Popular Music Genres - Noise               by David Edwards


 “ ...One should thus hear Orcutt’s paralysingly unique metal/treble guitar yell as sound aesthetic and not the prayers of slaughtered chickens; his Grey-like spike-clusters[1]  as music lesson and not as baby electrocution; and his assaultive scrape-scream duets with [Adris] Hoyos as a theory of human interaction and not as a glass-covered, chrome-dented, hair-matted, blood-bathed car-wreck.  Then one should slice a CD-sized hole in one’s forehead and shove this masterpiece of shrieking strings way the fuck in.”

 - Marc Masters’ album review of Solo by Harry Pussy guitarist Bill Orcutt in Opprobrium #4.


 The term noise is often used either pejoratively or approvingly to describe various kinds of rock music and its relatives, especially punk and heavy metal, and the more extreme styles of jazz.  Elements of noise are found in all musical genres, but Noise can also be a genre in itself - or even a separate artform entirely distinct from music.  Noise as a genre encompasses a variety of styles, philosophies, subgenres, and methodologies. Anti-Pop, Experimental, Illbient, Pigfuck, Industrial, Skronk, Post-Rock, Avant-Punk, Abstract Music, Noise-Rock, Free-Noise, Improv, and No-Wave are some of the names given to its various permutations.


“Music” is defined as “the art of combining vocal or instrumental sounds (or both) to produce beauty of form, harmony, and expression of emotion”[2] and “noise” is “a sound, especially a loud or undesired one”[3].  Bruce Russell[4] argues validly that “noise is a superset embracing music within itself”[5].  As a genre, noise defines itself by opposition to “music”.  Noise de-emphasises or rejects melody, harmony, and sometimes rhythm, and places the importance on tone instead.  New Zealand band Bailterspace for example play extremely simple songs, often only two chords, but the real substance of their music is in the masses of floating overtones created.


Experimental musician Paul Guilford points out two distinct ways in which noise can be used[6] - as a foundation of style, or as a colour used in conjunction with more traditional modes of music.  The distinction is a major one, as the first group rejects “music” entirely, while the second incorporates elements of both music and noise in varying ratios.


One example of noise as a foundation of style is the work of Merzbow, whose idea is to put together sounds “similar to the crescendoes of the best [Jimi] Hendrix and [King] Crimson, leaving out all the unnecessary stuff”[7].  Another example is Borbetomagus, described by Paul Guilford as being like free jazz, with one guitar and two saxophones, except that when they reached a peak, they stayed there for the entire duration of their set.  Former Borbetomagus member Brian Doherty says that “corrosive harshness was the very element we breathed in”[8].

Extreme varieties of noise such as these have had little impact on popular music, and can be considered to stand outside it.  One notable exception is Lou Reed’s notorious Metal Machine Music album, which consists of an hour of multitracked feedback. Another is Arc by Neil Young, a compilation of instrumental thrashings from beginnings and ends of live songs[9].


As a colour, noise appears frequently within popular music.  Breaking the sterile perfection of music is thrilling, and is often used for climaxes - the part in “You Are So Beautiful” where Joe Cocker’s voice cracks is one popular example.  Cocker even recreates the moment night after night in concert.  Noise for the fun of it is epitomised by the British group The Jesus & Mary Chain.  Most famous for their Beach Boys-style surf-pop played on overdriven guitars and laced with feedback, this is pure pop music, with noise used as the “pseudo-individualisation” described by (Frankfurt School media theorist) Theodor Adorno regarding pop generally[10].


Noise music appears to be a 20th century phenomenon.  It has precedents in various modern art, particularly Futurism and Dada, and the classical avant-garde.  The Velvet Underground’s status as one of the seminal noise-rock bands came from their applying avant-garde techniques such as atonality, repetition, improvisation, and drones to rock & roll[11], thus forging the link between the two genres.  That these techniques are accessible to untrained performers explains the link between noise and punk.  The styles are cousins, united by nihilism - guitarist Alan Licht describes the free improv movement as being “populated by ex-punk/hardcore/industrial/noise freaks burnt out on indie rock”[12].  On the other hand, noise is also popularly associated with free jazz because of its improvisational nature.  Furthermore, many of its concepts are paralleled in electronica (the genres are sometimes combined, for example by Throbbing Gristle or Cabaret Voltaire).


