What distinguishes music from noise?

A question that came up in Colin's recent interview.

It's a question close to my heart, because - and I'm sure I'm not the only person here who gets this - people say 'what is that awful noise you're playing'?

I obviously don't think it's noise. But why do others?


  • Very much in the ear of the beholder.

    I think we all have some in built sense of rhythm, timing, pace, what note should follow another etc. This then becomes broadened by the music of others that we listen to or music of any source that we encounter over our lifetimes. This leads to us enjoying a much broader spectrum of music as we get older.
    However, I also think the majority of us have a limit which once crossed leaves the resulting sounds disjointed to our individual perception of what music is. This is when music becomes noise. Amongst that you also have musicians/composers who deliberately push those limits, to create something new/different or to simply add an unexpected twist. The development of classical music over the centuries clearly shows this as basic trend. Repeated by other genres leading to yet more emergent genres. Done with subtlety it will be accepted by the majority or at least the target audience. Done crudely will alienate most and become a more underground genre until such times as it either gains more notoriety or is softly adopted by more mainstream outlets.

    For me, free jazz falls into this category, a delight to some but a cacophony to me. Yet, rap for example, which I simply dislike (OK the odd few do get through) still falls well inside my personal parameters of music but does not for others.

    Obviously we have to ignore music we simply we don't like for the purpose of this thread as our ears and brain are still telling us it is (bad) music i.e. has an expected structure that lifts it, at least, from being simply a noise.

  • edited December 2015
    Can only speak for myself, which would be something about my being able to perceive order and pattern and repetition.
    All amorphous terms I'm afraid, so I'm probably just shifting the goal posts. :-D
    Speaking biologically I suspect that music can be distinguished from noise in terms of the degree to which it's production or identification aids sexual reproduction for the given individual who is doing the producing or identifying. From what I've read, I'm fairly convinced that "music" evolved as a fitness indicator under sexual selection pressure (in our own species but also in others). Ie the ability to produce or identify music requires a level of genetic fitness (ie low mutation load) high enough to express itself in the neural circuitry requied to produce or identify "music" (a complexity of ordered and patterned sounds). Singing also demands careful control over one's vocal chords and and playing music requires good hand-eye coordination (also genetic fitness indicators). Being an accomplished "musician" also implies that one has the time to practice (in itself a fitness indicator as it suggests that one has time to spare from hunting and gathering (due to one being such a "successful" organism)).
  • Ben, far too complex for me.

    For me music has rhythm, fine detail, and can make my few hairs stand up.
    Noise is unpleasant including some modern so called music, it could just being in traffic noise as far as I can tell.

    The running river is also pleasant but rain is not.

    The ticking clock is also dreadful to my ears, and crying babies,but laughter and giggles are not.
    It most boil down to our basic instinct and clan memory.

    I love bagpipes, harp, drums and jazz but there is little connection to them all.


  • Music and Language, I would agree, both fitness indicators. And was reading recently about their relationship: whether they evolved independently from a common source; whether music is a spin-off of language; or, as the author of the book strongly argued, that language as we know it (ie wordy / lexical stuff) is actually a product of music, and that language began as musical communication (like whale song but more ape-y!).
    SO, by this definition, I think music is something seeking communication or (self) expression (even my out of tune seranding of my cats), noise is a bi-product of something functional (my tummy rumbling, which it is. Time to go cook....)
  • Suzy,
    Nice to be reminded of your passion for language. :)
    Have you been reading Steven Mithen purchance...?
    If so, here is hard evidence (from my one of my favourite sources) that he was on to something with his language evolving from / with music theories:

  • "Nice to be reminded of your passion for language"
    Yes, though clearly not enough to be arsed to proofread my posts! (Please read "serenading" in the above)

    "Have you been reading Steven Mithen purchance...?"
    Only second hand. Cited in McGilchrist's "The Master & his Emissary" on left/right hemisphere tendencies. (copies of a few of the most useful extracts wending their way to you, Doc).

    Noticeably in terms of playing musical instruments, although this is usually associated with the "creative" right hemisphere, in fact, for the most proficient recital musicians the most active part of the brain when playing is the left hemisphere, as right hemisphere works with new and context dependent material, and the left with firmly learnt and abstracted material. I wonder if the brain scans would give different results (on average) for jazz musicians who are responding more to shifting context? McGilchrist didnt comment.

  • It's this simple for me:

    Music has to have beauty.

    Without it, it is nothing but noise.

  • By your definition, Paul, my singing would definitely have to change category !
  • Must be my turn to have a go at answering my question.

    There are at least three meanings for 'noise' in this context:
    1. Anything I don't like
    2. Some kind of scientific/engineering definition, as in 'noise distorting the waveform'
    3. A category of music, e.g. Noise, Noise Rock etc
    As I get older - as Chris touched on - I get more and more able to appreciate more and more music, so there really is a diminishing amount of music I feel tempted to label with the N tag, in the Meaning 1 sense.

    I'm willing to let musicians make Noise (as in Meaning 3) and some of it I like.

    The real thing for me is that I see listening to music as a personal, spiritual, intellectual and fun path I've been on since my mid teens. This leads me to my dislike of using Noise in the Meaning 1 sense. When I first heard, say, John Coltrane's Ascension, it sounded like a wall of noise, a studio full of screaming hyenas. The sleeve notes on the LP version I had in the 80s mentioned a repeated tune near the beginning. This became a running joke between me and two of my mates - the tune in the cement mixer and so on.

    I sold the LP but came back to Ascension many years later. There was the tune! There were melodies! It makes complete sense.

    That's why I think a lot of what we are tempted to call Noise is just music we haven't yet had time to figure out.

    And this kind of thing has happened so many times that I have a rule of never disposing of an album if I can't get it within a few plays.

  • Using your numbering Dave:

    1.  (sorry) but this includes free jazz, thrash metal or other compressed high volume un-musical pap, TV celeb style Brit/Euro-pop rubbish from manufactured bands/artists, few I regard as having any real talent (harsh I know but I get sick of all the same whining noises!), modern C&W, again, whining voices with tired lyrics;
    2.  Anything which contains odd order harmonic distortion, to much dissonance, or over compressed recordings
    3."Garage", House" and other trancy thump-thump music often heard eminating from the street as it makes it's way down the road in the back of some lowered french hatchback monstrosity with a dustbin for an exhaust pipe and windows so tinted the car can only be driven in bright sunlight!  

    That sort of makes me into a grumpy old man.  I'm happy with that 
  • PAC said:


    That sort of makes me into a grumpy old man.  I'm happy with that 
    I guess it does :-D
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