Rip It Up And… Don’t Start Again: How Music Is A Universal Noise.

I’ve not written a blog for a while now, so I figured I’d knock off a quick one about a couple of my favourite musical bugbears that I hear people bandying about willy-nilly…

And here they are:

1. “Music that I don’t like is just a noise”.


2. “Music is a universal language”.


Now, before we go any further, I realise that this is just a debate about hyperbole and to some degree metaphorical speech, but some people actually think these statements are true! 

I know!… Amazing, isn’t it?! 😉

So, let’s have a look at both of these…

When people say ‘that’s not music, it’s just noise’ it reminds me of that great George W. Bush quote on the US space programme, when he said: “It’s time for the human race to enter the solar system”. And our reaction to this is: “Well, we’re already there, George W. We’re already in space.” And it’s the same with music. Music already is noise. You can’t change that, and there’s no point in stating the obvious now, is there?

“Wait… aren’t you a…?

Now. Look below…

The ADSR diagram… one for the scientists out there.

This is going on for every sound/noise in the universe, all the time.


OK. So let’s look at this in terms of music.

When we listen to a note played on, say the violin, the first thing we hear is noise: the bow scrapes the string and gives the note its initial attack; a scraping sound, but then we hear the ‘note’ and, with a bit of vibrato, it’s nice and sweet. But you can’t have the latter without the former. You need the attack. And contrary to what Shakespeare would have you believe, the rest is noise, too.

Of course, what these people really mean to say is: “I hear nothing in those sounds that I can understand and therefore it’s the equivalent of listening to traffic” or “I am so unfamiliar with those sounds that it infuriates me” or something along those lines. And if it’s rap, then it’s probably a knee-jerk, racist kind of thing going on there. It’s also another way of saying: “I don’t like it, but I can’t explain why.” But it’s easier to be dismissive of a thing than admit that you’re challenged by it, isn’t it? And now, on to my next point…

Misuc si a uirnasvle lnagugae. Sey ro on?

Hmmm…. That was a bit challening, wasn’t it? Your brain found that hard to understand for a second or two because you were unfamiliar with my language – a made up one consisting of normal words spelt worng (see what I did there?). But you worked it out because English has conventions or syntax that (in English speaking countries) we all understand and our brain makes sense of  the words. But what if I wrote that in Russian? No chance. In fact, I would like to think that it would be quite a similar experience to hearing shakuhachi music for the first time. Or maybe listening to a complete 30 min+ raga on the sarod, having never heard classical Hindustani music.

So, foreign, unfamiliar things, make us react in unusual ways; they do different things to us and, in turn, affect our understanding of them. Different music exists in our universe, of course, but, as a thing, it does not communicate ideas that are the same for everybody. But a language does, within a cultural boundary. Like if I say to you: “Socks.” Then you know what I mean. But if I play you an F♯, then you have no idea what I mean. And neither do I.

Socks. Awesome.

With me, so far?

The composer John Cage once said: “I don’t need sound to talk to me. … I don’t want a sound to pretend that it’s a bucket… or that it’s a president… or that it’s in love with another sound.” He didn’t necessarily need (or want) music to convey meaning or emotion. In fact, the will of the composer was to be largely avoided. She or he needed to get out of the way and let the sounds exist without too much poking around or persuasion on their behalf. You can listen to him saying that here:

Downtown NYC… one continual concert

Of course, for music to actually mean something you’d have logically thought we would need to look to vocal music for this to happen. Clearly, if my lyrics say ‘I’m feeling happy today’ then that should inform you that that is how I’m feeling. But this is language telling us that fact, not the instrumental bit of the music. There’s no doubt that non-vocal music can lead you into thinking that it‘s telling you something, but actually it’s you ascribing an emotion or feeling to it, not the other way around. And, as we learnt earlier, that meaning is not a universal one. Remember, one man’s gamelan is another man’s instrument of torture.

Now, I have no problem with people attaching their own meanings to what they hear. You know the kind of thing – that Barber’s ‘Adagio’ makes them feel sad and solemn, like they’re at a funeral, or that a Mozart ‘Horn Concerto’ makes them feel like they’re a captain of a big boat, or that Wagner makes them want to march. That’s fine with me. And you’re quite likely to find more than one person who feels these things right along with you. But my issue is not that we’ve been taught that certain kinds of sounds are supposed to mean certain things, no, it’s to do with the fact that there are people going around telling us that music is a language! Languages are languages! Why does music need to be a language, too?

Of course, in a poetic mood, it’s tempting to say: “Miles Davis’ horn really speaks to me, man”. But we know that it’s not actually speaking… it’s not asking you to give it the remote control or go to the shops for milk. It is voice-like, that’s for sure. It sounds like singing or speech, but it’s not. It’s got rhythm and pitch, just like a voice does, but there are no words. And remember, words are a very important part of a language. 🙂

But if words are noise, and music is noise, then what’s the difference? Surely I can make a note signify a word? And, if I make the note of C3 mean ‘hello’ and the note of D3 mean ‘goodbye’, does that then turn music into a language?

Maybe. But it wouldn’t be a very good one. And you’d need perfect pitch to understand it. And it would be really difficult to convey the concepts of, say, irreverence or irony. Not to mention your feelings on the minimum wage or the price of mince.

Needless to say, it’s time to do some more listening. All of us. So here’s Luc Ferrari’s Presque Rien No.1. A field recording from a seaside somewhere in the former Yugoslavia, and a classic of early electroacoustic music… a form that uses a lot of noises.

Is it music? Is it just noise? Does it matter?

So the next time you hear someone say: ‘Music speaks to all cultures, it’s a universal language’ point them in the direction of my blog. Or if you overhear someone saying ‘See that De La Soul… that’s just a load of noise, that is’, let them know that they really need to expand their listening habits with some decent field recordings.



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