Classified Noise (series: The Word on Noise, part 7)

Categories and lists.
by Dave Skipper



Taxonomy can’t be disconnected from ontology. Categories can’t be discussed apart from definitions. Classification requires clarification. The first question is what is to be classified? The previous article (Definitely Noise) gave some cursory overview to the meaning of the word noise.

The task of classifying noise can probably take nearly as many tacks as there are definitions of noise, so one might well ask what is the point of trying. Why seek to classify noise? What are the benefits? What are the drawbacks?

  • Why classify?
    • It’s human nature. Ever since the first man Adam named the animals, we have had the God-given capability and urge to investigate all aspects of the creation both scientifically and artistically. See my article Creation of Noise 5/5.
    • “We classify information to discover similarities, contrasts and patterns. Like all techniques of analysis, this can only be justified if it leads to the improvement of perception, judgment and invention.”
      (R. Murray Schafer, The Soundscape)
  • Potential benefits?
    • Can enable insight and service
    • Can advance knowledge and understanding
    • Can encourage creativity and innovation
    • Can facilitate specialisation and progress
    • Can affirm subjectivity and diversity
  • Potential drawbacks?
    • Can be a means to power and control
    • Can diminish mystery and experimentation
    • Can stifle creativity and innovation
    • Can preclude new fusions and new forms
    • Can dictate theories and expectations
    • Can precipitate stagnation and predictability
    • Can obscure limitations and agendas

It is best to see classification as simply another tool at our disposal, able to be used for good or bad ends. It is not essential to all sound-related endeavours, but neither is it to be dismissed out of hand as irrelevant or useless. Classification is not a magic path to meaning and enlightenment; it may provide exciting insights and inspire innovation, but there is also the possibly that it can shut off lateral pathways into fresh paradigms.

Lists are the obvious place to start when working on classification, but I think that when it comes to noise lists are too one-dimensional. There will be a lot more mileage in clusters and diagrams, with numerous intersections and overlaps. Noise spreads itself in so many different directions that need to be reflected with sufficient fluidity. Whatever this more flexible approach may look like, I think it will better reflect the balance of unity/diversity and simplicity/complexity in the world. Nevertheless, it is with lists – and lists of lists – that I will naturally begin, in order to start getting an overall feel for the worlds of noise.

Classified information!

Here is a (non-exhaustive) list of categories by which noise(s) can be categorised into further lists. Inevitably there are many overlaps splayed across these thematic zones: these lists are meant to be representative and by no means definitive. Note also that some reasons and methods of classification will be more appropriate to one or other of the three overarching macro-categories of noise, noisy sounds, and noise music.

