Considering Space in Music

This paper will bring us to consider how a piece of music and its individual musical materials and ideas might be impacted, altered, or transformed by the spatial elements/qualities that exist in music recordings.  As background, it will examine and define the dimensions of the spatial elements/qualities of music recordings.  This leads to some observations of the characters, qualities and uses of these spatial elements, and concludes with questions and directions for further inquiry to better understand and to qualify the impact of spatial qualities in music.


The spatial qualities inherent to music recordings primarily function at two basic levels of the music’s structure; one at what LaRue would call the “large dimension” and the other at a “middle dimension” (LaRue 1996 pp. 5-8).  Each of these levels has distinct and unique spatial qualities.  These qualities contribute greatly to shaping the music at these two primary levels of dimension.  It is common to have spatial elements or relationships of spatial qualities that exist or function between these two primary levels, and to have spatial qualities that exist and/or function at lower structural levels; evaluating these levels brings a focus to levels of detail from the subtlest of activity in microanalysis, to middle-analysis (of middle dimension materials and activity), and macroanalysis (at the highest structural level) (White 1994 pp. 21-22).

The two levels of middle and large dimension will serve as meaningful references and points of departure for the study of spatial relationships in recorded music, as they dominate the listeners’ conception of the music recording (Moylan 1992 pp. 55-61, 239) and are the materials directly crafted in production practice.  These two levels of perspective or detail are what separate the mastering engineer (who works largely—but not exclusively—in the large dimension) and the mix engineer (who works largely—but not exclusively—in the middle and small dimensions).

These two primary levels can be defined as the dimensions of (1) the overall sound of the recording/music and (2) the qualities and relationships of the individual sound sources or groups of sound sources contained in the recording/music (Moylan 2007 pp. 233-239).

The spatial elements that exist at these two dimensions are outlined in Table 1.

Overall Sound:
Sound Stage Dimensions
Perceived Performance Environment
Individual Sound Sources:
Distance location
Image size (width)
Lateral location
Environment characteristics

Table 1. The spatial qualities of music recordings organized into the two primary structural levels.

Spatial Qualities of the Overall Sound

The spatial qualities of the level of the overall sound are (1) the characteristics of the perceived performance environment and (2) the dimensions of the sound stage.

The perceived performance environment (PPE) is the overall space where the music ‘performance,’ the music ‘recording’ is heard as taking place.  It is the environment of the sound stage.  This environment binds all of the sound sources and their individual environments into a single performance area, with its own global environmental characteristics. (Moylan 2007 p. 54)

The characteristics, or dimensions, of the perceived performance environment are (1) any frequency alternations to the overall sound of the recording (incorporating bass ratio), (2) how those alterations unfold over time, (3) reverb time and density, (4) predelay and the spacing of reflections in the early time field, (Case 2007 pp. 264-269) (5) ratio of direct to reverberant sound, and (6) unfolding dynamic relationships between the direct sound and reflections/reverberation (Blauert 1983 pp. 278-282).  These aspects of the perceived performance environment are created by any environmental characteristics applied to the overall program, and/or the environmental characteristics of important, prominent or unique sound sources within the recording.

This brings the PPE to establish a context for the music: an overall space within which the listener ‘hears’ or ‘conceives’ the piece of music as existing.

Figure 1. Spatial dimensions of the overall sound of music recordings. (Moylan 2007 page 50)

The sound stage is the singular area occupied by all of the sound sources of the music, as an aggregate or group.  It has an apparent physical size of width and depth that are defined at the level of the individual sound source: (1) the dimension of width is defined by the furthest right and the furthest left sound (lateral localization) and (2) the dimension of depth is defined by the most distant sound source and the closest sound source.  The size of the sound stage can be fluid, with the potential to change size throughout the music (bringing the listener to different relationships to the music); the sound stage also has the potential to establish and maintain a stable context for the music, with a fixed area within which all of the musical activity is perceived as taking place.

Phil Ramone (2007 p. 187) presents his perspective:

“The most effective mixes take full advantage of psychoacoustics, which is why I mix in two dimensions: in stereo and in depth.

Creating a good layer from front to back and left to right offers depth and allows the instruments to breathe, which amplifies their tonal qualities.  It also brings clarity to the mix.”

Figure 2.  Individual sound sources placed on a sound stage. (Moylan 2007 p. 52)

Spatial Qualities of Individual Sound Sources or Groups of Sound Sources

Individual sound sources in music recordings will be placed on the sound stage at a specific distance from the listener (distance location), and at a specific location in the stereo field (lateral location).  Further, the lateral image will have a width that can vary from a very narrowly defined point in space up to a size that can occupy the entire potential 90-degree span of the stereo sound stage.  A point source phantom image occupies a focused, narrow, precise point on the sound stage; a spread image is perceived as occupying an area between two boundaries, its size can vary greatly.  Any group of sound sources can have the same qualities, and be placed as a section within the ensemble on the sound stage.  In surround sound, spread images can completely immerse the listener or occupy any sized area.

