Principles for composing location based soundtracks

My research explores approaches to mapping musical structure to the structural attributes of location based experiences, to support composers in the creation of adaptive soundtracks for exploratory walking activities. By musical structure I refer to the component parts of traditional western tonal music such as melody, harmony, rhythm, timbre and dynamics. By location based experiences I refer to cultural visiting, urban tours, nature walks and mobile games or other walking experiences that might benefit from a musical accompaniment that adapts as a user journey through the experience. These soundtracks are GPS driven using smart-phones and headphones. Motivation for this work is partly drawn from film and computer game soundtracks, whose role is to accompany and guide the narrative while assuming a secondary position; the music is not the primary modality of the experience.

My approach to constructing these soundtracks uses two approaches, as described below (refer to annotated map. This map illustrates the structure of a soundtrack created for Yorkshire Sculpture Park that uses the following principles):


YSP annotated map V2

A musical landscape:

A location where an exploratory walking experience takes place is sub-divided into a set of smaller regions that are defined by natural or artificial boundaries, changes in landscaping or areas that surround the location of artefacts, or points of interest (see map). Regions are viewed much like a scene from a film or a level from a computer game and they define the high level musical structure for the soundtrack; meaning each region has a unique musical treatment. This treatment is defined by the employment of distinct melodic themes, rhythmic phrasing, unique groupings of instruments and each region’s music is composed in a different key centre (see annotated map). Adjacent regions have related key centres that create for pleasing modulations of key when users transition between them (see map).

Musical trajectories:

Musical trajectories concern the musical treatment of users’ interaction with artefacts or points of interest that might be situated within regions. This trajectory has four phases:

  • Approach: Utilizing a number of musical devices the music builds up as an artefact is approached. This aims to create tension and anticipation.
  • Arrival: When users are within close proximity to an artefact, an accent or melodic theme marks the moment of arrival and the tension created during the approach phase is also resolved.
  • Engagement: Music of a lower level of intensity is presented to allow space for the user to engage and interact with the artefact.
  • Departure: As user withdraw from the artefact music similar to the approach phase is presented, but without the rising level of intensity. This then prepares the transition into the next region and the commencement of the next trajectory.

The video examples below show segments of a POV walkthrough of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park soundtrack and are annotated to illustrate how the structure of the music adapts in response to the user walkthrough the site.

Example 1: Show a trasnsition between regions and a musical trajectory through a sculpture exhibit.

Example 2:

Example 3:

Example 4:

Example 5:

Example 6:

Example 7: the whole POV walkthough the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, without annotations.

Visitor Study

A group of visitors undertook the soundtrack experience. Amongst many findings, seven experiential factors were revealed that collectively describe the visitor experience as deeply engaging and dissimilar to a typical – non-musically accompanied – visit to a cultural site.

Seven experiential factors:


The participants felt a tendency to slow their walking pace and spend longer observing the exhibits.

Accompanied solitude

Participants stressed how unusual it was for them to engage in such an activity alone, but then discussed the lone experience very positively, suggesting that the music was the primary factor in the formation of a deeper engagement.


Participants also described a sense of detachment or comfort in the face of unpleasant weather conditions (Study undertaken in winter – lots of rain and mud!)

Emotional enhancement

The soundtrack stimulated emotional responses for some. Mostly pleasant, but not always; a couple experienced a strong emotional reaction to a particular exhibit/music combination that pushed them both to want to leave that area.

Increased focus

Participants reported that the music led them to focus more intently on the sculptures for longer durations than they might have otherwise.


Some participants were open to forming connections between musical and visual events, leading to engaging serendipitous encounters.


For the most part, visitors considered their experiences to have been cohesive, rather than unrelated combinations of audio-visual-physical stimuli. Indeed, the majority did not even recognize the automated nature of the soundtrack.

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