On the use of sound editing software for therapeutically oriented art making process


     Art therapists are looking for therapeutic dimensions inherent to creative process. We want to know if certain techniques or mediums can contribute positively to therapeutic outcomes and whether any observable outcomes could be cross culturally valid or individually specific. Beyond that, we often wonder how certain formal (manifest) or symbolic (latent) content in the art product could be  significant for the individual creating it. As an artist and therapist, i look into creative process daily, in the hope that i might discover some new way of seeing or expressing something. Most recently, i re-discovered the pleasure of playing with sound and stumbled upon what i believe to be great creative potential in this medium. Soundscaping designates a process of assembling and transforming made or found sounds to create a piece of sound-art. Sound is particularly evocative of imagery just as mental imagery can ellicit accompanying and complementary sounds. Initially, i set out to learn how the senses of sight and sound could work together to produce a soundscape but i soon realized what might be therapeutic potential in this kind of work, a potential which future art therapists might wish to explore.

     The use of non-verbal sound to communicate meaning will be a novel experience for nearly all participants of art therapy. Think for a moment about a personally meaningful experience, then imagine it rendered purely as soundappart from musicians, not many people have done this. Indeed, we seem to have invented music for the specific purpose of bearing witness to our lives. Ever since we could hear sounds in the environment such as wind in the trees, birds singing, waterfalls and crackling fires we have had some notion of music and some desire to make our own. If you were going to tell a story through sound, would it be high or low pitched? major or minor in key? fast or slow? rythmic or melodic? It would probably depend on what your story was about and how you wanted to tell it. Some of the questions we could ask about a soudscape are the same we might have about visual productions in art therapy: are the images fast or slow, big or small, high or low, light or dark, hard or soft? In fact the very idea that we can use similar adjectives to describe sights and sounds may suggest common underlying neural substrates.

       In this project, i set out to explore how i might use found and made sounds to tell a story and what i discovered surprised me. The whole experience left me wondering about how to maximixe the benefits of sound-and the technology used to edit it- as a medium in the context of art therapy.  I have arrived at the position that soundscaping contributed to a more nuanced understanding of my own experience while expanding the repertoire of communication tools available to me for the expression of that experience in art. The following will describe my arts based investigation into the use of sound as a medium for conveying a message. Potential implications for the fields of art therapy and art education will be discussed. As usual, i will lay out what i think i know about neurology and attempt to draw some links. My hope is always that someone with more knowledge and experience than myself will help me to confirm or deny the validity of what i think i know.

       Given that most participants in art therapy have not worked in the medium of soundcaping, it is assumed that there will be heightened potential for insight and discovery based learning, initiated by participation in a novel activity.  It is hypothesized that reprocessing experiences in novel ways such as through image or sound work can aid in creating new neural circuitry which might then allow participants to review, reorder and reconstruct a given problematic memory. This new way of experiencing one’s lived memories might then circumvent pre-established maladaptive thought patterns (schemas) rooted in older neural circuitry. Put simply, reworking a memory in a new way can change how we think and feel about that memory the next time we look at it. This concept is not new, but has been put to use in treatment of PTSD through trauma informed art therapy practice in the United States. (http://www.trauma-informedpractice.com/, Cohen, 2008, Talwar, 2007).   

       One potential benefit of soundscaping work which might be explored futher has to do with the ability of ”Sensory art therapy practices (to) stimulate thalamic connections to and from cortical and subcortical brain regions. Frequently engaged, these regions may be tested, tuned, and strengthened. Sensory enriched, multi-modal, self- and otherregulated environments are known to help “bottom-up” and “top-down” approaches coordinate and reregulate thalamic gateway functions that shift affective awareness, attention and consciousness(Cozolino 2002; Schore 1994, as cited in Cohen: 2008, p. 50).