All sounds or groups of sound sources have the potential to be placed in their own individual environments.  The qualities of the environment fuse with the sound quality of the sound source to create an overall timbre to the sound, and also to provide the illusion of its placement in a unique physical space.  These sonic spaces can have dimensions that are very realistic, and can replicate or imitate actual physical spaces of virtually any type.  These created environments can also have sound qualities that defy our natural physics, and these types of environments have been described as “the appearance of a reality that could not actually exist—a pseudo-reality, created in synthetic space” by Moorefield (2005 p. xv).

Environments can impart a quality of depth, or a front-to-back area to a sound.  This however, is not actual distance location—which fixes the ‘front edge’ of the sound on the sound stage, by the amount of low-energy detail present in the sound source’s timbre (Blauert 1983 p. 118, 123).  The characteristics of environmental cues can be reduced to the time, amplitude and frequency anomalies of the reflections of the direct sound in the captured or created environment (Moylan 1986 pp. 9-10).

Sound sources are not placed at unique elevations in two channel or surround recordings, as elevation angles cannot be reproduced by loudspeakers on the same median plane (Borwick 2001 pp. 11-15; Moulton 2000 p. 120).  Some conceptualization of perceived elevation related to pitch/frequency level, an apparent result of head-related transfer function, does exist on a limited basis, but has minimal influence on our perception of elevation and it is processed differently by individuals because of the unique physiology of our outer ears (pinnae) and individuals’ head sizes and shapes (B. Moore 2004 pp. 250-251).  Allan Moore’s sound-box representing “virtual textural space” (2001 p. 121) utilizes vertical placement as one of its four dimensions, where “the frequency of sound determines its placement on the vertical plane, with higher frequencies perceived to be placed in the upper zone of the sound-box and lower frequencies occupying the lower section” (Dockwray and Moore forthcoming 2010).  Gibson (2005) presents a similar concept aligning pitch/frequency with elevation.  It is important to note this is not an element of the actual spatial locations and relationships of sounds, but rather a conceptualization of vertical placement of pitch (representing register), much aligned with the concepts of ‘pitch density’ and ‘timbral balance’ (Moylan 2007 pp. 225-229); this element is therefore not incorporated into this exploration of spatial dimensions in recorded music.

Some Fundamental Analysis Questions and the Origins of a Methodology

A number of accomplished colleagues are studying the use of space in music recordings; they are making observations and evaluating impacts of space on the music, its expression, and its musical materials.  This basic outline of analysis questions, and this rudimentary premise for the initiation of a methodology to understand the content, construction and function of spatial materials are humbly offered to supplement and incorporate the work of these people and to provide some point of reference as we move forward in exploring these elements.

Some Fundamental Analysis Questions

The fundamental questions for evaluating the impact of spatial characteristics in music (music recordings) are broad, encompassing the most far reaching and the subtlest detail.  This point of departure for evaluating spatial dimensions centers around the understanding that spatial qualities can be characterized by (1) the qualities of their states or characteristics—as unchanging attributes and dimensions—and by (2) any activity of changing states within any of the spatial dimensions, as exhibited by either individual sources, groups of sources, or by the overall texture.

This approach is also concerned with how spatial qualities can serve to create a context for the piece of music or for musical materials, and how they can to provide enhancement of musical materials or ideas.  It can also be extended to the possibility that spatial qualities have the potential to be or to generate musical materials in and of themselves (Tenney 1986 p. 89).  It is important to remember that the term ‘spatial qualities’ refers to all of those outlined in Table 1, and that any of those qualities may be more active or more significant at any point in time (Schaeffer 1983), and at any structural level (micro-level, middle level, or macro-level; small dimension, middle dimension, or large dimension).

Table 2 is a rudimentary outline to begin exploration.

Is the activity or state(s) of any individual spatial quality a musical idea in itself?
In what way does ‘it’* impact the musical material?
In what way does ‘it’* enhance (contribute to) the musical message, musical meaning, or the delivery of the musical material?
Does ‘it’*:
Represent substantive material or ornamental embellishment?
Shape the musical idea(s)?
Impart character to musical materials?
Impact the music directly?
Shape the musical experience of the listener?
* ‘It’ is the activity or state(s) of distance, stereo or surround location, environmental characteristics, perceived performance environment, and/or sound stage dimensions.

