Exploring ‘Noise’ vs ‘Sound’ Using Recordings from Outside

Social distancing is crucial at this time, as it is now mandated during the pandemic. We can only leave the house for essentials, which includes one daily exercise. This week I put my fitbit and facemask on to take a nice, spring walk outside. During my walk, I recorded the birds chirping and cars driving around.

My main goal this week is to discover the difference between noise and sound. Through using the recordings of the cars driving and birds chirping, I will try to analyse the differences between noise and sound.

Why differentiate noise vs sound?

Though these words seem interchangeable, I want to bring consistency to my research – to determine which word is more fitting for the sonic experiences I create. In order to dissect my sonic experiences (or philosophically analyse them), I need to establish the proper vocabulary to convey my abstract ideas.

Noise and sound, the similarities

Noise and sound affects (music affects) human memory, emotion, and responses. The study of this phenonema is known as psychoacoustics, where psychological and physiological responses to noise or sound (from music, speech, etc.) are explored (Platz et al 1995). With psychoacoustics research, noise or sound affect our perceptions of the world, altering our understanding of depth, speed, and motion. Likewise, noise or sound evokes a direct cognitive response from our memories, which also links to our emotions. For instance, hearing a dog bark may associate with a past memory where you were bit by a dog, resulting in the dog bark to launch the feeling of fear.

Another term closely related to psychoacoustics is affect theory, where ‘affect’ relates to the feelings or responses from the body when introduced to different stimuli. Specifically, a stimulus that makes an organism think a certain way (Laszlo 1968). Affect theory embodies different stimuli like lights, images, literature, and includes exploration of music, sound, and noise.

Noise and sound, the differences

Sound carries information, not just the emotional or cognitive reminders described in psychoacoustics, but physical information. These physical milestones include notes, intensity, timbre, etc. (Platz et al 1995) and can easily be replicated by measuring wavelength and frequency. This suggests that pitch, or the notes that create sound, establish order and consistency, whilst noise is disorderly due to the lack of pitch, remaining inconsistent.  

Yet, this does not mean noise has to be unpleasant due to causing disorder. There are inconsistent noises that exist that are soft and easy on the ear, like turning the page of a book or hearing distant walking down the street. At the same time, there are jarring, unnerving, loud noises, like a crying baby.

 Thought provoking quotes defining noise and sound from various music aesthetics, acoustic noise, waveform theories, etc.

“If we define sound as anything we can hear, then noise is the kind of sound that is disorderly” (Levarie 1977).

“Noise appears to be the sensory equivalent of dirt. Where dirt, as anthropologists say, is matter out of place, noise is sense out of place—or in a word, nonsense.¹ It is a manifestation of the disorder of the world, of its entropic tendencies. And since noise is undefinable, it cannot define” (Coessens, Kathleen 2019).

“For a sound to be hearable by human ears, its fluctuation must be relatively rapid: at least fifteen times per second the pressure must rise and fall” (Evans 2005).

Noise can be defined subjectively as unwanted sound, sound not desired by the recipient… Noise is part of the environment in which we live. To determine the severity of noise as an environmental concern, some criterion has to be chosen. Health is a logical criterion because it covers all the effects upon the organism, rather than merely the absence of disease. For our purposes, we consider health as a quantitative measure of physical, emotional, and social well-being” (Bragdon 1971).

Selecting the recordings for PhD research

Noise and sound are seemingly limitless to record in any outdoor setting. Yet, I decided analysing birds chirping and cars driving for a few reasons. Primarily, both were easy to capture, but, more importantly, both carry features or characteristics that relate to concepts I have explored in my research. Through birds chirping and cars driving, I can bring my research to life, using real world experiences to differentiate between noise and sound.

Features and characteristics of bird vs car recordings

Birds chirping:

  1. Usual sound heard daily  
  2. Can also be defined as ‘bird song’
  3. Often used in meditation recordings, relaxation music
  4. Associated with the animal
  5. Can be tuned out or ignored
  6. Emotions evoked (examples): peace, calm

Cars driving:

  1. Usual sound heard daily  
  2. Can be tuned out or ignored, droning
  3. Can be alarming with horn honk, squeaky breaks, etc.  
  4. Emotions evoked (examples): annoyance

The analysis

It seems that sound is the umbrella term used to embody different noises and pitches. Sound is a broad spectrum of frequencies and vibrations that cause order and disorder. On the other hand, noise is a subsection of sound, where noise is often found in the natural world and cannot be easily recreated through pitch due to the lack of consistency.

I went into this experiment thinking a bird chirp, or bird song, would fall into the category of sound. This is because my perception has associated birds to peaceful meditation music. At the same time, I would have thought the car would fall into the category of noise because I associate cars with keeping me awake when I try to nap. Yet, with the definitions and ideas explored, I am more inclined to think that birds chirping would fall into the noise category. Afterall, noise does not necessarily mean unpleasant, loud, or annoying. Noise embraces the disorder of soft and light too. The car remains a noise as I have originally thought. This is based on the concept of noise embodying disorder, much like revving an engine, squeaky breaks, or engine running of a car.

Perhaps viewing sound as a spectrum would help elaborate the noise of birds vs the noise of cars.  Afterall, birds and cars provoke different associations and also create different disorderly noises. When analysing the recordings, I would say the birds offer more consistency than the cars, which would place birds closer to pitch.

However, I think the circumstances of the noise and perceptions of each person would have birds or cars in different slots on the spectrum. For instance, if someone enjoys NASCAR, perhaps they would find the car noises to be consistent and pleasant. Or, if someone was visiting a peacock farm, the peacock squawks would be associated with annoyance, leading the birds to be listed closer to noise.

Conclusion

Though it would be great if I could 100% state what noise and sound are, I think giving general guidelines would be more practical at this time. This is because my PhD research sets out to explore the reactions of listeners when listening to sonic experiences. I do not have the intention of saying the rights or wrongs of interpreting the sonic experience and want to remain open to different interpretations. This is why I believe sound as a spectrum would best represent the sonic experiences I create. Likewise, I plan on having listeners from various backgrounds. Some might not understand pitch as a tone or note because they do not have musical training. Instead, they may understand pitch better as a consistent sound whilst noise as an inconsistent sound. This might lead to an aesthetics dilemma where listeners associate noise as unpleasant and pitch as pleasant.

Listen and give feedback on your thoughts!

Refs:

Bragdon, C. (1971).

Noise Pollution: The Unquiet Crisis.

 PHILADELPHIA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Robert HP Platz and Frances Wharton

Leonardo Music Journal

Vol. 5 (1995), pp. 23-28

Ervin Laszlo

The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism

Vol. 27, No. 2 (Winter, 1968), pp. 131-134

Siegmund Levarie

Critical Inquiry

Vol. 4, No. 1 (Autumn, 1977), pp. 21-31

Coessens, Kathleen, editor.

Sensorial Aesthetics in Music Practices. Leuven University Press, 2019. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctvc771s4.

Evens, A. (2005).

 Sound Ideas: Music, Machines, and Experience. University of Minnesota Press.

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