Exploring Music's Complexities

How do Spatial and Surround Sound Music Work?

Spatial Music

When a composer intentionally arranges a composition to incorporate sound location it becomes Spatial music or Surround Sound. Not a new technique, it can be found as chants in Christian western music dating back to biblical times.  The term, if used as a component specific to new musical techniques, is often translated as “space music” . The term spatialisation deals with electroacoustic music to describe either the projection and localization of sound sources in physical or virtual space or as sound’s spatial movement in space (1).

Examples of space music include more than seventy works by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (canticles, litanies, masses, Marian antiphons, psalm- and sequence-motets), the five-choir, forty- and sixty-voice Missa sopra Ecco sì beato giorno by Alessandro Striggio and the possibly related eight-choir, forty-voice motet Spem in alium by Thomas Tallis, as well as a number of other Italian—mainly Florentine—works dating between 1557 and 1601 (1).

A number of 20th century composers produced  spatial compositions including Charles Ives‘s Fourth Symphony (1912–18) Rued Langgaard‘s Music of the Spheres (1916–18),  Edgard Varèse‘s Poème électronique (Expo ’58), Henryk Górecki‘s Scontri, op. 17 (1960), Henry Brant‘s Ice Field, a “‘spatial narrative,'” or “spatial organ concerto,” awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Music, in which Brant precisely dictates the placement of each player onstage.

Surround Sound

Surround Sound is created by sending information through multiple audio channels to speakers set up at specific locations around a room.  Expanding on the spatial techniques, quadraphonic sound produces a more complete sound than two speakers on opposite sides of a room (stereophonic sound). It does this by merging four channels into two speakers.

Whatever the setup, the key element is a receiver. The receiver takes all of the encoded audio and decodes it, sending signals to each speaker and providing clear sound from all directions to the “sweet spot” in the middle (3).  The receiver understands what kind of audio stream is coming in (Dolby Digital, Dts, etc) and switches modes accordingly. When it sees something outside of what it understands, it will typically default to Dolby Prologic where it uses an algorithm to determine what to send to what speakers.


Today we are experiencing technological developments which allow the listener to access a broader distribution of spatial music via smartphones since at least 2011, to include sounds experienced via Global Positioning System localization (BLUEBRAIN Matmos, others) and visual inertial odometry through augmented reality (3,4,5)..

3D audio effects are a group of sound effects that manipulate the sound produced by stereo speakers, surround-sound speakers, speaker-arrays, or headphones. This frequently involves the virtual placement of sound sources anywhere in three-dimensional space, including behind, above or below the listener.  According to professionals in the field, 3D audio is an immersive audio format included in Amazon Music HD for playback on Echo Studio (7).


  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sound_localization, retrieved Sept 21. 2020.
  2. Surround Sound Science. https://texadiasystems.com/av-guide/residential-av/surround-sound-science/
  3. Surround Sound and Spatial Sound or 3d sound. https://www.viar360.com.
  4. Weigel, Brandon (1 October 2015). “Your hurricane soundtrack is here: download this new interactive app from Matmos”. The Baltimore Sun. Retrieved 12 September 2020.
  5. ^Palladino, Tommy (17 April 2019). “New iPhone App Fills Your Living Room with a Virtual Orchestra”. Next Reality. Retrieved 12 September2020 
  6. ^Copps, Will (14 April 2019). “Building Augmented Reality Spatial Audio Compositions for iOS” (PDF). TCW A/V. Retrieved 12 September2020.Dehaan,
  7. Daniel (2019). “Compositional Possibilities of New Interactive and Immersive Digital Formats”. Northwestern University. Retrieved 12 September 2020.








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