Table 2.  Some fundamental questions towards evaluating the spatial qualities of recorded music.

Origins of a Methodology for the Evaluation of Space in Music Recordings

A basic theoretical framework is proposed as the origin of a methodology for the evaluation of space in music recordings.  This methodology should incorporate three basic activities: collection of information on the spatial elements, evaluating the content and characteristics of that data, and arriving at conclusions of the states and activities of the spatial elements and their impacts (Moylan 1983).

Timelines will assist in collecting and analyzing data.  A one-page large dimension timeline should be created to document the major structural divisions of the piece and their length; data on overall sound dimensions can be added to this in the following stages.  A longer middle-dimension timeline with enough space to clearly show changes of distance locations and/or phantom image locations or of entrances and exists of sound sources will be of great assistance.

Collection. Information on all of the spatial elements (distance, stereo or surround location, environmental characteristics, perceived performance environment, and sound stage dimensions) will be collected, as they exist at the middle and large dimensions; activity in the small dimension will present itself as subtle detail within the middle dimension.

The sound-box (Moore 2001 p. 121) can be used to notate sources for distance and lateral placement.  The following sound stage diagram for a two-channel stereo recording can also be used for these purposes.

Figure 3.  Stereo sound stage with distance designations.

For surround sound recordings the following diagram can be used.  It will also document distance of sound sources from the listener location as well as lateral angle and phantom image sizes and locations.

Figure 4.  Surround sound stage with distance circles.

These diagrams will allow the collection of data in sections of time of stable activity.  When sources change locations or sizes, or sources exit or enter the texture multiple diagrams or X-Y graphs might be needed.  Figure 5 Introduction and one diagram or the first Chorus of “Here Comes the Sun.”

Figure 5.  “Here Comes the Sun” from The Beatles’ Abbey Road, two sound stage diagrams, measures 1 – 8 and 9 – 13.

An alternative to sound stage or sound-box diagrams is to plot the spatial dimension against a timeline such as the following example:

Figure 6.  “A Day in the Life” from The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, stereo sound location graph, measures 1 – 34 (Moylan 2007 p. 187).

Spectral and time characteristics and dimensions of environments of individual or groups of sound sources, and of the perceived performance environment should be documented.  These will nearly always be stable throughout the piece of music, but changes at major structural sections can occur.  (Moylan 2007 pp. 176-223)

Evaluation. This is an examination of the data collected to determine the characteristics and usage of the spatial dimensions.  The following table forms a rudimentary framework for initial evaluation, knowing each piece of music will be unique in some way and thus will need a flexible set of criteria for evaluation:

Number of states of an element (distance location or image sizes and locations)
Number and types of different characteristics (individual environments and PPE)
Rate and degree of changes of any element (especially image locations)
Amount of activity in each element (i.e. how often do sound stage dimensions change)
Boundaries of ranges/states (i.e. furthest left and right; nearest and furthest; longest and shortest decay times; etc.)
Patterns of changes, speed of changes, rhythms of changes
Patterns of characteristics and states (i.e. similarities of certain environmental characteristics; certain image sizes; certain depth of sound stage location groupings)
Identification of preferred or predominant types or characteristics
Identification of characteristic use of elements for the song.
Identification of unique use of spatial elements in the song.

Table 3.  A rudimentary framework for initial evaluation of spatial dimension characteristics.

Conclusions. This is an examination of the characteristics and usage of the spatial dimensions to identify how they function and contribute to the shape, motion and message of the music.  The uniqueness of materials, of usage and functions of spatial dimensions and of the song will become evident and understood here.  Pertinent conclusions may rightfully take the form of some, all or none from the following table:

Does the song establish a typical use of spatial dimensions (and coupling with musical materials) conforming to normative practices, or does it deviate from the norm?
Has a unique language and stylistic usage of elements been established?
Do spatial elements create a context appropriate to the musical conception and message of the song (overall dimensions)?
Do spatial elements create relationships and characters appropriate for the musical materials they present and appropriate for the relative significance/importance of the materials to the texture/music (individual sound sources)?
How do the individual spatial dimensions contribute to or create motion or movement in the song?
How do the individual spatial dimensions contribute to or create shape and structure in the song?
What spatial dimensions are used structurally as musical ideas and which are ornamental, embellishing the musical material?
Where do extremes of states or activity occur structurally?
Where do changes of the sound stage or perceived performance environment occur structurally?
What unique structural design elements exist?

Table 4.  Potential topics for conclusions on the functions and usage of spatial dimensions in music recordings.

Exploring the Roles of Space in Music—At the Level of Individual Sound Sources

This section will examine some of the roles of space in music at the level of the individual sound source, or small groups of sound sources.  This structural level is also where musical materials (melodies, harmonies, rhythms, etc.) exist in their most complete and immediate forms.

