The Sonic Spectrum

The Sonic Spectrum


Elise Kermani writes about her work with sound and invites readers to locate sounds of their own on the spectrum from noise to sound to music.
database programming: Allison Hunter and Ewan Branda.

I would like to start with some definitions from the American Heritage Dictionary:

Music - the art of organizing tones to produce a coherent sequence of sounds intended to elicit an aesthetic response in a listener.

Sound - a vibratory disturbance in the pressure and density of a fluid, or in the elastic strain in a solid, with frequencies in the approximate range of 20 to 20,000 cycles per second and capable of being detected by organs of hearing.

Noise - a sound of any kind, especially when loud, confused, indistinct, or disagreeable.

(physics) any disturbance, especially a random and persistent disturbance, that obscures or reduces the clarity or quality of a signal.

Sonic - of or relating to audible sound.

I————–T H E S O N I C S P E C T R U M ———–I

Music ————————-Sound———————-Noise

In thinking about the words “music,” “sound,” and “noise” I realized that my music composition “Wak Auf” relates to all three words in a sort of continuum that I am calling the “sonic spectrum.” On one end of the spectrum I have put the term “music” - to describe what most people refer to as being agreeable, structured, tonal, consonant, melodic, familiar, commercially viable, etc.

In the middle of this continuum is “sound,” which could be described as less structured than music but more structured than noise. Noise, on the far right of this spectrum, is a phenomena which (for the purposes of this article) could be considered to be highly unorganized and physically and psychologically displeasing or damaging.

All sounds from the left to the right within the sonic spectrum - from a Mozart symphony to the hum of your computer - are capable of being part of music composition.

Composition does not need to be about creating pleasure. Sometimes it is necessary to create so-called “ugly” or “displeasing” sounds in order to reveal reality. Of course, all listeners have different thresholds for pain and pleasure, so the definition of what constitutes noise is subjective, and the balance between the two extremes is one of the secrets to a good composition.

Personally, I find organized or “consonant” noise of machines very pleasurable, in fact more pleasurable at times than a symphony composed by Beethoven. There are times, though, when I prefer not to hear the noise of machines, but rather to hear silence or to turn on my favorite “easy” listening music (which I admit is NOT my music!) For example, a constant noise makes it easier for me to concentrate when i’m composing music - yet Tony Bennett is good to listen to while doing housework or eating dinner. And, if I am recording my music, I want there to be absolute (or virtual) silence.

Thus, my activity dictates the background music. And if my activity is solely to listen with all of my attention, then I prefer music that is complex, rich, and unpredictable. This usually means that I prefer to listen to a wide palette of sounds balancing the extremes from the full sonic spectrum.

The sonic continuum of “easy” versus “difficult” listening changes over time. In past millenia of mindful human listening, it is possible that all the sounds of nature and of everyday living (cooking, children crying, building a house) were the first musics; therefore, they were the most familiar and probably the most pleasant sounds. From these sounds of life came a sense of rhythm and pitch. Listening to those sounds and recreating them with instruments into the first organized music became an abstraction possible only for the human species.

But the sounds of the 21st century (computer hum, modems screeching, TV’s and radios blaring, car stereos with massive bass boosters, oven-toaster-microwave buzzers, refrigerator hums) have accumulated to such a volume that they have become a “distraction” and can actually damage our ability to listen and think originally, deeply, and clearly. Take a walk in a busy suburban mall and you will hear a good sampling of the electronic media noise which I find extremely distracting.

The sounds from everyday life in the 21st century are not all that healthy and in fact can create hearing loss and mental confusion. As the noise of the mass media and the surplus of sound bites compete for entry into our consciousness, is it possible for a composer to hear, for example, an original and creative music? We could argue that there is no “original” music, that all composed music comes from music or sounds that already exist. How, then, does one filter out the unwanted public sounds (noise pollution) from all of the existing sounds in order to hear clearly? Humans do not have a switch or “earlids” to turn off the ear’s listening.

How much noise (and which noises) should be tolerated in any specific community? Should honking horns and bass-blaring car stereos be illegal in a crowded urban area? Should it be allowed in rural settings? Who gets to make which noises, where, at what volume, and for how long?

Did manufacturers think about noise pollution when they designed the new DirtDevil vacuum cleaner? Or what about your neighbor and the electric leaf eater that you can hear for a mile away? Isn’t making public noise above a certain decibel level an invasion of privacy?

Early this morning in my quiet suburban town of Delmar, New York, I was awakened by the noise of multiple fire trucks and ambulances rushing to some catastrophic scene. After that, I noticed that many of the neighborhood dogs started howling, and the birds, even ten minutes after the traffic ended, were chirping very busily in irritating, loud nasal tones. Their sound, which is usually varied in dynamics and pitch and very pleasant to listen to, was suddenly very monotonous and unsettling to me. Their noises were probably a reaction to something unpleasant in their “bird” world.

And on a recent trip to Indiana to visit my family, I had to travel in a small airplane so noisy that I had to hold my ears shut for the entire trip. The stewardess wore earplugs.

I must admit that I prefer to listen to and write music that uses extreme dynamics and a wide range of noise and music, so I am presenting a complex argument in this article. I complain about certain noises and loudness levels, yet I use many noises in my compositions, and I write and listen in double fortissimo.

I think we can differentiate between noise which sharpens consciousness and noise which dulls the senses - between music which expands our listening abilities and music that is merely seductively selling us something or creating hearing damage. The music of Mozart and Bach may be very pleasing, but is it possible that it is so pleasing that it actually lulls us to sleep and turns off our abilities to hear deeply?

This was the subject of my latest composition, “Wak Auf,” which was premiered in June, 2001 by the DownTown Ensemble of NYC. To hear an excerpt of this composition, you will need Real Player. This excerpt has extreme volume levels, so monitor your headphones. “Wak Auf” is a musical attempt to wake the listener to the horrors of technological violence of the twenty-first century. This section is the epicenter of the piece and showcases the terror of the nightmare: the moment when you cannot awake from a dream of the veil of human consciousness.

In “Wak Auf” I sampled short bytes from Bach’s Cantata 140 and created noise by shortening and lengthening the computer loops and mixing it with the background sounds of prerecorded drones made by the layering of electronic keyboard sounds. Also in the recording is Daniel Goode (clarinet), Tom Chiu (violin), and Skip LaPlante (bass and homemade instruments).

I am interested in hearing what other people think constitutes music, sound, and noise, and so I have created a graph below with some examples from my listening experience, including sounds made by animals, machines, humans, and nature.

You can mark where you think these sounds belong on the sonic continuum by clicking your mouse and entering the data. Your input will be anonymously sent to ebr and will automatically be added to the existing chart.

Where do you place sounds that you hear on the Sonic Continuum? >>– go to survey