification serves two purposes. First, it allows me to delineate the class from other music technology courses at MIT, where these other topics are covered in depth. Second, I hope to expand my students’ conception of musical listening, which does not need to restrict itself to concerts, recordings, or musical instruments. In fact, the idea that everyday soundscapes can be listened to with a musical ear has informed the artistic practices of many composers of the 20th and 21st centuries (such as John Cage or Max Neuhaus, to name only a few). So while it might seem counterintuitive to deliberately exclude musical instruments from a sound design course at MIT Music and Theater Arts, it actually serves the purpose of connecting students with an ongoing aesthetic discourse in music and sound art. I also hope to communicate in this manner that music, like all the arts, is ultimately rooted in our everyday perception.

At the same time, the skills which students acquire in this course are not at all limited to the recreation of everyday sounds. To demonstrate this, in the first class session I showcase several examples that make use of the Pure Data software. Some of them are from Farnell’s textbook, while others show how Pd can be used also for applications beyond sound design, ranging from electronic music composition to the design of automatic player pianos and custom-built music interfaces. Knowing that the tools they are about to learn are useful in other contexts reassures those students who are initially uncertain whether the course will meet their personal interests.

Offering Students a Different Way to Hear the World

Teaching 21M.380 Music and Technology: Sound Design has helped me keep an open ear towards the world around me. The other day, as I was sitting outside in my backyard listening to birds chirping and leaves rustling, I noticed that, in my head, I was going through the sound design process, as outlined by Farnell, that we go through in class. First you analyze the real world sound you want to recreate. Then you gradually try to build a model of that sound, trying to understand what synthesis methods could be employed to recreate the sound.

I thought about how one could synthesize the leaves starting from filtered white noise—and how the spring leaves still sounded young and soft, so that one might need to apply different filter parameters later in the fall. I remembered a bird call that we created years ago in the class, and thought about how this could serve as a basis for re-synthesizing the call of this particular backyard bird. It’s this way of hearing the world that I try to offer my students. The examples from Designing Sound, our discussions, and the assignments in the course are all designed to help students develop this kind of hearing.


Buy at MIT Press Farnell, Andy. Designing Sound. MIT Press, 2010. ISBN: 9780262014410. (Book and accompanying Pd example files.)

Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2016
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Exams with Solutions
Lecture Notes
Projects with Examples
Instructor Insights
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