Monday, March 25, 2013

One Listener's Noise Is Another Listener's Music

"Turn that noise down, Junior!
You call that music?
It's just a bunch of crazy sounds!"

I bet we all heard our Dad or Mom issue that imperative a thousand times as we grew up listening to our precious tunes. Human ears seem to separate what they hear in two broad categorizes: pleasing sounds and noise.

What is the difference between sound and music? It it all a matter of preference and aesthetics, or does "music" have distinct characteristics from "sound"? Engineers, music theorists, and mathematicians have wrestled with research to reach some conclusions. To be honest, acoustics and sound are complex concepts that require fields of study for comprehension. But, today, I am hoping this blog entry will clarify the matter for the novice, discerning ear.

Acoustics is the scientific study of sound, especially of its generation, transmission, and reception. Today, let's scratch at the basics of acoustics to appreciate the power and beauty of music.


Sound is the sensation arising when energy from a vibration, within the ear's perceptual limits, reaches the ear.

Sound is a term used to refer to

* An auditory sensation that often has irregular wave form and wave length that are not harmonious
* The disturbance of a medium (often spoken messages) that may cause an auditory sensation, or
* An intended/desired auditory sensation (as opposed to noise, with flat and dense spectral distributions that are undesirable)

Sounds alone do not constitute music or sound art. Let me use a metaphor: Sound is like paint an artist uses to produce artwork.


Music is temporally organized sound and silence, a-referentially communicative within a context.
* Emphasis is placed on the temporal and communicative aspects of music. Music is an essentially temporal art, fact that may point to its significance [music as virtual time (Langer) - music as articulating our emotional dimension (Reimer)].

* In listening to music, there is always some sort of response, some kind of behavioral change, indicating that we "received" and/or participated in the creation of something. What is received is an intention communicated in terms of patterning/configuring/organizing (akin to the prosodic aspect of language - prosody: the rhythmic and intonational aspects of language).

* The importance of context is a direct consequence of music as communication. All communication involves shared and unshared knowing, and this is what we will broadly refer to as context.

The potentially a-referential/self-referential nature of music (i.e. music may but does not have to refer/point outside itself in the same way as language) is what distinguishes it from other forms of communication. Music may be seen as a "noun-less" language, made just from verbs (potential, motion, action, narrative: time.)

So, to get down to the Appalachian, nitty-gritty understanding of music, allow me to summarize with a simple working definition:

Music is sound organized and presented by a composer
meant to elicit an emotional response from the listener 
as a direct consequence of listening
to the unique auditory communication.


Music is man-made sound
that attempts to "hit you where you live"
and "communicate" a message
as you listen to its meaningful patterns

The potential for new organizations and meanings to be discovered, by means of listening, permits sonic works to outlive their composers, era, style, intentions, and cultural context during creation.

Music Is Perceived as Uncommunicative Sound To Uninformed Listeners
The listener is the agent through whom sounds and sound combinations are elevated into music/art; the composer of a work can be considered its first listener and, in some respects, this may be where his/her privileged status ends

Understanding music involves interpretive translation across frames of reference, with music arising as the result of interaction (at some level) among composer(s), performer(s) , and listener(s), all broadly defined.

Music, as a form of communication, is possible only when the parties involved share some common explicit and implicit knowledge (more on implicit and explicit knowledge later on in the course). This sharing helps make the messages we infer, as we observe a musical behavior, relatively consistent and meaningful.

Acoustics is based on fundamental concepts/measures (and units): mass, distance, time. All other concepts/measures (and units) derive from these three. These particular acoustic considerations are velocity, acceleration, force, pressure, work/energy, power, and intensity.

All of these wonderful concepts emerge when I turn on my stereo system and listen to recorded music. I think hearing the dynamics at play is an experience like no other. Music sets me free and allows my spirit to fly. I feel the music I hear becomes an inseparable part of my soul, a part I long to share with others as a true extension of my love. The universal  experience is, to me, beyond parallel.


“If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician.
I often think in music.
I see my life in terms of music . . .
I get most joy in life out of music.”
—Albert Einstein

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