We will examine several different recordings and versions of The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” to explore the qualities of various spatial elements in the music, and examine their impacts.

Distance location

Distance is the perceived location of the listener in relation to the music, the sound stage, and/or to an individual sound source.  In creating or capturing a music recording, sounds become placed at a distance to the listener.

The amount of distance can play a significant role in shaping musical impacts and sound characteristics.  Its impacts can be manifest in the listener’s connection to the music and the musical material, the immediacy of the musical message, and a sense of context for the sound stage and the musical texture.  Most important in terms of distance is the placement of the lead vocal; it establishes a position of the phonographic narrative, “as the aural index of the artist’s persona and represented emotions” (Lacasse 2005).

Some important observations are:

1.  Level of intimacy with the source:
Very near to listener?
Heard from afar?
2.  Degree of connection of the listener with the music and its message:
Strong connection?
Some detachment?
In Each: to what degree?

Table 5.  Several potential impacts of distance location.

In these ways we can have our perception of the physical presence of the voice and instruments, coupled with their musical materials transformed.  The listener can be brought into a physical relationship to the music in a unique way; they can be drawn into becoming part of the ‘story’ (music) or observing the ‘story’ (music) from some distance.  Either way, the relationship imparts an impact on the musical experience.

Figure 7. Sound source locations, beginning through first chorus of The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” LOVE version.

For the LOVE version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, the distance locations of the George Harrison’s lead vocal and Gibson J-200 guitar pull the listener into an intimate relationship to the musical material and the message of the music.  There is a sense of closeness and a strong connection in these parts and, though a bit less so, the solo cello line during the material through the first verse.  These are dramatically different from the more detached string parts of the chorus.  In the chorus the sound stage changes in width and depth, although the distance locations and relationships of guitar and vocals do not change markedly.  Careful attention will reveal subtle changes to the image size and the environmental characteristics of Harrison’s vocal, note: this is not a change of distance location—it is a change of the sound quality of the vocal’s host environment coupled with a broadening of the phantom image.

The original ‘White Album’ version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” contains striking differences in the character and placement of the load vocal and the acoustic guitar.

Figure 8. Sound source locations, beginning through Verse 1 of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” ‘White Album’ version.

There is a substantial difference in the distance location of Harrison’s Gibson J-200 acoustic guitar and his lead vocal in comparison to those locations we observed in LOVE.  They are no longer in the area of proximity that is very close to the listener, within the listener’s personal space (Moylan 2007 pp. 190-191).  They are now further away, and more detached from the listener.  The listener is now observing the story from an appreciable distance, instead of being intimately connected with Harrison the storyteller.

Do these different qualities of distance bring each version to be communicating something different?  Or do they bring each song to communicate the same message differently?  Perhaps both are possible when proposed from different perspectives.

It is clear the “poignant,” “meditative,” and “somber” version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” from LOVE is profoundly different musically from the “raucous, electric” version on the ‘White Album’ (Hertsgaard 1995 pp. 252-253).

The question remains: just how do the dimensions of distance location and sound source size and location bring the listener to a different relationship to—and understanding of—the music and its message?  And how do these factors shape music’s substance?

The answers will be found in an examination of the complete song, with its overall spatial characteristics and the spatial dimensions of the individual sources as they present, shape and/or propel the musical materials and the song’s expression and message.

Lateral imaging to enhance music

The placement of sources along the width of the sound stage brings lateral imaging.  Sounds are provided with locations and size.

In the both of the above versions of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” the lead vocal is mixed to the center of the sound stage, but the ‘White Album’ vocal image is considerably wider.  In this way it remains quite prominent in the mix although it is at a greater distance than the LOVE version’s mix, and it is also at a lower loudness level.  Zak (2001 pp. 156-157) describes the “multifaceted nature of prominence perception” noting “a sound’s stereo placement cab affect prominence” and “encompasses all of the other parameters of the mix” that allows for this perception.

Consider, these as well: Does the width of the lead vocal in each version contribute in other ways?  Does this image width in the White Album version that brings the vocal more prominence also bring it more significance?

Important general observations regarding image size and location would begin with identifying:

  • Where are the sound sources on the sound stage?
  • Where are the musical materials on the sound stage?
  • What size are the sound sources?
  • What size are the musical materials?

This could lead to pertinent observations of image size, using the following table for a beginning.

Amount of physical presence in the mix (space occupied on the sound stage).
Prominence that is not related to loudness.
Is the Size of the image proportional to the musical importance of the sound source?
Does the size of the source establish a context or reference for other sources?

