A Beginner's Guide to Noise - Sound Week


By Amanda Decker

If you’re unable to recall any specific time frame from which noise music burst onto the scene, you wouldn’t be totally incorrect. Noise music began as a slowly creeping musical phenomenon, making its way into various genres in small doses before coming into its own as a distinct genre.

Like punk, noise was inspired by the Futurist and Dada art movements, lending itself to unusual production methods while often outwardly disregarding such traditional musical components as melody, harmony, rhythm, and pulse.

Lightning Bolt, a popular noise band

Noise musicians can be found employing anything from trash cans to synthesizers to assemble their productions, which are most preferably played at unusually high decibel levels to assert the alternative origins of their music.

The first album to be recognized as employing noise music elements was Lou Reed’s 1975 album Metal Machine Music abstract, and Japanese noise musician Masami Akita then further abstracted the noise aesthetic by freeing the sound from guitar-based feedback to more various manipulations of sound. From here on out, the industrial and electronica genres ran with this boundless, dissonant sound.

Not to be pigeonholed into any particular sound, noise displays a wide array of musical stylings, but generally speaking, this genre divides into two basic categories: sounds created by traditional ‘rock’ instruments (albeit often manipulated) and digital or synthesized sounds. ‘Noise rock’ usually employs distortion, and some degree of atonality and improvisation. In this sense it is an outgrowth of punk rock and, as its predecessor, it aims to showcase the sheer power of sound.

One of the more popular acts to employ elements of noise through guitar is Sonic Youth, though to some purists, they’re too structured and traditional to be totally embraced by the genre.

On the other side of the spectrum we have noise music made purely by digital means; using electronics to produce synthetic sounds, these composers create noise soundscapes without ever touching a traditional instrument. While this style can still be very jarring, nothing can compare to the raw energy of a live noise rock show.

The existence of noise forces people to consider and reflect on the relationship of sound to music, and ask themselves: What constitutes music?  French writer and economist Jacques Attali said that “music creates order out of the violence that is noise.”

Noise music exists in full recognition of this while pushing the notion of what music can be. If pure noise is violence then ‘noise music’ is an attempt to harness that violence and reconfigure it into something more akin to… well, music. Noise music, in its creation, however random and chaotic, has a beginning and an end. It has a defined set of instrumentation and a set of controls — there are actions required to produce the sound. These are elements of structure and organization that transform noise from being a mere act of happenstance to a work of art.