In our daily lives we rarely encounter one sound in isolation; usually there are multiple sounds firing off all around us. The entirety of the sound in any one location is a soundscape.
The word was coined by Canadian sound pioneer R. Murray Schafer. His concept of a soundscape was essentially an auditory landscape, almost exclusively applied to outdoor locations, and has been used by a thriving aural ecology movement ever since in their campaign against encroaching urban noise and their passionate efforts to record disappearing soundscapes.
I hope that in the future there will be more and more recording and archiving of some of the soundscapes we're going to lose. The internet will make it possible for virtual soundscape museums to be set up, and the effort will be extremely valuable for generations to come. Each great city needs a soundscape archive because it's usually not until something has disappeared that we miss it.
In London, some of the classic sounds my parents knew no longer exist and it would be fascinating to hear them: examples include the sound of tugboat whistles on the Thames, rag-and-bone men calling from their horse-drawn carts and the sound of steam trains in the great metropolitan termini. Characteristic London sounds I know so well and take for granted, like "Mind the gap" on the tube or the sound of black cabs, will not last for ever.
When starting to design a soundscape it's useful to distinguish background sound from foreground sound. This is not a hard and fast rule, and the scale has many shades of grey, but the concept is particularly potent when designing soundscapes. Background sound (also called ambient sound) tends to be quieter, easier to ignore, more continuous, less variable, broader in spectrum; foreground sound tends to be louder, more intrusive, composed of recognisable events, changeable, located in particular frequencies. For example in a restaurant the background sound might comprise other patrons talking, the clatter of cutlery and low-level background music; the foreground sound might be our companion or a waiter speaking to us and the sound of our own cutlery and crockery. In a supermarket, background sound might include people talking, beeping tills, trolley noise; foreground sound might be a staff announcement or a baby screaming right next to us.
The distinction is totally situational, but when we are designing soundscapes we need to ask what foreground sound people will be trying to focus on, and what background will be most conducive to that happening. In some soundscapes the background effectively becomes the foreground: conversation is not the primary function in a nightclub or at a football match.
The question in all cases is: what's useful, appropriate and effective given the nature of the space, its function, the people in it and the brand or values behind it? Every space has a soundscape, and every soundscape should be designed to be appropriate and effective, as well as congruent with the messages being received through all the other senses.
Author of the book "Sound Business"; Chairman of The Sound Agency; BrandSoundTM strategist;