Table 6.  Phantom image size concerns in music recordings.

Is the sound source in a location that separates it from others?
Does the location of the source provide a level of prominence that is not related to loudness?
Does the location of the source establish a context or reference for other sources?
Does the image occupy a location with other sources?  If so:
Are they presenting similar materials?
Do they have similar sound qualities?
Do they have similar musical functions?

Table 7.  Phantom image location concerns in music recordings.

Table 7 brings fundamental questions regarding location of sources.  These two tables explore potential ways imaging can enhance, extend the character, or provide ornamentation to musical ideas.  The impacts are potentially profound, and these tables are but a humble starting point for exploration and inquiry.  These tables, as well as distance location can be used for blending or fusing sounds (and their musical ideas) with similar treatments, and various degrees of dissimilar treatments can bring various degrees of contrast, distinctiveness, prominence, etc.

Allan Moore offers, “the most important features of the use of this space [horizontal location, provided by the stereo image] are the types and degrees of density filling it (whether thin strands or blocks), and the presence in this space of ‘holes’, that is potential areas left unused” (2001 p. 121).  The ‘taxonomy of mixes’ he and Ruth Dockwray are devising holds significant promise to help us recognize and understand more deeply certain ‘common practices’ that have developed in constructing mixes (forthcoming 2010).

Lateral imaging as musical idea

Image location can be extended to be a primary musical idea in itself.  Recordings have incorporated ‘rhythms of locations’ into musical fabrics.  In these instances, rhythms are created by the locations of sounds on the sound stage; patterns of locations are presented to the listener, and the repetitions and alterations of these patterns can create musical interest just as the patterns of changing pitches, timbres or harmonies.

Drum solos are common places for rhythms of locations, functioning in parallel with the specific drum and cymbals of the passage; for instance in The Beatles’ “The End” (from Abbey Road 1969) the tom drum rhythms are underscored by their separate hard-left and hard-right locations, providing a rhythm of location to the drum solo’s rhythms of time and timbre.  In practice this can be extended to repeating the same sound (or different sounds from the same source) and establishing a pattern of soundings from different, specific locations.  This as evidenced in the ‘cash register’ sounds of the surround version of “Money” by Pink Floyd (from Dark Side of the Moon 2003).

Imaging can be used to “enhance the meaning of a song” by contributing to the delivery and depth of message (Katz 2004 pp. 42-43).  Katz discusses the opening of “Strawberry Fields Forever” where sounds are placed in unlikely positions relative to the listener and exhibit impossible image sizes to create a “fantastic disposition of sound that persuades us that ‘nothing is real.’ ”

Providing a sound with motion or some level of movement is also found, and functions as a musical gesture in itself or is used to enhance a musical idea.  Figure 5 provides diagrams of the sound stages of the first 13 measures of “Here Comes the Sun.” In that figure is a box representing the area of the Moog glissando that moves from left to center at the end of the song’s introduction; the motion of the sound complements and parallels its change of pitch and becomes an integral part of the musical gesture.  Figure 6 presents the opening verses of “A Day in the Life” where the lead vocal is given a subtle ornamentation of motion.  Over the course of this lengthy section, it very gently moves from the right side of the sound stage to the left, with image width varying slightly along the way.

Unique environments for any or every sound source

Music recordings can, and often do, place individual sound sources (or smaller groups of sources) in their own, unique environment or ‘performance space.’  These environments provide changes to the timbre, or sound quality of sound sources, as well as provide the sound sources (and their musical materials) with additional spatial dimensions. (Blaukopf 1971 p. 170)

Environments have their own sound qualities that fuse with the timbre of the original instrument/voice to create a new timbre.  This new timbre may be subtly different from the source without the environment, or substantially transformed.  The sound quality of an environment is the result of the spacing in time and the dynamic levels of reflections and by frequency areas or specific frequencies that are accentuated or attenuated by the environment, when a source is sounded.  The proportion of direct sound (unaltered by the environment) to the sounding of the source in the environment (reflections and their characteristic frequency response) will determine the extent the sound source will be altered by the environment.

In this way, as the sound qualities of environments fuse with the timbre of the instrument/voice, they become part of the spectrum (frequency content) of the instrument/voice, and become incorporated into the timbral balance of overall texture (Moylan 2007 pp. 195-201).  The time elements of environment qualities provide the instrument or voice with added spatial character, as they represent the geometry of the host environment of the sound source.

The perceived geometry or the ‘illusion of physical dimensions’ of sound source environments contributes to the sound quality and adds spatial characteristics.  This allows environments the potential to generate reflections (time elements) and sound quality (frequency elements) for the sound source and to use the environment’s sound to (1) provide color (timbre) alterations to the instrument or voice [this is considered under ‘echo’ and ‘ambience’ by Zak (2001 pp. 70-85) and under ‘presence’ by Everett (2009 pp. 339-346)] or to (2) extend size of the sound source image, as occurred to Harrison’s vocal in the LOVE version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” above.

