Most of us think we know the difference between music and noise. Bach, the Beatles, Johnny Cash, Miles Davis, Celine Dion, Youssou N'Dour... you may not like all of them, but they're clearly music. The garbage truck on a Saturday morning when you're not quite ready to wake up, or the din from the neighbors' party (even if there's music playing), are clearly noise. But then there are sounds that aren't so clearly one thing or the other. There aren't too many people who'd consider a car alarm to be music - although there are mockingbirds who've learned to imitate the alarm's annoying and familiar themes; and there are many people who find birdsong, or ocean waves, to be intensely musical. But music is by definition "organized sound," meaning there is a human intent and agency involved. That car alarm sounds like it does because of a human's intent (a human who is now hopefully in one of the lower rings of hell); there is no human intent behind birdsongs or ocean waves. (Whether there is avian intent behind birdsongs remains an interesting source of controversy.)
So maybe the problem lies in our definitions of music and noise. The late John Cage tried to get people to listen for the "unintended" music that surrounds us every day. In his definition of music, human agency wasn't necessary, and sometimes had to be circumvented, which he would do by writing a piece based on chance operations like rolling dice or using the I Ching. "Everything you do is music," he famously said. "And everywhere is the best seat." As his career progressed, Cage grew increasingly interested in blurring the lines between music and noise. In his Europera 3, Cage overlaps so many different excerpts of genuine music, most of it operatic, that the result is a wall of sound that to most listeners would be perceived as noise.
On the other hand, the Australian sound designer Les Gilbert, in his piece Kakadu Billabong, takes hours of recordings of the birds, frogs, crickets, and other inhabitants of the swamps, or billabong, of Kakadu National Park in Australia, and creates a "natural symphony," except that instead of using notes on paper to be played by people, he's using sounds on tape made by animals. There is no "music" here, but the resulting work is very finely organized sound, the product of human intent and agency, and quite musical indeed.
After Cage, it was just a matter of time before other musicians began exploring ways of using noise as musical material. Hendrix using feedback is a great example. Feedback is in theory something to be avoided - a mistake. In Hendrix's hands, it became a musical signature. And digital samplers can take any sound, even the most unmusical, and distribute it over a keyboard so you can make music with it. So where IS that line between music and noise?
In the end, the distinction between music and noise is a personal one. The first time I ever heard Korean music, I didn't understand what I was hearing. No apparent rhythm, a wandering melodic line, even the tuning was weird - to me, it was noise. But the first time I heard My Bloody Valentine, unleashing a gale of sound in the middle of a song, and doing so at a bruising volume, it was almost shockingly, ecstatically musical. On some level, probably a subconscious one, I understood what they were going for, and that made the difference.
Since we (hopefully) understand more as we grow and mature, things that were once noise can now become musical. We heard from a listener earlier in this Sound Off series who found the rush of traffic going by her house near the Brooklyn Queens Expressway to be soothing, like the ocean. For her, it was a lullaby. Like the border between countries, the border between music and noise seems to be a permeable one, and, in some spots at least, easily crossed.
Tell us: What "noise" do you find musical? Is there music that you find to be incomprehensible noise?
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