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The Unwanted Sound

In Garret Keizer’s The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want, Keizer examines the social and political impact of noise. Noise is a touchy subject on this blog (and most of the blogs in the awesome links section to the right). Personally, I don’t really believe in noise. I believe in obnoxious and unwanted sound, but I follow Cage in subscribing to the notion that sound and music are equivalent. In other words, all sound is music.

Nevertheless, Keizer pulls back the cover on some interesting effects of noise.

To say that noise is a relatively weak issue because it is less momentous than world hunger or global climate change is to make an incomplete statement. Noise is a weak issue also because most of those it affects are perceived, and very often dismissed, as weak. The ones who dismiss them, in addition to being powerful, are often the ones making the noise.

In using the word weak I am not referring to personal capabilities, to someone’s IQ score or muscle mass, though these factors may come into play. I am thinking rather of a person’s social standing and political power. Make a list of the people most likely to be affected by loud noises (though not all noise is loud), either because of their greater vulnerability to the effects of loud sound or because of their greater likelihood of being exposed to it, and you come up with a set of members whose only common features are their humanity and their lack of clout. Your list will include children (some of whom, according to the World Health Organization, “receive more noise at school than workers from an 8-hour work day at a factory”), the elderly (whose ability to discriminate spoken speech from background noise is generally less than that of younger contemporaries), the physically ill (cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, for example, are often more sensitive to noise), racial minorities (blacks in the United States are twice as likely, and Hispanics 1.5 times as likely, as whites to live in homes with noise problems), neurological minorities (certain types of sound are especially oppressive to people with autism), the poor (more likely than their affluent fellow citizens to live next to train tracks, highways, airports), laborers (whose political weakness has recently been manifested in weakened occupational safety standards), prisoners (noise, like rape, being one of the unofficial punishments of incarceration), members of the Armed Forces (roughly one in four soldiers returning from Iraq has a service-related hearing loss) — or simply a human being of any description who happens to have less sound-emitting equipment than the person living next to her (who might for his part have car speakers literally able to kill fish) and no feasible way to move. [1]

It makes me wonder about how noise might interact with musical creativity. Do those of us who make electroacoustic music have a different response to noise? Does noise shape our perception of music?



  1. Grant Grant

    Interesting. I agree that all sound is music. I just think of noise as signal that we don’t have the ability to understand or quantify.

    As far as Keizer’s take, it seems that volume of noise is more related to weakness than anything else since there are few noise-free environments besides space, i.e. rich people aren’t escaping noise, it’s just quieter around them.

    And then you get into types of noise, in which case the answer is, yes, pink noise in music any other time-domain signal is perceived as more pleasing, e.g.

  2. evan evan

    That’s an interesting link … I hadn’t seen that argument before.

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