Music, sound & noise

The boundaries between music, sound and noise are subjective, variable and highly dependent on context. Music is often defined as

organised sound in time and space

which obviously covers a great deal of territory and puts a lot of emphasis on the composer: as long as its creator intended a sound to be considered ‘music’, it is music.

Noise, on the other hand, only means ‘unwanted sound’ and is almost entirely in the realm of the listener, rather than the creator: it’s [almost] impossible to build an unwanted sound into a piece of music as, by definition, you want it to be there. And, crucially, ‘noise’ doesn’t tell us anything about what the sound actually is: if you don’t want it there, Nessun dorma could be considered noise, while the static crackle of a detuned radio could be part of a piece of music.

Sound, generally speaking, encompasses both noise and music: all music is sound, all noise is sound, but there are sounds which are neither music nor noise. But, when talking of theatre, dance, games etc, composer and sound designer are different jobs that still share many techniques, tools and approaches: some sound design may incorporate musical elements, and some musical composition may include non-traditional instruments.

Personally, though job titles vary between musician, composer and sound designer, I tend to approach projects from a musical point of view, while defining ‘music’ very broadly. Quite a lot of my work in takes place at the intersections of these overlapping ideas – when writing music, I often use non-musical sounds and instruments and, when making a sound design, I’ll often end up scoring and/or recording musical elements. And, though the unwanted ‘noise’ is by definition impossible, I often find myself incorporating sounds that would often be considered noise in other situations.

When making music & sound, I find that I’m often drawn to the words of Brian Eno, when he said that ambient music

… must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.

While I can, and have, written music in a wide range of styles, I tend towards projects that involve a combination of electronic and acoustic instrumentation, often melancholic, drifting and uneasy in tone, and that could become part of the furniture.

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