05 June 2013

A Noise of Music

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.)


  1. Dr Marc,

    You are a braver man than I.

    We both agree that it seems impossible to produce an all encompassing definition of music, but you did have a good go at it. And your comments have prayed on my mind for the last few days.

    The test of a good definition is that it includes all the features necessary express the concept it defines, and also excludes those of everything else. Necessary, sufficient and exclusive. Music may be the food of love, but so is chocolate – so that is not a good definition. One of my teachers told me “if you cannot define something well, then describe it, and if you cannot describe it well then categorise it”. You were (quite rightly) dissatisfied with the observation that music is “wanted sound” as opposed to noise which is “unwanted sound”. The implication being that one is the opposite of the other. This is indeed a bit of a cop-out from me, because “wanted sound” does not define music, it merely categorises it, along with speech, and all the various sounds that are useful for conducting normal life.

    Even the definition of “noise” has to be treated with care. Noise can be loud, but it need not be; it can be sudden, but need not be, and it can be pitchless (or non-musical), but need not be. An explosion, the howl of the wind, the faint rattle of a refrigerator or the background hiss on a recording would typically be thought of as noise, as would the humm of electical equipment, the wailing of car alarms or the blare of my next door neighbour practicing his trumpet. But then mortar fire, wind machines, car horns, hammer blows on an anvil, and the drone of vacuum cleaners have all been incorporated into works of music, and so might my neighbour one day – so they also needn’t always be noise, they can become music. And music can easily become noise; a Bach fugue was written as music, performed as music and recorded as music, but the moment one hears it as a ring-tone, beeping out from someone’s mobile phone half way through a concert, it is most definitely noise ! And just to emphaise how difficult it is to get a complete definition, I should add that noise need not involve sound at all. You can get noise in measurements, in data sets, in reproduced images, and in any signal processing system. Obviously the term has grown in its scope. Scientifically, one might define it as “unwanted and extranious sensory stimulus”. But I think the most significant part of that is the word “unwanted”, and I will stick by that. The Psalms may encourage us to “make a joyful noise”, but they also suggest we should “sing unto the lord with the harp”; either the lord has harp music on his songlist, or the language has evolved.

    When backpacking in Russia, as a student, a friend took me round the Moscow Conservatory. Walking down some stairs, we passed a window that opened into the central light-well. It was a hot day, so all the windows on several floors were open. As a result, the sounds from dozens of practice rooms poured out, and were amplified and channeled into the corridor where I stood. For me it was a wonderful sound, like swimming in a sea of music. Charles Ives’ created something of the same with two marching bands in “Holidays”, but this was multiplied many times over. Was that music ? Each of the people doing their practice thought they were playing music. But to my friend, the combination of many musics was noise, and he could not get away fast enough. But it meant something to me, and I felt uplifted and inspired, and I remember that moment to this day.To me it was music.

    What is music to one person is noise to another – so I would say they are not mutually incompatible. Thus identifying music must be a subjective judgment. But who makes that judgement ? I suppose it could be the composer (if there is one), and / or the performer(s) (if the sound is being created consciously), and / or the listener(s). If at least one of these people considers it to be music, then in a sense, it is. If none of them do, then it isn’t – and the composer at least should be looking for a new job.

    (To continue...)

    1. Just because a work of music includes non-musical sounds, that does not confer on them the attributes of musical sounds. The French call it Musique Concrete - which I think is the ideal description

  2. (continued...)

    Lets say that music is generally created deliberately, by a performer who is intending to create music. We have four combinations:
    a) The performer intends it to be music, and (some of) the listeners consider it music. Clearly it is.
    b) The performer intends it to be music, but the listeners all think it is not music, then this is a sad situation, but arguably it is still music.
    c) The performer does not intend it to be music (e.g. natural sounds, emergent sounds by independent performers, sounds produced for another purpose) but the listeners conclude it is music, then arguably once again it is music, of a sort.
    d) No-one intends or interprets it as music, then it aint.

    The problematic ones are b) and c) an in both cases I would give music the benefit of the doubt – as long as someone finds it musical, then it is. That means that my neighbours trumpet practice is music. But I can see that others may disagree.

    My generalisation that music has to be created deliberately is, of course, not quite true. We use musical expressions when describing bird song, the song of the sea, the tinkling of running water, the singing of the breeze. Perhaps one reason for music being so undefinable is that the term “music” is appled to so many different things and in so many contexts, from the actual to the metaphorical, and so our concept of music includes contradictory meanings. I would use the same rationale as above: in the absence of a conscious composer or performer, then the judgement of the listener applies, and natural sounds can be music if they envoke an emotional response from the listener.

    Your suggested definition is very good, and rather original, I think. The time-scale bit is interesting, and echos comments made in Baremboim’s book “Everything is connected”. I agree that it is an essential property of music – but (for the same reasons that you give) I don’t agree that it uniquely distinguishes music from noise. I like the reference to communication (again assuming that music is consciously performed), but I hesitate as to whether concepts are communicated, or rather emotions. If it has a weakness, to me, it is that you are describing how music works, as much as defining what music is. It is a bit like describing a clock in terms of cogwheels and gears, rather than simply pointing out its purpose for communicating the time. The Shorter Oxford is less mechanical about it, defining music as “that one of the fine arts which is concerned with the combination of sounds with a view to beauty of form and the expression of thought or feeling….” Succinct and precise, but still I have two objections: 1) by attaching music to the fine arts, this definition focuses on so-called classical music, excluding folk, pop, jazz or the many other genres music, which arguably comprise the majority of people’s musical encounters, and 2) by referring to beauty of form, this seems to fail in the same was as definitions that restrict music to the harmonious or tuneful. I prefer your definition. But the Shorter Oxford did point out an etymological connection between the words “music” and “muse”. And that for me is key. A muse is something that inspires thought, wonder, emotion, or contemplation – and that is what music in its various forms does.

    So, having criticised your attempt, and agreed that it is impossible, here is my attempt: “Music is: the conscious or unconscious use of non-verbal sound, or its representation, usually in a structured way, to transfer or stimulate feelings and emotions in the listener.”

  3. (continued...)

    And to throw in a final curved-ball, I wonder if music can exist without sound. People can hear music in their heads in the complete absence of sound. For most people this is simply recreating a sound that they have heard earlier, but a trained musician can read and “hear” a score without ever performing the notes, and a composer can create in his head and write down musical ideas without there having been any sound. There can therefore be the sharing of musical ideas without sound. Is it still music ? I would say emphatically yes. Does a CD contain music, even when it is not being played ? Again I would say yes. It seems contrived, but when we think of the parallel with the written word it becomes obvious. It is normal for a writer to write books, and readers to read them, and it is something of an exception that someone should vocalise the words along the way.
    Now I read your definition again, I see you did not refer to sound – notes and rhythm can indeed be sound-free.

    Well enough “dancing about architecture” for one day.


    Dr Peter

  4. One of the things about noise is it comes when you don't expect it and you don't have an idea when it ends. So the idea of time-framework is essential.

    The dictionary has got it wrong. Music does not have to express beauty of form and the expression of thought. It can be abstract.

    And as for non-verbal sound, there's plenty of music which includes words spoken or sung.

    Don't confuse the emotive with the factual; "I hate that Wagner; it's all just noise to me" is emotive. "There's a lot of noise in our yard" is factual.

    Keep up the good work, Marc. You get us all thinking!

    Randy - Toronto