What is the difference between noise and music? (DYM I.134)

By John Allen

We've all been told by our parents to "Turn down that noise!" when we thought we were listening to great music.   

While classical music such as Mozart and Beethoven would certainly pass the "parent test," we (and our parents) might have a problem discerning the difference between noise and music with Varese's Ionisation (1933) performed here by Pierre Boulez's Ensemble InterContemporain.  Varese incorporates an old-fashioned siren into the piece along with other instrumental sounds that mimic "real life" ones.  In essence he's incorporating "found" sounds that are often thought of as noise:


Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker Magazine, details how modern and contemporary composers explore the boundaries of music in his book The Rest is Noisewinner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Guardian First Book Award, and finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.  According to Ross's website...
The Rest Is Noise shows why twentieth-century composers felt compelled to create a famously bewildering variety of sounds, from the purest beauty to the purest noise. It tells of a remarkable array of maverick personalities who resisted the cult of the classical past, struggled against the indifference of a wide public, and defied the will of dictators. Whether they have charmed audiences with sweet sounds or battered them with dissonance, composers have always been exuberantly of the present, defying the stereotype of classical music as a dying art. The narrative goes from Vienna before the First World War to Paris in the twenties, from Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia to downtown New  York in the sixties and seventies. We follow the rise of mass culture and mass politics, of dramatic new technologies, of hot and cold wars, of experiments, revolutions, riots, and friendships forged and broken. The end result is not so much a history of twentieth-century music as a history of the twentieth century through its music.
John Cage was one of the 20th century's most "maverick personalities," profoundly influencing art, music, dance, and literature.  In Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists, Kay Larson details how John Cage moved from Arnold Schoenberg's 12 tone serialism to an exploration of all sounds without judgement about whether they were beautiful or ugly, music or noise.  
The “musical reclamation of noise” became Cage’s mission. Wasn’t “noise” a kind of Duchampian readymade, after all? Rather than signing a bicycle wheel or a shovel, Cage could enlist the music of ordinary life going on around him. In this all-important year of 1935, the twenty-three-year-old Californian was beginning his long path toward understanding what was so important about noise. He didn’t yet know why he wanted so badly to liberate the voices of ordinary things: the objects we stumble over and ignore, the humble ones that are hardly ever asked to speak or sing. Letting sounds be themselves had an urgency he couldn’t explain, but in honoring his heart, he found answers that led him to surprising places. We could even say that the “John Cage” we know would not have come into being if he had not cared so much about noise (Kindle locations 944-950).
Cage's most well-known exploration of the relationship between noise and music (a distinction here that would make him shudder) is his Water Walk, a piece he performed on the television show I've Got a Secret in January 1960:  

Listen to how the following composers and musicians explore the relationship between noise and music: 

Jimi Hendrix
"Star Spangled Banner"
The Beatles
"Revolution 9"

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