A sound sculpture is any sculpture that produces any kind of tone or percussive action. It also can mean a sculpture inspired by, but which does not produce, sound. Less commonly, the term refers to just the opposite — that is, a sound that creates a sculpture or work of art. Both are considered contemporary or avante garde in art and music.
Sound sculptures that make tones and percussive noises have only one basic requirement. This is a sound initiation source, or something that makes the sculpture engage. For example, the artist might design a complex series of tubes that whistle when air passes through them. The initiation source could be the natural wind from the outdoors, a fan or the air passing through a vent connected to an air conditioning system. Aside from this, the color, size, medium and overall design of a sound sculpture is entirely up to the imagination of the artist.
When a sound sculpture does not percuss or create tones but is inspired by sound, the artist faces the formidable challenge of translating a specific sound into a visual concept. This is difficult because what visually comes to mind when a person hears a specific sound is based largely on culture and individual experiences.
Sculpture created by sound relies entirely on the principals of vibration, amplitude and frequency. All sound creates sound waves that physically travel through matter. If the right amplitude and frequency is available, the sound waves can become visible as movement of a material. For example, an artist might take a very wet clay on a sheet of metal and use sound waves to vibrate the clay into a random pattern. This is a relatively uncomplicated method of sculpting with sound.
An artist has one other option when it comes to a sound sculpture created by sound. He can use computer technology to control tools of artistry or send commands. For instance, he might connect paint pumps to a computer system, mechanical adjustment arms and music keyboard. He then could use a computer program to assign specific frequencies to each pump and adjustment arm. The artist then could "paint" by playing any series of tones on the keyboard. In the same way, an artist could connect a computer to lasers or light emitting diodes so that the they go on and off when specific frequencies or amplitudes are present.
Although sound sculptures of both types push the envelope of creativity, they are most commonly found in museums, but are routinely found in contemporary settings such as business buildings. In some instances, artists use these sculptures as a way to engage the community. For instance, the public might be able to "play" the sound sculpture, playing a vital role in teaching the public about the value and accessibility of music and art.