A Note on Memory

       Memory is encoded through the senses so it makes ”sense” that use of a given sensory modality in the context of art therapy might facilitate recall for a particular memory associated with that sense.  There is no memory without sensation. This is why we teach the alphabet to children through song. Pairing the semantic content to be remembered (letters of the alphabet, predominantly left brain) with the episodic content (singing the alphabet song, prosody located primary on right side) gives the learning an episodic, experiential dimension which facilitates retention through a phenomenon known as sensory anchoring. The more brain regions involved in storing a memory, the more robust the memory will be.  The sensory modality used to encode the memory leaves a kind of marker or tag on the event so that certain smells, sights and sounds can trigger recall. For example, a cold breeze on my neck once remided me that i had forgotten a beer in the freezer. Because of that cool breeze, i was able to save my beer! In another personally lived example, the smell of Drakkar Noir perfume recently flooded my consciousness with mental imagery of various high school experiences occuring around christmas time when i received the perfume as a gift. The commonly used mnemonic device known as the the method of loci also uses sensory anchoring as a means of increasing retention of semantic content. In this case, the person pairs things to be remembered with places one has been. As one mentally returns to those places, retrieval of the associated memory is facilitated. Music has a rather direct route to the emotional centers of the brain (amygdala, hypocampus, limbic system). Thus using music to stimulate those centers can trigger recall of a memories which remain verbally inaccessible. Imagine the front door of your house is locked when you get home, in this case music is like a key to the side door. These principles are believed to be at work in music therapy for patients with Alzheimer’s. The idea is that memories can get out of reach and all but forgotten for Alzheimers patients but that music can serve as a cue to retrieve them. There can be emotional and sensory cues for a given episodic memory because anything worth storing in long term often has some kind of emotionally salient attribute to it. If we heard a song fourty years ago, we have a high likelyhood of remembering it if we enjoyed it because it figures among our preferences and we are hard wirded to remember things we prefer like foods and things we don`t prefer like pain. If we danced to the music a couple of times, the likelyhood of remembering the song is increased because of the sensory anchoring component. The next time you hear a song you like, notice whether the music itself is facilitating recall of the lyrics and you might be surprised to notice you remember every word. Thus, the feeling state attributed to the content to be remembered may actually be key to retreiving it. The sensory modality primarily associated with the encoding of the memory might be another key to recall. Even  something so rational as a phone number can have emotionality attributed (minor limbic activation) to it because it might be associated with a person or place which has significance for us. If I can get you to think about the thing or place, i might be able to help you to remember a phone number you forgot. Memory recall is nothing if not an associative process.

      This  parenthesis about memory is intended to advance the position that work with the combined sensory mediums of vision (iconic) and sound (echoic) might be utilized to access and reprocess memories which were previously encoded through those senses. Read more about memory by clicking here. For a nice layout of the functional lateralization of the brain, see Dean (1984).

    The  technical challenge of soundscaping as i describe it here would not be appropriate for people with advanced or even mild forms of Alzheimers. The present investigation is concerned instead with the possibility for soundscaping work to stimulate creative potential for moderate to high functioning individuals. In what follows, i want to open a discussion about the therapeutic potential of soundscaping work for people coping with difficult memories.

     Through soundscaping, memories which had existed primarily in the form of mental imagery can take on a new auditory dimension.  Cross-modal processing of a given memory is likely to contribute to greater integration and bi-lateralization of a given experience (memory) in general. Put another way, when memories which were encoded through one sensory modality find themselves processed  by another sensory modality later on, there are greater opportunities for more diverse neurological connections, broader sensory anchoring and ultimately more profound integration of the original experience. This means that new neural pathways to a given experience might be created  and new ways of perceiving the personal significance of that experience becomes possible as well. Our relationship to a given moment in time changes depending on how we are able to look at it. For example, a perseverant recollection of a traumatic event can be sublimated or transformed into a series of sounds to be tinkered with, re-arranged, attenuated, controlled or expressed. This is in part, what is meant in art therapy theory when specialists talk about ”transformative” experience or the transformative power of art. At the core of art therapy theory is the notion that creative process serves the function of transforming given experiences (memories) into new, more adapted ways of looking at and being in the world. At the foundation of art therapeutic principles and practice is the idea that one`s creative potential is evidence of the ultimate evolutionary trait of human resiliency and that deploying that creative potential  in an art therapeutic context could help to reinforce or stimulate resiliency further. If you care for an analogy,  creative process stimulating resiliency is something like echinacea stimulating the immune response. While the technical challenge of the soundscaping method is considered advanced, it is believed that with an hour of instruction and ongoing technical support, most moderate functioning participants with basic computer skills could engage with a soundscaping projet, potentially leading to transformative experience.


     This investigation into soundscaping has been an ear opening experience. Over the four week period of working on this auditory collage, I found myself growing more attentive to what I was hearing daily in my environment. On a couple of occasions I perceived a low whistling buzz in my ears though no external sound stimulus was present and I wondered if this was not a hallucination caused by a new found awareness to the sources of sound around me.  The Audacity software used in this project is designed to help the creative mind edit sounds through the use of sight (computer interface) and touch (Keyboard and mouse) to manipulate the clips in the timeline window. However, the final project remains a strictly auditory piece of art. Or does it? While the experience of sound art is an auditory one, it cannot be denied that few things are more evocative of imagery than sound. If a picture is worth a thousand words, how many words are 2 minutes of sound worth? Claire Cheskin and a small number of other sight impaired individuals have apparently learned to see through sound with the help of adapted technology[1]. Sounds seem to be treated at least partially as visual information in the brain in the area of the inferior parietal lobule which is situated “at the junction between auditory, visual and somatosensory cortexes”[2].


