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Music, noise: Are they different?

I have often wondered whether the sounds I hear each morning from birds in trees near my house are music or noise. This distinction has never been clear to me. I used to attend concerts by punk-rock bands in the 1990s and all my friends used to ask me why I bothered to listen to noise. I used to argue that this was music and not noise, but they begged to differ.

in the groove with Fred Zindi

However, when I saw a man dancing to the sound of sirens coming from a passing ambulance on one of the streets in Harare, I began to wonder whether this man was normal as he was dancing to what I considered to be noise. On reflection, my mind immediately went back to my student days when a lesson I had many years ago in psychology on the same subject revealed that it was difficult to make a distinction between music and noise.

As a teenager, I used to enjoy the singing of the birds next to my bedroom in the early hours of each morning. Thinking about it, I decided that the soundscape I experienced while standing on the side of the road, and the sounds of the birds taught me that music is a choice the listener makes and that the difference between music and noise is a matter of perspective. Listen closely the next time you hear a bird singing, and you may hear rhythms and patterns strikingly similar to those found in human music. Scientists studying these patterns argue that the nature of music may be deeper than previously thought — and may suggest an inherent knowledge of music that is shared by many animals. Biomusicologists argue that not only are the sounds of some animals pleasing, but they are also composed with the same musical language and tonality that humans use.

It has been proved that whales, for example, use many of the musical concepts found in human music, including similar rhythms, phrase lengths, and song structure. These similarities, science writers maintain, “prove that these marine mammals are inveterate composers. ”

The writers also point to birds as musicians, noting that bird songs follow rhythmic patterns and pitches that are in tune with human music. Birds do not only create a vocal sound. These scientists have also pointed out that some birds also add a percussion instrument to their songs. Yet most of us will dismiss the sounds coming from birds as noise.

Under normal circumstances, what we call noise is often a signal that we don’t like. Music and noise can therefore be placed at the mercy of personal taste rather than impartial observation. This has profound implications for what music is, how it is forged and who gets to represent it. When the difference between music and noise is a matter of perception, the listener becomes more responsible than the sound generator for music creation. This focus on the listener is partially enabled by music’s existence as a purely cognitive experience and our ability to mentally organise sound into systems like tonality.

The listener’s role in music creation is elevated because the act of music making is taking place in the brain rather than objectively in the air. The word pitch refers to the mental representation an organism has of the fundamental frequency of sound. That is, pitch is a purely psychological phenomenon related to the frequency of vibrating air molecules. By “psychological,” I mean that it is entirely in our heads, not in the world out there; it is the end-product of a chain of mental events that gives rise to an entirely subjective, internal mental representation or quality. This is why some humans will appreciate certain musical genres which others do not like, or find specific songs pleasing while others think they are distasteful.

Many musicologists will agree with me that sound waves — molecules of air vibrating at various frequencies — do not themselves have pitch. Their motion and oscillation can be measured, but it takes a human (or animal) brain to map them to that internal quality we call in musical terms “pitch cognition”. This can be broadened to explain the threshold between music and noise. The nature of music existing purely as a mental process allows adaptation, behaviour and choice to play a role in how we perceive sound.

This mental flexibility allows us to reframe sonic information through active choices and indexical experiences. Limited only by the confines of the mind, our musical acuity can be sharpened to include the full range of sounds we are capable of hearing, including what some people term as noise.

In order to turn noise into music, our mind has to organise sonic information.

Tonality, a pervasive tendency if not universal feature of pitch organisation in musicking, shows systematicity and combinatorial hierarchy, both characteristic of the symbol; but tonality shows neither categorical distinction nor a rule-governance tantamount to a grammar and it symbolises nothing.

The guy who was dancing in the street to the sound of ambulance sirens was not mad. In his mind, those sirens were making music worth dancing to. The sirens, according to the man, had quality tonality and rhythmic pitch that created music. However, this was considered as noise by the majority of the people around him. So where do we go from here?

The absence of “categorical distinction,” “rule-governance,” and symbolism within tonality enables a plurality of methods for defining and organising sound. If the fundamental qualities of tonality include system creation, as well as hierarchies of thought and behaviour, can the concept of tonality be expanded to include sounds other than pitch? Can we engineer tonalities out of any sound we experience? Perhaps what I experienced with this man dancing on the streets of Harare was a psychological adjustment. I went from hearing a cacophonous city ruckus to perceiving a hierarchy of sounds while mentally forming a system of frequency layers and rhythmic textures. If music only exists in our mind’s ability to organise sound, then the only boundary is the listener’s imagination. Perhaps that is the difference between music and noise.

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