Table 8 provides some preliminary considerations for evaluating how music is transformed or enhanced by environments.

Does the environment complement the sound source? The musical material?
Does the environment enhance the sound source? The musical material?
What is the size of environment relative to real-world physical size of instrument?
What is the size of environment related to the type of musical material and its significance?
Does the environment broaden the sound source image?
Does the environment deepen the sound source image?
Does the environment provide the source(s) with other distinguishing qualities?
Does the environment provide the source or musical material with increased prominence in the musical texture?  Significance?

Table 8.  Environment sound qualities and dimensions in music.

Exploring Spatial Qualities of the Overall Sound

The overall texture of the recorded music has a number of dimensions; among these are the spatial aspects of the perceived performance environment and the sound stage.  These dimensions will (1) provide a context for the music, and  (2) establish a point of reference against which the activities and states of individual sources are measured and understood.

Perceived performance environment

The perceived performance environment is the space within which the song takes place.  Its size is the geometry or dimensions of the ‘performance space’ of the song, and is conceived as a combination of cues from all sources and any applied characteristics. It is static, or unchanging in its dimensions, although its dimensions may gradually show themselves as the song unfolds.  This concept can shape the music in meaningful ways.  To understand how, we can begin by considering:

  • How is the concept of the song reflected in the size of the song’s ‘overall space’?
  • Is the song bigger than its space? Compatible with? Smaller than?
  • Is the song enhanced by its perceived performance environment?  In what way?

Remembering the PPE establishes a context for the music as an overall space within which the listener ‘hears’ the piece of music as existing.  We consider the character of this environment and how it complements or shapes the music.  We consider the state of this environment as static and unchanging, or if it changes we consider when and how.

In usage, the perceived performance environment might exist in a number of states.  The following ways seem to be most common, and more certainly exist:

Most commonly, and typical of classical and jazz recordings, the qualities of the PPE are static, and do not change.  Recordings intended to capture or replicate a ‘live’ listening experience will have all of the characteristics of the PPE apparent from beginning to end.

In recordings with more manipulated productions the dimensions of the PPE might unfold, being gradually presented to the listener over time, but one single environment exists and does not change.  The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” is one example of such a recording, where instruments and voices are gradually introduced during the course of the song, and provide the listener with an expanding and contracting PPE.  A single performance space is evident, but the listener is provided with only portions of the environment until the full instrumentation and breadth of the work arrives after 2 minutes have passed.

Some songs have more than one PPE.  This is not common, but this does occur.  It may take the form of juxtaposing two or more perceived performance environments as the piece changes from section to section, with striking changes of character.  The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” transports the listener from one PPE to another by way of an orchestral bridge (1:45 to 2:15); Lennon’s first section (0:00 to 1:45) has an overall environment that is substantially different from McCartney’s section (at 2:15).  The listener is then brought to a third PPE at 2:50, then at 3:18 abruptly returning to the first perceived performance environment.

Sound stage

It is common usage in recordings with a single PPE to have sources change in distance locations and horizontal location to the listener and size, and still exist within the same overall environment.  This often occurs between major sections, with verses having one set of relationships and choruses having another.  This is a typical use of the sound stage being used structurally in delivering the message and expression of a song: placing the listener at different perspectives to the musical materials and performers between major sections, while maintaining a consistent point of reference in a single perceived performance environment.

As we learned above, the boundaries of the sound stage (left-right width, front-rear distance) are fluid, and have the potential to change as the work unfolds.  Returning to the two versions of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” we can recognize that a change in the width and depth of the sound stage occurred in the LOVE version as the Introduction, Verse 1 and first Chorus unfolded.  The White Album version used the sound stage differently: the sound stage boundaries were established at the very beginning, and created a context within which all of the entering instruments and voices were placed and established their locations.

In considering the sound stage and its relationship to the musical materials, the following Table 9 could serve as an initial point of departure to lead to pertinent evaluations and conclusions:

Where are the [instruments, lead vocal, etc. and their musical parts, etc.]
What size are the [instruments, lead vocal, etc. and their musical parts, etc.]
How far from the listener are the [instruments, lead vocal, etc. and their musical parts, etc.]
Where are the boundaries of the sound stage:
Front edge
Rear wall
Furthest left and furthest right sound sources
Where is the listener located in relationship to the front edge of the sound stage?

Table 9.  Considerations of the sound stage.

