The Meaning of Noise

taken from LemonNinja at deviantart.com

Some nights I’m awakened by a cringing sound that churns through the walls of my bedroom. When I slip out of bed to languidly follow the sound that is reverberating throughout my living space, I end up in the bathroom, and within the shower walls remains the incessant chugging and slamming. It sounds as if someone has thrown a metal rod into a gear system–a major disruption. The sound eventually stops and I crawl back into bed and it’s silent, though the brightness from the bathroom light and the foreboding clatter of the shower always leaves me awake and staring at the ceiling.

My shower, which is on the verge of eruption, could be classified as noise. Simon Reynolds, in his essay “Noise,” might agree, since he claims that the term is “best defined as interference, something which blocks transmission, jams the code, prevents sense being made.” Within music, listeners divide noise from the sound spectrum as music’s opposite, but there is a fine line between the two, and Reynolds’ definition creates a different idea for what constitutes music, and opens up a whole new range of possibilities for what music can be.

However, definitions have never stopped artists from pushing the limits.

John Zorn is one artist who has never known limitations. In his group Naked City, he created a plethora of sounds derived from a combination of influences in jazz, punk, rock, grind core, blues, and funk, among other styles. Seeing that music these days is judged based off of adaptability to certain situations, such as driving, exercising, partying, or making love–or all at the same time if one were so bold–I would assume that Naked City, perhaps, is not ideal listening material, and can be categorized as noise.

I will not deny that the song “Hammerhead” is noise; however, it is constructed noise. Zorn and the rest of the members of the group created these sounds together, and the song has order to it; it is a cohesive piece.

In modern, colloquial language, noise may be considered displeasing to the ear, but it does not make it any less musical. Music itself is a collection of carefully controlled noises. Some musicians follow the rules to create beauty and harmony–and to have hit records–while others, like Zorn, bend the rules to explore new possibilities. This does not mean that following the rules of harmony to create pleasant compositions inhibits one’s creativity, but that exploring outrageous ways of creating music allows the composer and the listener to understand what is possible within the limitations.

The annoying rumble of my bathroom shower is something no one can control. It involuntarily starts its chugging and slamming, and creates unorganized sounds. That, to me, is noise. But when I think about it, the garbage cans out on the curb also make a lot of annoying sounds in the distance. People knock them over, or crash into them with their bicycles, or sometimes there is a trashcan medley coming down the street as the garbage men make the rounds.

Whoever thought the crackling sound of trashcan lids could be music?

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2 comments
  1. Yvonne said:

    Your description of the shower noises made me interested in the post immediately. I like how you point out that artists creating noise could be considered pushing the limits rather than making something unpleasant to the ear. I wish the Naked City video was longer, but I went to the band’s Myspace through your link and listened more.

  2. I liked your point about distinguishing music and noise as controlled and uncontrolled noises. Sort of reminds me of the piece of artwork made up of individual dots put together that by themselves would be meaningless.

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