One of the early theorists of noise, Futurist composer Luigi Russolo, believed that the sounds of standard musical instruments were so over-familiar that they could no longer affect people, and that new sounds were needed.  He further hypothesised that new sounds could evoke new emotions[13].  The German band Einstürzende Neubauten (Collapsing New Buildings), echo this idea by creating sounds with power tools, bits of metal, shopping carts, concrete mixers, fire, water, and the hum of electric currents[14].  In a possible reference to Friedrich von Schelling’s maxim in 1809 that architecture is frozen music, Neubauten’s best-of albums are entitled Strategies Against Architecture I and II. 

On the other hand, New York band Sonic Youth, superstars of the world noise scene, attempted to invent a new musical vocabulary with the standard tools of a conventional rock band - two guitars, bass, and drums.  Their music uses nonstandard guitar tunings  (eg one guitar in ACCGGbC, one in AAEEAA for “Silver Rocket”[15]); and playing techniques such as string-scraping, feedback, playing above the nut or below the bridge, use of beat-tones (the oscillating that occurs when two notes are not in tune with each other), and playing with objects such as screwdrivers or drumsticks.


Because the music of Einstürzende Neubauten or Sonic Youth is not entirely noise-based, and has expressive qualities, it may not be fair to label them noise bands.  Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore says “the music was never just about feedback”[16].  Moore should appreciate the difference - he recorded an album, Barefoot in the Head, with Borbetomagus.  Sonic Youth do not reject harmony - much of their work explores it deeply, and destroying music is not their aim. 


The spread of noise has been aided by technology.  In popular music and noise, recordings have supplanted scores as the primary method of storage and distribution.  What the notes are does not matter, it’s how they sound.  Bruce Russell says that “my instrument is actually my amplifier; the guitar is an aerial that picks up signals”[17]

Another way in which noise contrasts with classical music is its insistence on invention and experimentation.  Classical music is based around themes and variations, which work within key signatures and established rules.  Invention goes against the establishment.  Beethoven’s music, now generally recognised as some of the greatest in history, partly because of its innovation, was criticised at the time as “hideous, clashing dissonances”.  One can only speculate what that critic would think of Borbetomagus.  Igor Stravinsky, whose Le Sacre au Printemps (The Rite of Spring) caused a riot at its 1913 premiere for its unconventionality, is now regarded as not a modernist but a neo-classicist.  The gap between music and noise is highly subjective.  Bruce Russell says that his work is trying to say something about music as much as with it[18].

Music gains its expressive power through conventions, which enter into the audience consciousness.  For example, it is conventional that a major key sounds “happy” while a minor key sounds “sad”.  Because it ignores conventions, noise has no expressive power in musicological terms.  The effect of listening to noise can be a blankness or obliteration of consciousness. When I suggested this to Paul Guilford, he agreed, but also pointed out that the lack of convention in noise encourages listeners to come up with their own individual subjective responses[19].  Noise also has a very immediate impact.  For those who enjoy it, it is simply fun to listen to - hence the Jesus & Mary Chain.  Pere Ubu vocalist David Thomas suggests that the attraction is in the inarticulacy, citing Elvis Presley as an early example[20].