    In the editing process, it was observed that a kind of sensory complementarity was taking place in which sound and vision were engaged reciprocally.  My artistic vision for the final product emerged as mental imagery which was projected onto the kinds of sounds I was intuitively making or finding in the environment. For example, the sound of sand papers rubbing together evoked an image of a steam engine on train tracks. The image-sound of the train then became central to the notion of movement conveyed in this piece. That sound paved the way for the introduction of a steel drums and train locomotive horn clips to sit rhythmically on top of the ‘train’ clip, lending even greater momentum to the sound. With the illusion of momentum, the illusion of space is also necessarily created. The introduction of the clip of George Bush’s voice ellicits the imagery of war. These conjured images were in need of a calming counterbalance brought forth by the sounds of water and wind carefully selected from the internet. The emergent mental imagery (like a film strip in my head) was being driven by the sounds i was making and finding but it was also dictating which sounds to include next in the piece. The result is an auditory story which no words could ever tell completely.  Sound and vision are locked into a perpetual loop of meaning in this kind of work, each sense feeding information to the other.

      In the actual editing of clips on the computer my two trusty senses are once again called into cooperation. The ”Audacity” sound editing program calls visual and auditory memory to task. At times I was working with sound clips in a visual mode, looking at them on the screen (as seen below), moving them between tracks, stretching or clipping and splicing, adjusting relative volumes to pull them up to the front or push them into the background. At one point there were 16 tracks holding two or three different clips each at different locations in the timeline so visual and auditory memory were constantly solicited like R.A.M on a computer to find files, to cut and paste them from one location to another. At times, i would shut my sense of sight off by  closing my eyes,  working in a strictly auditory mode as i listened to the tracks. Closing my eyes helped me to appreciate the sound collage as an unfolding process and to mentally “see” where it was going by piecing the sound-images together in my mind. Attending only to sound, allowed me a certain kind of openness to the emergent mental imagery.  In short order, an auditory story in the form of a soundscape was coming together.


    The whole process was new for me and I am left wondering about further implications for the use of this sound editing application in the context of art therapy. At present, my questions include: “how could working with non musical, non-verbal sound facilitate an art-therapeutic process?” ”does this kind of activity belong more in the realm of music therapy or art therapy?” “What are the neurological and therapeutic substrates and implications of working in a

medium which requires collaboration between senses of sight and sound?” ”is there any research or theory in art therapy which investigates similar work methods?”  ”Can it still be considered art therapy if the image remains in mental form alone and the end product is sound?” ”How would the process be affected by actually producing a visual response to the sound piece or producing the soundpiece as an auditory response to images?”  ”What is the therapeutic value or rationale for transforming mental imagery into non-musical sound?” I will broaden my research by enquiring on art therapy, music therapy and phototherapy blogs, as to how other therapists have used sound or video editing technology with clients in art therapy. As it stands now, I am convinced that there is therapeutic potential in these tools.

Suggestions for further study

    To develop the concept further, a test group could be asked to produce individual images which conceptualize the sound piece they want to make. Once the soundscapes produced, participants images are placed in view on a wall in random order. As the group listens to the soundscapes, they are asked to determine which image belongs with which sound project. As a reflective process, the soundscape could be made first and the accompanying image could then be produced by a group of listeners. The images made in response to a particular sound piece could then be placed on the wall in random order to illustrate the similarities or differences in the individual and collective imagery evoked  in the process of appreciating a particular sound piece.


Neuroscience, Art Therapy

Cohen, N. (2008). Art therapy and clinical neuroscience. London: Jessica Kingsley.

Dean, R. (1984). Functional Lateralization of the Brain. The Journal of Special Education, 239-256.

Talwar, S. (2007). Accessing Traumatic Memory Through Art Making: An Art Therapy Trauma Protocol (ATTP). The Arts in Psychotherapy, 22-35.

Dean, R. (1984). Functional Lateralization of the Brain. The Journal of Special Education, 239-256.



Wikipedia sound design page here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sound_design.

Sound clips: “Flake” “Martin Road” and “The Winds Far Above” located on this page: http://www.last.fm/music/+freemusic-downloads/soundscapes

The effects soundtracks can have on moving pictures: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rn9V0cN4NWs.

To obtain ready-made sounds for editing: http://freemusicarchive.org/, https://archive.org/, http://creativecommons.org/, http://www.sound-fishing.net/, http://www.freesound.org/, http://www.freesfx.co.uk/soundeffects/soundscapes/?p=3.

1] Read more about Claire Cheskin here: http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20727731.500-sensory-hijackrewiring-brains-to-see-with-sound.html#.VE-htfmG8eE

[2] More on the function of the inferior parietal lobule here : http://thebrain.mcgill.ca/flash/i/i_10/i_10_cr/i_10_cr_lan/i_10_cr_lan.html

Alzheimers, Memory

http://www.alzheimers.net/2014-07-21/why-music-boosts-brain-activity-in-dementia-patients/ http://www.alzheimers.net/2013-06-04/music-therapy-for-dementia/ http://musicandmemory.org/music-brain-resources/music-and-the-brain/ http://www.human-memory.net/types_episodic.html

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