  • By concept/definition/sphere
    • Visual noise
    • Audio noise
    • Unwanted noise
    • Noisy sounds
    • Noise music
    • Signal transmission noise
    • Social noise
    • Background noise
    • Communication noise
    • Noise as metaphor
    • Noise as other/opposite/outside
  • By definitions and categories of unwanted sounds
    • Noise pollution: traffic, industry, technology, sirens, dogs, etc
    • Interruption, disturbance
    • Effects/reasons: hearing loss, irritation, distraction, obscuring nature, impeding communication
    • Time context: time in history, day/night, seasons
    • Space context: indoors/outdoors, rural/urban, developed/developing country
    • Cultural context: values, customs, festivals
    • Individual preference: personality, experience(s), etc
  • By who will use the classification system
    • Ecologist, zoologist, park ranger, conservationist, ornithologist
    • Musician, noisician, sound engineer, sound designer, sound artist, foley artist, composer
    • Record shop owner, record label owner, music fan, concert-goer, casual listener, librarian, DJ, audiophile
    • Music journalist, researcher, writer, journalist, radio presenter
    • Audio technology designer, instrument maker, electronics engineer, computer programmer
    • Noise pollution regulator, civil planner, lawmaker, policeman
    • Software engineer, mechanical engineer, construction worker, architect, acoustic engineer, vehicle designer
    • Doctor, audiologist, hearing aid designer, the deaf
    • The Deaf community
    • Philosopher, linguist, teacher
    • Combatant, terrorist, torturer
  • By type of sound as determined by common physical/audio characteristics
    • Loud/quiet
    • High-pitched/low-pitched
    • Short/long
    • Pure/distorted
    • Tonal/atonal
    • Gentle/harsh
    • (These binary distinctions are of course each full spectra; some are objectively measurable, others are subjectively perceived and evaluated.)
  • By the unique characteristics of noise signals, their causes/modes/effects
    • Feedback
    • Distortion
    • Error
    • Glitch
    • Resonance
    • Degradation
    • Disruption
  • By the nature of the sound generator
    • Animate/inanimate
    • Natural/man-made
    • Organic/mechanical/human
    • Physical, electrical/electronic, real, virtual, imaginary, theoretical
    • Material
    • Means/activity of sound generation (see next section)
  • By method of making noise and associated actions
    • Mechanical/electrical: striking, vibrating, scraping, plucking, bowing, tearing, crunching, burning, exploding, etc
    • Electronic: oscillation, filtering, feedback, digital, analogue, amplification, sampling/recording/playback, etc
    • Vocal: whispering, blowing, talking, shouting, screaming, screeching, barking, whistling, etc
    • Other…
  • By soundscape context
    • Soundscape reflecting landscape
    • Meteorological phenomena
    • Natural habitats (jungle, ocean, etc)
    • Industry and technology
    • War and weaponry
    • Transportation
    • Sport and recreation
    • Everyday life
    • Concerts, events, festivals
    • Human interactions
    • Contours, clusters, contrasts, colours
    • Foreground, midground, background
  • By intent/function
    • Intent toward self, others, objects, local or global environment
    • To soothe, placate
    • To scare, harm, damage
    • To confuse, mystify, intrigue
    • To pleasure, amuse
    • To educate, inform, expose
    • To create, explore, express
    • To control, manipulate
    • To escape, subvert, make free
  • By socio-cultural criteria
    • Who makes the noise?
    • Who hears the noise?
    • Who defines what constitutes noise?
    • How (and to whom) is the noise-making or noise-evading possible?
    • Are there issues of power, discrimination, control, rebellion, subversion, freedom, etc at play?
  • By musical categories
    • Time elements: transients, duration, decay, rhythm, dynamics
    • Timbral elements: dissonance, tonality, frequency, volume, silences
    • Compositional elements: orchestration, rhythm, structure, mix
  • By musical genre/subgenre/description
    • Acousmatic music, avant-garde, black ambient, ambient noise wall, crackling wall, cut-up harsh noise, danger music, dark ambient, dark drone, deathgrind, death industrial, drone, drone metal, drone noise wall, electroacoustic music, experimental music, exploratory music, field recordings, free improvisation, glitch, grindcore, harsh noise wall, industrial, japanoise, live coding, lo-fi, lowercase, mashup, microsound, musique concrète, nature/eco noise wall, noisegrind, noise metal, noise rock, no wave, onkyō, pedal noise, post-music, post rock, power electronics, powerviolence, prepared guitar/piano/etc, shoegaze, sludge metal, static minimalism, synth noise, thrashcore…
    • Yet noise by definition defies convention and resides outside neat boxes, filling the gaps in between and inhabited by the uncategorisable (or at least pre-categorisable); labelling runs the risk of going against the spirit of the underground and of avant-garde culture, yet labelling is a natural way to discover, grow, and augment community based around similar tastes and interests. Does noise cease to be noise once it is boxed and consumed and even enjoyed? The paradox persists.
  • By connotation/association/symbol
    • Danger, fear, alarm, warning
    • Comfort, memory, relaxation
    • Cultural codes, historical meaning
    • God/gods, mystery, transcendence

There are so many ways to slice noise! Context and application will usually determine which method of classification would be in view. Studies in each grouping would be fascinating in their own right, but is there any useful and meaningful way to connect these various approaches together?

Sounds of the noise orchestra

The Italian Futurist Luigi Russolo’s manifesto The Art of Noises, written in 1913, has been crucial reference for avant-garde, experimental, and noise composers and musicians in the past century. In it he outlines a vision for the celebration and integration of the proliferation of machine noises into the aesthetics and music of the future era of music and culture. An analysis of the manifesto will flow from my pen in due course. One extract is necessary to quote here, as Russolo marks out his taxonomy of noises to be developed via his intonarumori (mechanical noise machines) for orchestral use. It’s worth reading his lists slowly, with the ears of your mind wide open to hear and savour the different texture groupings.