That the effect is more created in the mind of the listener than being an inherent property of the sound, gives noise a very democratic quality.  Often, as a modernist style, responsibility is also taken away from the composer.  Metal Machine Music is praised by some for the complex harmonies in it[21], even though they are purely accidental.  New Zealand band The Dead C use cheap, low-quality equipment, and stick screws in the fretboards to introduce elements of randomness.  John Cage’s 4’33” - in which the performer sits silent for that length of time and the “composition” consists of any incidental sounds the audience hear - is the ultimate example of this, predating and outdoing any recent noise.  The ultimate escape from the strictures of music[22]


Noise is merely a reflection of reality.  Nehring describes his students defending noisy forms such as industrial and hardcore by saying that is how all society seems to them[23].  Iggy Pop said that The Stooges’ music was an attempt to capture with musical instruments the sound of the Detroit car factories[24].  Einstürzende Neubauten merely took things a step closer.  By focussing on the baser aspects of life, groups like Big Black or The Butthole Surfers go further, using noise as caricature or satire.

If music attempts to impose order on the world, or reflect its supposed natural order (the music of the spheres), then noise is about chaos.  Noise is political, not explicitly like protest music, but implicitly.  Lou Reed released Metal Machine Music largely as an attack on his management and record label.  In rejecting order and harmony, noise reflects a questioning of all social norms and assumptions, revealing them as just that.  “Shatter the harmony and you shatter the social structure” proclaim the liner notes to Einstürzende Neubauten’s Haus der Lüge (House of Lies) album, going on to say that their dissonant music has been vindicated by Chaos Theory.  “The point is self-subversion, overthrowing the power structure in your own head”[25].


So far, noise is largely ignored by the mainstream.  In some ways, this defeats its oppositional qualities - it can’t negate if no-one but its own fans are listening[26] - but on the other hand, it has not been compromised by commercialisation.  For now, it exists as a form of folk music, produced by and shared among a select minority. 

The outer mainstream is prepared to experiment with noise - Sonic Youth now record for the major label Geffen; and in New Zealand, HDU are Flying Nun’s new flagship band.  Noise is recognised as a genre.  That postmodernists like John Zorn or Beck incorporate elements of it, announced as such, alongside their other styles is proof. 

Nirvana are one example of a popularised version of noise mixed with pop.  Though their more overtly noise-based tracks,  “Endless Nameless” and “Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol Flow Through the Strip” were both released as “hidden tracks” at the end of Nevermind and In Utero respectively.   Whereas punk declared open war on the music of the time, noise uses guerilla tactics.  Most music stores have yet to partition separate noise sections, usually filing it under “alternative”.  But this is appropriate, as noise is found in all styles.


While noise is the complete antithesis of classical music, popular music, especially alternative music, comes partway between.  Noise is not so much a genre as “an area between other forms of music”[27].  Its insistence on innovation over convention drive music forward at the same time as it appears to attack it.




·       Blissed Out: The Raptures of Rock by Simon Reynolds.  Serpent’s Tail, 1990.

·       Confusion is Next: The Sonic Youth Story by Alec Foege.  St. Martin’s Press, 1994

·       Rhythm and Noise: An Aesthetics of Rock by Theodore Gracyk.  Duke University Press, 1996.

·       Popular Music, Gender, and Postmodernism: Anger Is an Energy by Neil Nehring.  Sage Publications, 1997.


·       Opprobrium.  Edited by Nick Cain.  Five issues so far (all sold out).

·       World Art.  Edited by Ray Edgar and Sarah Bayliss.

·       What is Noise?  A Free Noise Manifesto by Bruce Russell, Corpus Hermeticum.

·       “Destroy All Music” by Mark Sinker (an account of the contribution of futurism), in The Wire

·       Corpus Hermeticum Mail-Order Catalogue by Bruce Russell, Corpus Hermeticum (PO Box 124, Lyttelton.  An excellent place to begin exploring noise in New Zealand).

·       Logopandocy: The Journal of Vain Erudition #4 by Alan Licht and Bruce Russell, Corpus Hermeticum.

·       “Media Priests of the Big Lie” by David Thomas.  Tim Kerr Records, 1995.

·       Liner notes to Daydream Nation by Sonic Youth, by Jutta Koether.  Geffen, 1988.

·       Liner notes to Haus der Lüge by Einstürzende Neubauten.  Rough Trade, 1989.

·       Liner notes to Strategies Against Architecture II by Einstürzende Neubauten.  Rough Trade, 1991.

