One of the more regular correspondents to this blog opines that - and I paraphrase him here - noise is sound which is not wanted, whereas music is sound which is wanted. The inference is that it is the listener who defines music, not the performer. An intriguing argument, certainly, but one with which I have the greatest difficulty in accepting.
I agree that noise is unwanted sound (although some dictionaries specifically refer to it as loud or unpleasant), but unwanted by whom? If the musician is creating sound which he wants people to hear, is it really correct to say that those who hear him are divided between those who want to hear him (who are therefore listening to music) and those who do not (who are being subjected to noise)? In other words can the distinction between music and noise merely be at the behest of the listener? And, indeed, are music and noise mutually incompatible?Of course we are all guilty of dismissing some music as “noise”. I, myself, have referred to certain musical performances as “unpleasantly noisy”; but that does not prevent them being musical as well. For me, the word noise refers to a loud or irritating sound, but not necessarily one which is not musical.
The problem boils down, as it always does, to the impossibility of producing a clear, unequivocal definition of music which isolates it from any other kind of sound. Without the clear perameters provided by a proper definition, we cannot say precisely what music is, so therefore cannot say when it ends and noise takes over. I do not agree that music is “wanted” sound; there has to be more to it than that. And I certainly do not agree that music is defined as such by those who hear it.Taking this as a definition – “Music uses an organised series of pitches and rhythms within a finite time-scale to communicate unspoken concepts, primarily emotional and intellectual” – one can describe music as “organised sound”, although it is, of course, much more than that. Words like “harmonious” and “melodic” are useless in any definition simply because neither is present in all music. I do feel that descriptions of music which highlight its spatial element get close to the nub of the matter. Music has a definite beginning and a definite ending (even if part way through The Ring you begin to doubt that) and perhaps the clue to this comes in the quote I once read; “Music is the best way to pass the time between silences”. I can’t remember where I read that or who wrote it, and I’ve never been able to locate it since. However, Stokowski came up with something similar when he said; “A painter paints pictures on canvas; musicians paint their pictures on silence”.
So this might seem to offer some resolution to the issue. For, if music is preceded by, succeeded by and continually refers to silence, that seems to differentiate it from any other kind of sound. The blank canvas of music is silence, whereas noise is built upon pre-existing sound; which is why it is so annoying to the ear. Noise is an accumulation of unyielding sounds, and so does not have that essential moment of preliminary repose which is a pre-requisite of music.Or does it? What is an explosion other than sudden noise? Oh dear! Back to the drawing board.
(Incidentally, I've borrowed this blog post title from a book written in 1968 by Alan Ross Warwick giving a fascinating history of the musical life of London. I imagine it's long out of print, but worth getting hold of if you can find a copy.)