Surround sound’s sound stage and perceived performance environment

Thus far we have been examining spatial qualities and relationships of two-channel, stereo recordings.  With surround sound, there are a number of important potential states that can be very different from stereo recordings.

While all but one of the spatial dimensions discussed above remain conceptually unchanged, how they relate to the listener—and to the listener’s location—can be markedly different.  The medium can surround the listener with the sound of the music.  This provides potential for a very different experience, with greater flexibility and potentially greater emphasis on the music’s spatial qualities.

The overall spatial elements of the perceived performance environment and the sound stage remain.  The PPE has the same dimensions and functions in surround as in stereo recordings.  The sound stage in surround has the potential of new dimensions from stereo.

The differences relate to the potential size of the sound stage, potential size of the sound sources, and the listener’s relationship to the sound stage and its sound sources.

The spatial dimensions at the individual sound source level remain the same for distance location and lateral location and image size, with the potential change that sound sources have the potential to be placed anywhere around the listener and have greater size.  Environments of individual sources (or groups of sources) have the potential to exist in a very different and unique manner in surround: the fusion of the direct sound with the reverberant sound that always occurs in stereo (and in our real-world experiences) may be altered in surround to place the two entities in different locations (Holman 2008 p.135), providing a very different—and potentially surreal—experience.

The following tables outline the important variables and dimensions of surround sound’s sound stage and phantom images characteristics (Table 10), the unique potential locations of ambiance (Table 11), and the listener’s potential locations and relationships to the sound stage (Table 12):

Size of sound stage
Same as the stereo sound stage
Wider than stereo, extending the sides
Sound Stages in Front and back
Complete Circle, with sounds covering 360°
Location of sound stage
In front of the listener
Behind the listener
Wrapping to/around the sides of the listener
Encircling the listener
Placement of sources
Similar to stereo
Instruments at sides
Instruments in back
Moving sources
Potential for sound sources to move slightly, through 360° around listener

Table 10.  Variables and dimensions of the sound stage and phantom images in surround sound.

Related to sound sources
Fused with the sound source timbre and location
Placed in different locations from the sound source
Placed behind the listener
Related to perceived performance environment
Room sound surrounding listener
Stereo sound stage with surround channels used for ambiance

Table 11.  The potential locations for the placement of ambiance in surround sound recordings.

As observer
Very close to the front edge of the sound stage
Some detachment from front of sound stage
Considerable detachment from the sound stage
Sound stage or sources behind the listener
Enveloped within the recording
Seated within the ensemble and inside the sound stage, immersed in the music and performance
Surrounded by the music and ambiance (with some detachment—from very little to quite considerable—from the ensemble)

Table 12.   The listener’s potential locations and relationships to the sound stage in surround sound recordings.

Distance in surround

In surround sound, the listener’s relationship to the sound stage continues to establish a relationship to the music and its communications (expressions/emotions and meanings).  The listener is placed at some distance from the concepts: perhaps intimately close (by very near sound sources of significance), perhaps at a considerable distance.  The relationship of the reverberant energy to the listener, and the use of the rear channels can bring the listener to be observing the performance (recording) within an environment they are experiencing but not necessarily occupying, within an environment they occupy, or even by being seated within the ensemble and its sound stage (especially when instruments are located behind the listener and the rear sides).

The distance location of the listener relative to the sound stage can extend from being largely detached from the sound stage, to being very close to the front of the sound stage.  These are the same as stereo recordings.  What is strikingly different about surround is that it is possible to place the listener within the sound stage, which will provide a very different presentation of the music to the listener.  Phil Ramone (2007. p. 254) shares his approach to mixing a surround sound recording of Elton John’s Radio City Music Hall concert in June of 2004:

“The beauty of mixing . . . in 5.1 surround sound is that it allows us to purposefully design the mix to make the listener feel as though they’re sitting in a certain spot in the venue.  I think it’s cool to bring the listener onto the stage, giving them the sense that he or she is standing right next to Elton [John] and his piano.  There’s something about that close proximity that allows for a lot of detail to be heard—detail that you would never hear if you were watching the concert in a big arena.”

Location in surround

Location in surround continues to include the size and lateral location of images, with the concepts discussed above.  Obviously, with surround sound the size of the sound stage can be extended considerably, as the boundaries can be pushed to surround the listener, and the size of images can also be extended to any size up to 360° around the listener  (though difficult in production practice, conceptually this is possible).  How the size of the images and locations of the images interrelate with the associated size and locations of the musical materials presented above factor equally in surround.

