Isolated Moments – Foley Play

The next in our Isolated Moments series, aiming to keep spirits buoyed and creativity alive during COVID-19 global social isolating and quarantining measures, comes from artist, musician and educator Rebecca Lee. Rebecca produces audio works, performances, site-specific installations, film scores, broadcasts and publications, bringing attention to a spectrum of listening forms and contexts.

I’m interested in how much we like some sounds more than others and I wonder if that is often to do with what the thing represents, not what the sound itself actually sounds like.

A team of people called Foley Artists create the sounds that you hear during a film, using all kinds of objects – some obvious, and some less so! And it’s quite astonishing when you find out what you’re actually listening to. Can you tell which of the sounds in the clip below are rainfall … or bacon!?

In this workshop you get to become a Foley Artist using household objects as instruments. First, we’ll be doing some listening and then we’ll create a score that we can perform.

All you’ll need is:

A piece of paper
Something to write or draw with
A timer of some kind
A mobile phone (optional)
See objects you’ll gather from around your house


To get you in the mood try this exercise I came up with a few years ago when working with primary school children. This gets us thinking about sound, the way we listen to it and the ways that it is made.

Set your timer to count down for 30 seconds for each of these:

  • Can you listen to sounds being made by plants or trees?
  • Can you listen to small sounds?
  • Can you listen to sounds being made by people moving?
  • Can you listen to sounds that are far away?
  • Can you listen to sounds being made by animals?
  • Can you listen to what materials things are made of? (Not a trick question! If the road was made of jelly, would cars sound the same?)
  • Can you hear any sounds that are a mystery?


Now you’re hopefully calibrated to be thinking about sound, we’ll make a score that we can use to perform with.

  • If you have a mobile make a film recording that is 1 minute long.
  • Listen back to the recording and pick out five sounds that you hear.

    Mine (on a very quiet Monday afternoon) were:

    Twittering bird
    Traffic hum/cars passing
    Bird fluttering
    Black bird
  • If you don’t have a mobile phone just listen carefully for a minute and make a note of the five sounds that you hear.
  • On your paper, set out a timeline at the top and five spaces underneath for your sounds, labeling each one. Now listen back and mark out using which ever shape you like, when the first sound happens in the recording. This doesn’t need to be done in a particular way, just in a way that makes sense to you. Do the same for each of the sounds. Some things continue throughout, some only happen once. The pigeon I heard only did 5 bits of singing, so I tried to mark that.


Foley equipment

Now the exciting part! We’re going to find ways to make the sounds we’ve been listening to. I’m going to challenge you to try not to use your voice, but explore the qualities and quirks of the objects around you. You need to find some things to create each of your five sounds.

I set out around the kitchen looking for a range of things that could make the sounds I heard. I tapped, shook, scraped, and even plugged in a few bits of kitchen equipment to find my final ‘instruments’. It took quite a while before I was happy with my selections, and I had to try out different ways of ‘playing’ my objects – you may find you become a virtuosic fork player, or an expert washing-up-bottle-squeak maker. Embrace the exploration, and follow your ear. Assume that the first thing you do with an object is not the only sound it will make – combine objects or play them with other objects. Here’s another foley film for inspiration.

My sounds were made as follows:

  • The high pitched bird sound was made by gently moving a jar with seeds in (if I move it too fast, it rattles)
  • The traffic hum sounds were made by consistently moving the towel on the worktop and sometimes pressing down to scrape the plastic clipper
  • The pigeon was a small plastic funnel pushed/played in time with the rhythm of a pigeon’s call
  • The deep bird sound (my favourite) was made using an electric whisk engine
  • The fluttering bird was made by flipping the pages of a book with just the right thickness


Now try playing your sounds in the right order. Using your score as a guide, play them in turn to recreate a version of the soundscape you recorded on your mobile phone.

If you have continuous sounds you can’t play, then play them as much as you can, and start them again when you have a free hand. Or you could bring in another performer, or a few extra pairs of hands if you have lots of sounds, so you become a whole foley team.

You might want to perform your score to your household audience, record all the elements and layer them up and put them alongside your video. You could try out different timings and create new soundscapes for films that don’t exist yet.

There are lots more foley examples (including bacon and rain!) at:

Beyond foley, there have been many performances made using household appliances and objects. This is quite a well known one, Water Walk by John Cage, who performed it on a popular family entertainment show in 1959:

If you’re interested in exploring listening as a way of making an artwork or performance in itself, you might like to read some more about Pauline Oliveros’ Listening Meditations:

Rebecca Lee

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