“Here are the 6 families of noises of the Futurist orchestra which we will soon set in motion mechanically:

1: Rumbles, Roars, Bangs, Thunderclaps, Explosions, Crashes, Splashes, Booms
2: Whistles, Hisses, Snorts
3: Whispers, Murmurs, Rustling, Mumbles, Grumbles, Gurgles
4: Screeches, Screams, Shrieks, Creaks, Rumbles, Buzzes, Crackles, Scrapes, Sounds produced by friction
5: Noises obtained by striking metal, wood, skin, stone, terracotta, etc.
6: Voices of animals and men: Shout, Screams, Groans, Shrieks, Roars, Howls, Laughs, Wheezes, Sobs, Sighs

“In this inventory we have encapsulated the most characteristic of the fundamental noises; the others are merely the associations and combinations of these.”
[from ‘The Art of Noises’, by Luigi Russolo]

Luigi Russolo, Ugo Piatti, and the intonarumori, 1913


Analysis of the soundscape

A pioneering and influential text in the field of sound studies, touching on the history and symbolism and modern growth of noise, is The Soundscape, by Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer. Indeed he even coined the very term soundscape. I will summarise and critique aspects of this book another time, but of relevance here are his attempts to make some headway with categorising sounds. I have picked out the most salient parts below from his chapter on Classification. Some of his modes of classification clearly correspond to parts of my earlier lists above. I have marked in red some of the parts that particularly intrigued me, but I won’t comment further on them here.

“Sounds may be classified in several ways: according to their physical characteristics (acoustics) or the way in which they are perceived (psychoacoustics); according to their function and meaning (semiotics and semantics); or according to their emotional and affective qualities (aesthetics). While it has been customary to treat these classifications separately, there are obvious limitations to isolated studies…

Classification According to Physical Characteristics

Classification According to Referential Aspects

“We have next to consider a framework which will allow us to study the functions and meanings of sounds. Most sounds of the environment are produced by known objects and one of the most useful ways of cataloguing them is according to their referential aspects. But the system used to organise such a vast number of designations will be arbitrary, for no sound has objective meaning, and the observer will have specific cultural attitudes toward the subject… The only framework inclusive enough to embrace all man’s undertakings with equal objectivity is the garbage dump…

1. Natural Sounds

a. Sounds of creation
b. Sounds of apocalypse
c. Sounds of water
d. Sounds of air
e. Sounds of earth
f. Sounds of fire
g. Sounds of birds
h. Sounds of animals
i. Sounds of insects
j. Sounds of fish and sea creatures
k. Sounds of seasons

2. Human Sounds

a. Sounds of the voice
b. Sounds of the body
c. Sounds of clothing

3. Sounds and Society

a. General description of rural soundscapes
b. Town soundscapes
c. City soundscapes
d. Maritime soundscapes
e. Domestic soundscapes
f. Sounds of trades, professions and livelihoods
g. Sounds of factories and offices
h. Sounds of entertainments
i. Music
j. Ceremonies and festivals
k. Parks and gardens
l. Religious festivals

4. Mechanical Sounds

a. Machines
b. Industrial and factory equipment
c. Transportation machines
d. Warfare machines
e. Trains and trolleys
f. Internal combustion engines
g. Aircraft
h. Construction and demolition equipment
i. Mechanical tools
j. Ventilations and air-conditioners
k. Instruments of war and destruction
l. Farm machinery

5. Quiet and Silence

6. Sounds as Indicators

a. Bells and gongs
b. Horns and whistles
c. Sounds of time
d. Telephones
e. Warning systems
f. Signals of pleasure
g. Indicators of future occurrences

“Other categories in this system include Mythological Sounds, the Sounds of Utopias and the Psychogenic Sounds of Dreams and Hallucinations… and acoustic experiences that connect with the other senses (synaesthesia). The final section… was [the sound] considered as a signal, as noise, as painful, pleasurable, etc.?