·       Liner notes to The Slab by Simon O’Rorke.  Elephant Records, 1998.

·       Private communications with Paul Guilford, Bruce Russell, and Chris Knox.

·       Other relevant magazines include The Wire, Forced Exposure, and Bananafish.


Appendix: Western Classical Music vs Noise

Note: While they represent polar extremes, elements of both are present in popular music.  Also, some 20th century classical music such as the work of Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg, and especially John Cage moves away from the platonic version described here.


Western Classical Music






Tonal system


Emphasis on melody, harmony

Emphasis on sound

Follows conventions

Insists on innovation, novelty


Modernist or Postmodernist

Can be translated to written score

Must be heard



Can be analysed

Defies musicology

Structured, use of tension and resolution


Representational, purposeful


Human invention

Mirroring nature

Evolved through lack of technology

Facilitated by technology

Established art form

Folk art form



[1] Rudolph Grey, guitarist for the Blue Humans

[2] The Concise Oxford Dictionary, ninth edition, 1995

[3] ibid

[4] Archivist, manager of the record label Corpus Hermeticum, and guitarist for The Dead C and A Handful of Dust.  A key figure in the New Zealand noise scene.

[5] From What is Free?  A Free Noise Manifesto.

[6] Personal communication, 1999

[7] “Oscillation Nation” by Gary Steel, Real Groove, April 1999.

[8] Interviewed by Nick Cain in Opprobrium #4, December 1997.

[9] Young got the idea partly from a suggestion by Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, who were Young’s opening act on his 1991 tour.  Sonic Youth had made a similarly produced album, Sonic Death, in 1983.

[10] Cited in Rhythm and Noise, by Gracyk, 1996

[11] Multi-instrumentalist John Cale had studied with avant-garde composers John Cage and LaMonte Young.  When Cale left the group in 1968, their sound become much more conventional.

[12] From Logopandocy, April 1997.  Included with Licht’s album The Evan Dando of Noise?

[13] Luigi Russolo, The Art of Noises, 1914Cited in Rhythm and Noise, Gracyk 1996

[14] Though they also use conventional instruments.  It was leader Blixa Bargeld’s claimed hatred of guitars and guitar heroes that led to his being invited, seemingly perversely,  to play guitar for the more conventional group Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds.  Bargeld accepted, to confound his own audience and to bring an experimental edge to that group.  This makes perfect sense in a noise context.

[15] From the album Daydream Nation.  Cited in Confusion is Next: The Sonic Youth Story by Alec Foege, 1994.  Standard guitar tuning is EADGBE.

[16] Quoted in Rhythm and Noise by Theodore Gracyk.  Sonic Youth’s 1998 album Silver Sessions is entirely noise-based however.  It was created by producing feedback from several guitars (originally to drown out the heavy metal band practicing on the floor above) and adding beats.

[17] Interviewed by M. Henritzi in Peace Warriors

[18] From Logopandocy #4, April 1997

[19] Personal communication, 1999.  Listening to the the first track “Festoonery” from Guilford’s album Heaven on Earth, I thought it evocative of the sea.  A friend I played it to said it reminded him of rush hour traffic in the city.

[20] Interviewed by Greil Marcus in World Art #19.  Thomas further discusses inarticulacy and Elvis Presley in his essay “Media Priests of the Big Lie”, included with Pere Ubu’s 1995 album Raygun Suitcase.

[21] “100 Records That Set the World on Fire (Only No-one Was Listening)”, The Wire

[22] Stravinsky, when he heard about it, commented “I look forward to hearing his longer works”.

[23] Neil Nehring 1997, Popular Music, Gender, and Postmodernism.

[24] Interviewed in TV series Dancing in the Street.

[25] “The Powers of Horror: Noise” by Simon Reynolds in Blissed Out: The Raptures of Rock, 1990.

[26] Reynolds says “Anti-pop doesn’t challenge its listeners, as it purports to, it flatters them”

[27] Bruce Russell, What is Free? A Free Noise Manifesto.