The separation of sound sources (and their musical materials) and their host environments is possible, and is potentially important.  The location and size of ambiance/environment sound can significantly transform the significance, prominence, character and/or sound qualities of sound sources and their musical ideas.  This must be factored into an examination of how spatial properties enhance, transform or present music.  Figure 9 depicts the surround lateral locations of the Lowry organ, tamboura and John Lennon’s vocal from “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds (from Yellow Submarine 1999); the placement of the vocal’s ambiance away from the direct sound image is represented by the density of dots.

Figure 9.   Surround image placements from The Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” (from Yellow Submarine 1999) (Moylan 2007 p. 237).

Surround sound stage in practice

Figures 10 through 15 provide illustrations of the changing sound stage for the surround sound mix of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” from LOVE.  Listening to the music recording on an accurate surround sound system will provide an experience substantially different from the two-channel, stereo version discussed above.

The musical parts are spaced further apart in the surround mix, and given more room and less competition—and in some ways less connection to one another.  The dimensions of the sound stage evolve as the music progresses, with the listener gradually becoming more and more immersed in the music of the song, as they are further and further enveloped by the sound stage and the sound sources/musical materials; still, the sound stage does not fully envelope or immerse the listener with instruments or voices from the rear, and a certain degree of observation (and detachment) is maintained.  Differences in distance locations and lateral locations and image sizes are also evident and significant.

Figure 10.  Surround Sound mix of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” from The Beatles’ LOVE, measures 1 – 8.

Figure 11.  Surround Sound mix of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” from The Beatles’ LOVE, measures 9 – 24.

Figure 12.  Surround Sound mix of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” from The Beatles’ LOVE, measures 25 – 40.

Figure 13.  Surround Sound mix of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” from The Beatles’ LOVE, measures 41 – 48.

Figure 14.  Surround Sound mix of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” from The Beatles’ LOVE, measures 49 – 56.

Figure 15.  Surround Sound mix of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” from The Beatles’ LOVE, measures 57 – 72.

Consider: How are these spatial differences between the stereo and surround mixes significant musically?  Do these changes in spatial quality communicate something different (change of the concept of the song or its meaning or its substance)?  Do these changes in spatial quality bring the materials and their presentations to merely communicate the same substance differently (change the quality of the material as ornamentation, but not alter its substance)?

An elegant and eloquent correlation has been drawn between the use of space in the LOVE versions and the White Album version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and the ‘Explorations in Visual and Acoustics Space’ of McLuhan and Powers (1989 pp. 62-63):

“It is a matter of the experience of time and space.  A Westerner, for example, arranges flowers in space; the Chinese and the Japanese harmonize the space between the flowers.”

This observation of the West concept to the White Album contrasting with the Eastern character of the LOVE versions was graciously provided by Thomas MacFarlane during the Question and Answer session following the delivery of this paper on November 15, 2008.  This is a very pertinent way of interpreting space and the relationships of sources differently, depending on the context and character of the music—those intangibles that are often so difficult to incorporate into music analysis and understanding.

In Closing

This is the beginning of a search for a greater understanding, and not intended to offer an overview of practice, or a theory of principles.  It has been offered to establish a framework and to start a context for inquiry and for discovery of how space functions in recorded music.

Spatial qualities of recordings are potentially striking, and their sonic significance is undeniable.  These spatial qualities can become an integral part of the composition or add important characteristics of many types.  They can:

  • Transform musical materials and relationships;
  • Provide added dimensions to instruments and voices;
  • Enhance the overall musicality of the recording;
  • Give added meaning and character to a song’s musical parts;
  • Contribute to a convincing presentation of the song;
  • Enliven and enhance the delivery of the message or the emotive expression the song/music is communicating;
  • Add substantive musical material to the song;
  • Provide a context or point of reference for the recording/music.

The underlying questions remain:  How do we define the activities and states of spatial qualities as musical materials (concepts) or as ornamental embellishments within the musical texture?  How do we calculate their impact on the music, their functions and significance?


My appreciation and thanks to Simon Zagorski-Thomas for having the forethought and tenacity to make this organization, journal, and series of annual conferences a vital community.

Thanks and gratitude to Thom MacFarlane for reaching out to me in offering a significant insight into differing cultural and aesthetic perspectives on space and the placement of sounds/objects in space/between spaces.

Deep respect and thanks to Allan Moore for sharing his prepublication manuscripts with me, and for his significant research and scholarship in the areas surrounding this paper, and so very much more related to the music of our times and its origins.

To my colleagues from near and from far who attended and participated in ARP08: thank you for making the conference a rewarding experience for my University of Massachusetts Lowell colleagues and students, and for me.

Finally, thank you to my good friend and colleague Alan Williams for applying his considerable talents into seeing these Proceedings into their final, publishable form.

About The Author

William Moylan

University of Massachusetts Lowell


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