R. Murray Schafer in the Electronic Music Studio. Simon Fraser University, School for the Contemporary Arts fonds, F-109-12-7-0-61, "Schafer, R. Murray" (photo), undated. Photographer uncredited.

My "a-ha" moment with Murray Schafer

by Hildegard Westerkamp

"In 1970 or 1971, my habitual patterns of listening were shaken up profoundly when I heard a guest lecture by Schafer at the University of British Columbia (UBC), where I was studying music. It was an AHA moment whose significance was revealed gradually over years to come. The immediate impact was that my ears opened up freely and suddenly to the sounds of my surroundings, and I was inspired and excited to notice them. Later, I recognized that I had experienced a first kind of ear cleaning" (Westerkamp, p. 48).

"Schafer had surprised us by structuring his lecture against our expectations of what a lecture should be. He had placed three or four music stands in different areas of the stage and each one of them was dedicated to a certain topic of music or sound: one to his journey and sound experiences in Persia; the second one to music composition; the third one to soundscape and noise issues. A fourth one may have been dedicated to silence, to not speaking. Throughout the lecture, he moved freely between these topics, connecting them with the sound of his footsteps moving from music stand to music stand" (Westerkamp, p. 49).

"As if this was not enough, someone in the audience stood up in seemingly random intervals, interrupting whatever was going on in the lecture and asked questions like how many airplanes have you heard today or what was the first sound you heard today or how many birds have you heard today and more. Of course these individuals—some of them my later colleagues in the World Soundscape Project —had been placed in the audience intentionally and were instructed to speak at certain points in the presentation. We were in fact listening to a highly composed talk, something I had never experienced before. The unusual format alone, breaking all conventions of standard university lectures at that time, heightened our listening attention and created alertness and utter delight in many of us. And for me personally, my listening woke up from the conventional music studies with which I had grown up and in which I was immersed at that time at UBC. The moment of leaving the music building after the lecture is imprinted in my memory like a physical sensation: whatever had blocked my listening perception up to that point had been removed completely, as if pulverized. Suddenly and literally, I heard all sounds around me without any mental constructs obstructing my full and welcoming aural attention. I experienced this process as inspiration. In fact, it was as if my ears would never close again, and indeed, this very moment—so I realized later—was the beginning of my life’s work" (Westerkamp, pp. 49-50).

Schafer’s lecture, an invitation to open our ears to the whole  world, created a sense of liberation and delight. It gave me permission and therefore a sense of security that it was quite okay to apply my listening to more than the tasks of my musical studies. In fact, it placed my musical education into a larger cultural, environmental context and gave it relevance beyond the walls of the music school and its practice rooms. Ultimately it gave me hope that my love of listening, my ways of listening, could also find a place of action, work and creation in the world.

The lecture made a deep enough impression that I remembered it and phoned Schafer a few years later in the hope that I could work with him and the World Soundscape Project. I was hired within a few weeks of this phone call and for almost a year I was the main researcher on his seminal book, The Tuning of the World (1977).  This experience basically set the stage for the rest of my life. My involvement with this project not only activated deep concerns about noise and the general state of the acoustic environment in me, but it also changed my ways of thinking about music, listening and soundmaking. Vancouver Co-operative Radio – founded during the same time - provided an invaluable opportunity to learn much about broadcasting, and ultimately enabled me to produce and host my weekly program Soundwalking in 1978/79.

One could say that my career in soundscape composition and acoustic ecology emerged from these two pivotal experiences and found support in the cultural and political vibrancy of Vancouver at that time. While completing my Master's thesis at SFU in the 1980s, entitled Listening and Soundmaking - A Study of Music-as-Environment, I also taught acoustic communication courses until 1990 in the School of Communication at SFU together with colleague Barry Truax. Since then I have written numerous articles and texts addressing issues of the soundscape, acoustic ecology and listening, have travelled widely, giving lectures and conducting soundscape workshops internationally.

In 1993, I was instrumental in helping found the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology, an international network of affiliated organizations and individuals who share a common concern for the state of the world’s soundscapes. I was chief editor of its journal Soundscape between 2000 and 2012.

In 2003, Vancouver New Music (VNM) invited me to coordinate and lead public soundwalks as part of its yearly concert season. This in turn inspired the creation of The Vancouver Soundwalk Collective, whose members are continuing the work on a regular basis. For some years now I have mentored a variety of younger composers, sound designers, soundwalk leaders and people pursuing careers in soundscape studies and acoustic ecology.

My compositions have been performed and broadcast in many parts of the world. The majority of my compositional output deals with aspects of the acoustic environment: with urban, rural or wilderness soundscapes, with the voices of children, men and women, with noise or silence, music and media sounds, or with the sounds of different cultures, and so on. I have composed film soundtracks, sound documents for radio and have produced and hosted various radio programs on Vancouver Co-operative Radio.

Some of my compositional work appears in US filmmaker Gus van Sant’s Elephant and Last Days. In 2016 I contributed to the sound design and composition in the film Koneline, Our Land Beautiful by Canadian by filmmaker Nettie Wild. And  in 2017 CBC IDEAS with host Paul Kennedy dedicated a whole program to my work and ‘how opening our ears can open our minds.’  (See

January 18, 2021

Westerkamp, H. (2019).  The disruptive nature of listening: Today, yesterday, tomorrow.  In M. Droumeva & R. Jordan (Eds.), Sound, media, ecology (pp. 45-64) Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan.

Visit the Sonic Research Studio & Word Soundscape Project's website to listen to recordings of historical faculty lectures from CMNS 100, a course offered by the Centre for Communication and the Arts in 1967.

Listen to R. Murray Schafer's lecture "Human Communication, Networks and Culture" (Jan. 11, 1967), as well as a variety of other fascinating lectures from the 1967 course. 

More about the World Soundscape Project and R. Murray Schafer

  • The World Soundscape Project (WSP) was established as an educational and research group by R. Murray Schafer at Simon Fraser University during the late 1960s and early 1970s. It grew out of Schafer's initial attempt to draw attention to the sonic environment through a course in noise pollution, as well as from his personal distaste for the more raucous aspects of Vancouver's rapidly changing soundscape.

  • In addition to his achievements as a composer, musician and educator, R. Murray Schafer brought attention to noise pollution through his pioneering research. To get a taste of his research, read an excerpt from "The Book of Noise," Schafer's examination of what he called "sonic sewage."

  • How can you beat sound pollution? Take a "Soundwalk" to engage with the "concert of sound that occurs continually around you." This excerpt from "The Vancouver Soundscape" provides a suggested route, as well as a walk down memory lane.