Walter Thompson
Tato Baeza, Nathan Smith, Walter Thompson, and Anisha Lakshmanan at Berklee Valencia, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Walter Thompson (b. May 31, 1932) is an American composer/musician who created the conducted improvisation method known as ‘Soundpainting’.

Mr. Thompson uses a syntax comprised of different types of gestures. He is said to have over 1500 gestures. Many that work in combinations. The most basic categories of these are:

  • Who
  • What
  • How
  • When

Who performs, what will be performed, how will it be performed, and when to perform it.
For example: Who - the strings / What - a long tone / How - low volume / When - now!
Usually, the How is left out to give the players liberty to play how they want.

He uses a system of preparation. Which means he usually gestures what he wants first, giving the players time to quickly prepare, then he signs when to play. Some conductors of improvisation choose not to prepare their players, forcing them to improvise an idea in real time with no prior preparation.

In his own words,

In the 1980's I considered Soundpainting as a system to guide and shape improvisation but since the mid 90's I began to realize Soundpainting as a multidisciplinary live composing sign language — I had continued to create new signs for all the performing disciplines, and the visual arts, and understood what was first a system had over time grown into a language. Soundpainting is a tool, like any spoken language, and may be used to guide improvisation or to compose in real time… or any combination of these two basic concepts.


Here is the first video from a playlist of Walter Thompson demonstrating Soundpainting gestures. Very informative!

Check also


Official website:

If you think anything should be added to this subpage, please drop a hint or a link for future editors.

Unless stated otherwise Content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License. See licensing details