I want to understand what Abstract Sound Design means. I looked at other questions here but couldn't find an answer I fully understood.

What it means in terms of - How do you create it? What is it for? What is it exactly? Anything you can tell me about it would be great.


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    This is an EXTREMELY broad, perhaps unanswerable question; that said, I think it's worth exploring and seeing where creative minds lead the thread. Mar 18, 2014 at 21:15
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    If I've learned anything from the Writers site, it's that Stack Exchange users are good at providing focused answers to questions like this. Mar 19, 2014 at 3:13

4 Answers 4


[Boo. Hi, folks. :-)]

Is there a standard definition of "abstract sound design?" Smarter minds than mine can probably answer that. Personally and subjectively, I think it can refer to a few things. We talk about this a lot with our clients and sound design folks at work, since we primarily do SFX for interfaces.

Just like visual art, sound design can be representative or abstract, two ends of a spectrum. It can represent something that is meant to seem real (a sound we recognize, the sound of a real object or instrument, or real sound(s) recontextualized to represent something new, like a spaceship or creature), in which case I'd call that representative sound design.

Abstract sound design could be construed as a sound that represents something that doesn't usually have a sound (mental flashbacks or character epiphanies, for example), or a sound that itself doesn't have a real world equivalent (many button sounds found in fantasy user interfaces in films). Abstract sounds can be used to represent abstract ideas or concepts, representing both aspects of abstraction at the same time.

As to how they're created, I think this is where sound designers get to flex their creative muscles the most. I'd argue that there are no rules. Resynthesis, waveshaping, synthesis from scratch, huge plug-in or effects chains, even something as simple as playing something in a reverse boomerang loop...it all depends on how the sound matches the visuals for which they're intended, abstract or not, and how much (well, since it's abstract, more like how little) the end listener can identify the sound.

Just my take, of course, and intensely curious to hear what others think.

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    it's GOOD to see you back on the forum! You've been missed and gone too long, fellow Maineiac. Mar 18, 2014 at 21:13
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    Good to be back, Jay. Super nice to hear from you. More soon! Mar 18, 2014 at 21:36
  • Defining Abstract sound design? I bloody struggle defining what sound design is in itself most of the time... And I have done sound for films for quite a long time now
    – ErikG
    Mar 18, 2014 at 21:49

user6513 hit the nail on the head.

Maybe a simple way to put it is-- creating sounds you've never heard before and can't understand, but still appreciate. Anyone can make garbled noises, but sound/audio-based art needs to strike some chord in a person's mind, if that makes sense.

Amon Tobin's 2011 album "ISAM" is probably the most well-known work in this area. Aside from the synths, it was made entirely from recordings he took around the world-- anything from a creaking chair to splashing water. Very interesting stuff.


I think Noise Jockey is giving you a great head start on the topic. I'd like to add to his subjective definition. To me abstract sound design can also be unrepresentative sound design or purposefully misrepresentative sound design. Like placing a dog bark on a car horn, or using the sounds of paper crumpling against the visuals of a building collapsing. Obvious or even not so obvious superimposition of sounds against visual objects. An observer might recognize it as "wrong" or misplaced but purposely so.

Also abstract sound design could be simply sounds and textures made of recognizable or non recognizable sounds but designed to create an asthetic or mood. Abstract in the since that they don't represent or misrepresent anything but just exist in a weird way and leave the listener with wide room for interpretation and observation.

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    Cool perspective, Brad! With a background in visual arts I tend to call the approaches you describe as "surrealistic" as opposes to abstract, but I think such a broad thread should be more about ideas than word choice or semantics. Sound design does indeed often "cross the line" with regard to diegesis, and representative sound can definitely serve unusual purposes in that regard. Thanks!! Mar 18, 2014 at 22:54
  • "Surrealistic" sound design? Hahahaha... You're opening up another path there!
    – user6513
    Mar 21, 2014 at 13:50

Coming from a film sound perspective, here's my 2 cents. I would reckon abstract sound design to be a piece of work that fulfills some of the following criteria:

  • not made to a visual cue
  • an unrecognizable sound
  • an irregular series of sounds that form no linear coherence (did I just make up a word?)
  • produced in an unconventional method
  • a formless or shapeless transmission (i.e. beyond the ability to project from a speaker, using the environment to form an intended soundscape)
  • a sound for a hypothetical
  • a sound that intrigues but is not understood (if it doesn't intrigue, then it's just noise and can't be considered as an intended attempt at designing abstraction.

That last line does it in a little for me. Reminds me of being back in art school but if we did get into semantics though, we would have to deconstruct and define the words 'abstract' and 'design'. Sound in this case, is just the medium.

Pardon me if it makes no sense but it's a pretty interesting question and I thought I just had to try. :D

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    very nice. I too like your last line.
    – user7731
    Mar 21, 2014 at 14:31

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