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

Listen and give feedback on your thoughts!


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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