Noise Vs Sound – Musique Concrete – by Matthew Slater

Noise and sound are two very different things. Noises are sounds that cannot be replicated reliably and tend to be everyday sounds – teacups smashing, dogs barking, traffic jams etc. They don’t have any musical content and can’t be tuned or measured. Sounds, on the other hand, are sounds that can be replicated reliably, they have a musical quality and properties that can be measured. The use of everyday sounds and noises is called musique concrete and is commonly used today, whereas at the time of its invention way back when, it was considered more innovative.

Today we see this technique present in genres such as glitch and trip hop where the composer tries to use everyday sounds to create a particular atmosphere. The advent of sampling has also allowed the lines to blur slightly between noise as sound, as the two become sounds that can be called upon reliably. This has turned noises into a musical instrument in their own right. The world of film and TV use musique concrete without even meaning to, where some everyday sounds in the wild track and foley can become ingrained with the music – punches in a fight sequence and the sounds of enemies flying through glass become tied into the soundtrack composed for the film. The final presentation relies upon the two working in sync with each other to provide some sort of collaboration between the foley and the music.

It isn’t just stylised work like that, that can harness noise as a musical sound. I’ve found that I’ve had creative periods when I’m walking, footsteps marking time on the ground, and using that beat to improvise some little bits and pieces. Everyday noises, when heard as musical sounds – beats, rhythms and small melodies – can open up a world of unexplored potential. Lou Reed recorded an album called “Metal Machine Music” that consisted of grating sounds for forty minutes. Some called it a musical experiment using combinations of sawtooth waves with other forms and sounds thrown in, some called it a weak excuse of an album made only to get Reed out of a contract with a label, intended as a final fuck you.

Regardless of whether you or I count noise as a musical instrument, the creative use of it gives music a greater sense of character – it shows us its flaws.