CNMN > Projects > Exploring Sonic Lifeworlds: Collaborative Composition in the Large Choral Ensemble

jashen edwards and Patrick Murray

  • Open (def: scores for unspecified instrumentation)
  • Voice
  • Acoustic instruments
  • Digital devices
  • 13 to 18 years of age
  • Adults
  • Intergenerational

2-3 workshops/group presentations over 3 months

  • Education
  • Community associations
  • Diversity

Exploring Sonic Lifeworlds: Collaborative Composition in the Large Choral Ensemble


Singers in this col­lab­o­ra­tive choral music cre­ation project explored how sounds gath­ered from their every­day lives could speak to aspects of place, iden­ti­ty, and com­mu­ni­ty in new vocal sound­scape com­po­si­tions they cre­at­ed, graph­i­cal­ly notat­ed, and pre­sent­ed with par­tic­i­pa­tion from the entire choir. “Explor­ing Son­ic Life­worlds” took place between Feb­ru­ary-April 2023 with the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to Scar­bor­ough (UTSC) Con­cert Choir, direc­tor Patrick Mur­ray, and facil­i­ta­tor jashen edwards.

This project was divid­ed into three parts, which serve as stand­alone activ­i­ties and as a sequence that builds skills and under­stand­ing around col­lab­o­ra­tive com­po­si­tion and col­lec­tive mean­ing mak­ing in sound. Below, we nar­rate the process of each of these activ­i­ties, pro­vide extra resources, and offer stu­dent reflec­tions on the project. A work­book with expand­ed descrip­tions and resources is avail­able to download.

Part 1: Sound Ses­sion Work­shop with jashen edwards 

Pri­or to the work­shop, singers are asked to gath­er mean­ing­ful sounds from their every­day encoun­ters by record­ing and upload­ing cho­sen sounds to an online class archive using the Padlet app (click to see exam­ple, or see links in work­book). Dur­ing the two-hour work­shop, edwards leads singers through a dis­cus­sion of how these sounds impact their every­day under­stand­ing about them­selves in rela­tion to the world. Using the sound col­lec­tion and clas­si­fi­ca­tion (SCC) table resource, singers explore the musi­cal poten­tial present in every­day sounds and impro­vise short musi­cal pieces by re-cre­at­ing these sounds vocal­ly and/or phys­i­cal­ly. Singers gain spe­cif­ic ways of lis­ten­ing and work­ing with sound that pro­vide the need­ed tools to com­pose orig­i­nal pieces in Part 2 of the project.

Par­tic­i­pant Reflec­tion: “​​This fas­ci­nat­ing les­son broad­ened my hori­zons about exper­i­men­tal music-making…Before this ses­sion, I had nev­er imag­ined that all these audi­to­ry sounds could be imi­tat­ed by the human voice, and when com­bined they could be so har­mo­nious and pleas­ing to the ear.”

An expand­ed descrip­tion of the Sound Ses­sion Work­shop, includ­ing the SCC table resource and the UTSC Con­cert Choir class Padlet, is includ­ed in the attached work­book file. Lis­ten to the attached audio for an exam­ple of work­shop outcomes.

Part 2: Sound­scape Com­po­si­tion Activity 

Dur­ing the month fol­low­ing the work­shop, singers orga­nize into small groups to cre­ate short (1–2 minute) vocal sound­scape com­po­si­tions about a topic/theme of their choice that they will lead the entire choir in per­form­ing. While “sound­scape” is our cho­sen term for these co-cre­at­ed com­po­si­tions, singers inter­pret this broad­ly; some groups cre­ate par­tic­i­pa­to­ry songs incor­po­rat­ing melody and rhythm as well as envi­ron­men­tal sound, while oth­ers cre­ate more “tra­di­tion­al” sound pieces.

Each group’s sound­scape must clear­ly be “about” some­thing that speaks to their group mem­bers, and involve sounds from the Sound Ses­sion work­shop. Groups come up with wide­ly vary­ing topics/themes, includ­ing cli­mate jus­tice, Lunar New Year, A Night at the Movies, anti-war protest, and end-of-term fatigue. Singers are giv­en prompts to con­sid­er how they might struc­ture, sequence, and com­bine sounds to form a com­po­si­tion that speaks to their theme. Final­ly, groups must involve the entire choir in per­form­ing the piece. On the last day of class, each group leads the choir through a demonstration/teaching and then “infor­mance” of their sound­scape com­po­si­tion together.

Par­tic­i­pant Reflec­tion: “[This project] gave us the oppor­tu­ni­ty to learn how to cre­ate music that is eas­i­ly taught and inclu­sive to the com­mu­ni­ty. It allowed us to rec­og­nize the impor­tance of con­sid­er­ing what is inclu­sive to any­one with any musi­cal experience.”

