Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Music, Noise, Acoustics, Electronics, and the Future

I have been spending a lot of my time in a fascinating discussion with my fellow Delians concerning the difference between music and noise, acoustic and electronic instruments, and what it all might mean to the future of music in performance and recording. This discussion was sparked by my posting to the group of a link to my new Music Downloads page, which contains MP3's of three Synclavier pieces I created back in the mid-nineties. One of those pieces, Nightmare, is almost completely electronic, though it does use the melody from Rock-a-Bye Baby as a kind of cantus firmus; another, "Helix", is atonal sound art that uses a canon generated by a BASIC program which cannot be performed by humans; and the third, "Fractals", is like a quasi-tonal four-part invention that combines traditional composition with electronic effects. I was only asking for volunteers to test the new page, but a great discussion ensued when folks started listening to the pieces. Since the Delians are a group of tonal composers, it has been quite interesting, to say the least. Before I can posit my thoughts, we need to get the definitions I use clear.

My little Apple Dictionary that resides in OS X defines music thusly:

1 the art or science of combining vocal or instrumental sounds (or both) to produce beauty of form, harmony, and expression of emotion.

Obviously, I was not consulted in the writing of this dictionary.

For this discussion, the following definition of music will apply:

The art of tone setting, in which implications of the harmonic overtone series are explored through the establishment of pitch hierarchies, the describing of melodic trajectories, the revealing of harmonic structures, the execution of contrapuntal motions, the propagation of rhythmic patterns; as well as any of the former elements in isolation, or a combination of any of the aforementioned elements together.

The Mini gives this as a definition of noise:

1 a sound, esp. one that is loud or unpleasant or that causes disturbance.

Again, I am available for consultation, and my fees are properly exorbitant.

For my purposes here, the following definition will apply for noise:

Any sounds which fall outside of the definition of music.


Music= Gregorian Chant/Noise= The sound of fingernails across a chalkboard.

Music= A Mass by Perotinus Magnus/Noise= A dentist drilling into a molar.

Music= A Mass by Palestrina/Noise= A chiropractor adjusting a spine.

Music= A Fugue by Bach/Noise= Air escaping a balloon through a tightly stretched opening.

Music= A Symphony by Mozart/Noise= A jet engine at takeoff thrust or in afterburner mode.

Music= A Symphony by Beethoven/Noise= A diesel locomotive towing a hundred cars worth of freight.

Music= A blues by Louis Armstrong/Noise= An ambulance with a heart attack victim aboard.

Music= A drum solo by Gene Krupa/Noise= A firetruck on the way to a burning Mayors' house.

Music= A bass solo by Jaco Pastorius/Noise= A woman who has just seen a mouse or a snake in her bedroom.

Notable "gray areas":

Birdsong (Sometimes melodic, but not usually tonal or modal), a jackhammer or piledriver (Perfectly rhythmic, but not really musically so), a Jimi Hendrix or Adrian Belew guitar solo (Contains some pure music, some mixtures of music and noise, and some pure noise just for the sonic effect of it).

Noise often called music, or rather, mistaken for music:

Atonal "Music" is actually noise art with acoustic instruments: The implications of the overtone series are not brought into it if the situation is that one tone relates only to another and all tones share an equal standing; in fact, that's not a bad partial definition for noise right there.

Electronic "Music" sometimes is actually music (Switched-On Bach), but many times it is a mixture of music and noise art, or even pure noise art.

That should give you a pretty good grounding for my next post, which will be my thoughts on the implications of all of this.

That would be noise, despite the beauty of form displayed.


Blogger Danny said...

Your definition of music is very much wrapped up in harmony and counterpoint. How, then, is it possible to make music with an unpitched instrument?

If you accept an unpitched drum solo by Gene Krupa as music, than surely you must accept the unpitched percussion music of Edgar Varese, for example, or any of the other futurists as music, right?

I just have a hard time seeing how you are so quick to accept an unpitched drum solo, which necessarily has NO baring on the overtone series (it makes quite a soup of all the overtones), yet reject "atonal" music as sound art. It seems pretty convenient.


10:43 PM  
Blogger Hucbald said...

I used to go back and forth with unpitched percussion instruments all the time. On one hand, rhythm is an element of music, so it should be possible to isolate it and still have it retain its musicality. A relatively pure form of harmony can be expressed by a block chord progression in uniform rhythmic values, a melody needs no accompaniment, and even 1:1 counterpoint in uniform values has an essentiality to it, so why not rhythm?

On the other hand, an isolated cymbal crash is without a doubt noise, so one could say that the emergence of pure noise-art from music was a foregone conclusion, as elements of it were present from the beginning.

Some of the original noise-art pioneers used to say things like, "tonality sowed the seeds of its own destruction", but they were obviously misguided on that point. The distinction was not between tonal music and atonal music, rather the matter was simpler: music versus noise. The more I investigate the implications of the overtone series, the more powerful of a force it becomes: Music is simply defined by it, and there is no such thing as "atonality"; there is only music and noise.

As for rhythm in isolation as you have in a drum solo, I use the continuity factor that exists between harmonic intervals in the overtone series and rhythm as my defining factor as well. For example, if you play the interval of a perfect fifth on any instrument and record it, you can then change the pitch on playback. If you lower the recorded perfect fifth enough, it will disappear from the realm of sound below the pitch sensitivity threshold of the human ear. In that area, the perfect fifth is neither an interval made up of pitches, nor is it a rhythm, because it can only be sensed by touch, and not experienced as sound: It exists as only vibration in that void. If you continue to lower the fifth though, it will re-emerge into the realm of the audible as a rhythm that is the resultant of interferance of it's ratios' two terms.

In the overtone series the fifth is described by the ratio 3:2, and the resultant rhythm would be the interference between a half note and a dotted half note if the unit was a quarter, so what you would hear would not be the harmonic interval of the fifth, but a half note followed by two quarter notes, and then another half note. The rhythm would be symmetrical, it would repeat, and the initial half note would sound accented, because both terms coincide at that point.

Since there is this continuity between sound and rhythm (Any given pitch lowered enough just becomes a constant eighth note (or whatever) rhythm), I consider rhythm to be music when it it isolated, even though the individual sound events that the rhythm is made up of can be considered noise in isolation.

11:46 PM  

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