The attached work­book pro­vides mate­ri­als to guide sound­scape cre­ation, as well as rubrics for assess­ing the project as a cur­ric­u­lar assign­ment. See also the video below for high­lights from stu­dent sound­scape presentations.

Part 3: Graph­ic Scor­ing Activity

In a final activ­i­ty, each singer cre­ates a “score” for their group’s sound­scape that could serve as a teach­ing aid or guide for some­one else to fol­low or repro­duce their piece. Singers are allowed to use any com­bi­na­tion of text, graph­ics, or vary­ing forms of musi­cal nota­tion to rep­re­sent their sound­scape, and are pro­vid­ed with a tem­plate (see work­book) to help rep­re­sent cer­tain musi­cal ele­ments, includ­ing duration/timing and lay­er­ing of sound. The score need not rep­re­sent all aspects of the com­po­si­tion, but should cre­ative­ly reflect their cre­ation. As many mem­bers of the UTSC Con­cert Choir join with vary­ing expe­ri­ence read­ing West­ern musi­cal nota­tion, this activ­i­ty proves par­tic­u­lar­ly valu­able in reduc­ing bar­ri­ers to par­tic­i­pa­tion and open­ing up per­spec­tives on what con­sti­tutes musi­cal “lit­er­a­cy;” some singers choose to incor­po­rate oth­er forms of musi­cal “nota­tion” into their scores that they feel more com­fort­able with, includ­ing solfege, dig­i­tal audio data, and jiǎn­pǔ (num­ber nota­tion). See Scores below for exam­ples of stu­dent creations.

Par­tic­i­pant Reflec­tion: “I learned that we should not be lim­it­ed by the tra­di­tion­al way of learn­ing music by look­ing at tra­di­tion­al scores and notes. There are many dif­fer­ent ways that music can be rep­re­sent­ed. I tried to apply this con­cept of not using tra­di­tion­al music nota­tion to my music score in the co-cre­ation project. This mind­set of think­ing out of the box is the most unfor­get­table thing I have learned from this course.”


The Explor­ing Son­ic Life­worlds project focused on sev­er­al needs of our own musi­cal com­mu­ni­ty at UTSC, as well as cre­at­ing resources for oth­er choirs and singing groups to use to:

  • Make space for singers to express their own musi­cal and cul­tur­al back­grounds and social jus­tice issues sig­nif­i­cant to their lived expe­ri­ences through sound.
  • Val­ue musi­cal cre­ation along­side re-cre­ation in choral cur­ric­u­la and programming.
  • Prac­tice trans­fer­able skills includ­ing team­work, pub­lic speak­ing, and group facil­i­ta­tion rel­e­vant to music-mak­ing in com­mu­ni­ty spaces.
  • Val­ue alter­na­tive expres­sions of musi­cal lit­er­a­cy through cre­ative visu­al notation.
  • Build rela­tion­ships between singers through col­lab­o­ra­tive musi­cal creation.

Par­tic­i­pant Reflec­tion: “Over­all, our co-cre­ation process was a col­lab­o­ra­tive and enjoy­able expe­ri­ence. By incor­po­rat­ing ele­ments from our indi­vid­ual sound­worlds, we were able to cre­ate a piece of music that was mean­ing­ful to all of us.”

About the Leaders/Participants

Recent PhD grad­u­ate, jashen edwards’ research explores ways every­day sounds can be a cat­a­lyst for cre­ative crit­i­cal engage­ment. Inter­sect­ing schol­ar­ship and prac­tice across the fields of music, music edu­ca­tion, sound stud­ies and sen­su­ous schol­ar­ship, jashen designs and facil­i­tates sound ses­sion work­shops for a vari­ety of edu­ca­tion­al set­tings (e.g. PK16, carcer­al, senior homes, com­mu­ni­ty centres).

Choral conductor/composer Patrick Mur­ray directs the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to Scar­bor­ough Con­cert Choir, and serves as Artis­tic Direc­tor of Chor Ami­ca (Lon­don ON), Direc­tor of Music at St. John’s Elo­ra, and Asso­ciate Con­duc­tor with the Bach Children’s Cho­rus. His research explores the prac­tice and aes­thet­ics of com­mu­ni­ty col­lab­o­ra­tion in con­tem­po­rary choral music.

Unique amongst cam­pus ensem­bles, the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to Scar­bor­ough Con­cert Choir serves as both a cur­ric­u­lar and an open-access (non-audi­tioned) com­mu­ni­ty choir, wel­com­ing approx­i­mate­ly 100 singers each term from pro­grams across the cam­pus and serv­ing as a cred­it course for stu­dents in the Music and Cul­ture concentration.

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