Classification According to Aesthetic Qualities

“Sorting sounds according to their aesthetic qualities is probably the hardest of all types of classification. Sounds affect individuals differently and a single sound will often stimulate such a wide assortment of reactions that the researcher can easily become confused or dispirited… Reduced to its simplest form, aesthetics is concerned with the contrast between the beautiful and the ugly, so a good place to begin might be by simply asking people to list their most favorite and least favorite sounds… different cultural groups have varying attitudes to environmental sounds… climate and geography obviously influence likes and dislikes to some considerable extent…

Sound Contexts

“Acoustics and psychoacoustics have been dissociated from semantics and aesthetics. It is traditional to divide the study of sound in this way. The physicist and engineer study acoustics (What sounds are); the psychologist and physiologist study study psychoacoustics (How they are perceived); the linguist and communications specialist study semantics (What they mean), while to the poet and composer is left the domain of aesthetics (If they appeal). But this will not do. Too many misunderstandings and distortions lie along the edges separating these compartments. Interfaces are missing…”

[from ‘The Soundscape’, by R. Murray Schafer]

Unifying concepts from an unexpected source?

Schafer also states, “…the chief problem remaining to be solved… [is] principally to do with the integration of classification systems. If soundscape study is to advance as an interdiscipline, it will have to discover the missing interfaces and unite hitherto isolated studies in a bold new synergy.

Could one of those ‘missing interfaces’ be Biblical-theological categories?

The Bible is not a physics textbook or a textbook of sounds. However, I believe that it provides the foundations and framework and principles by which and on which all academic disciplines can and should be derived and constructed.

The Bible is not primarily focussed on the nuts and bolts of scientific and artistic pursuits; indeed often it would appear that such concerns are entirely absent or peripheral at best to the vast majority (if not all) of the Bible’s writers. And so the Bible is not comprehensive in its treatment of sound and noise. It does not exhaustively mention all categories or functions of sounds. Rather, it is representative and indicative of how to proceed along the lines of developing an understanding and approach to sound as part of God’s creation that is unobtainable elsewhere.

So why do I venture to make an appeal to the Bible as a fresh guide and for essential inspiration with a view to reconfiguring the structure and parameters and purposes of sonic taxonomy and beyond? Because I believe that noise somehow means even in its wordlessness and its (at times) abstractness, even when the agenda with noise is to avoid or negate or short-circuit meaning and communication. (Note I do not mean that specific noises have a one-on-correlation to a precise meaning – please read my article Symbolism and Noise which explains my perspective on this topic in more detail.) Because I believe that the God of the Bible, supremely revealed in Jesus Christ, is absolute in his creation, providence, redemption, sovereignty, authority, and purposes over the whole of reality. This inevitably includes the entire sonic realm. I am undertaking this extensive project of connecting the Bible and noise because I want to know what it means for Jesus to be Lord over noise, “So that in everything he might have the supremacy” (Colossians 1:18b).

A Biblical-theological approach: some initial thoughts

So what might this look like? First of all, I think the Bible provides some clues and examples that will help to orient or flesh out some of the possible modes of classification outlined earlier in this article. Then there are some specific angles and themes unique to the Bible that open up original and thought-provoking methods of classification. I will mention some of these below, but only very briefly and in general terms, as this is where much of my research is gradually unearthing patterns and ideas that will require much more thorough development and analysis before I can confidently assemble and summarise my findings.

  • Attributes of God reflected in noise
    • the voice of God
      • Thunder
      • Rushing waters
      • Trumpet sound
      • Whisper
    • God revealed in the noise of his created world
      • Power, strength
      • Sovereignty, authority
      • Providence, care, gentleness
      • Divine and eternal nature
      • Transcendence, immanence
      • Glory, splendour
      • Holiness
      • Wrath, judgment
    • God reflected in the use of sounds by man
      • Creativity, imagination
      • Thinking, planning
      • Building, craftsmanship
      • Righteousness, justice
      • Wisdom, insight
      • Love, service
    • Application to the sound/noise artist, art-making processes, characteristics of sounds/materials in themselves, etc
    • Series: The Ultimate Noisician, The Noisician
  • Elemental noises and their theological associations/symbolism:
    • Water: rivers, seas, floods, etc
      • Cleaning, bathing, healing
      • Drink: life, refreshment, poison
      • Baptism: cleansing, death and resurrection
      • Floods: submersion, drowning, destruction, judgment
    • Wind: breath, breeze, wind, storms, etc
      • Breath: life-giving, speech, revelation
      • Storms: life-threatening, violent, unpredictable
    • Earth: rocks, ground, earthquakes, etc
      • Earthquake: shaking, destruction, judgment
      • Rock: safety, foundation, dry ground
    • Fire: candles, lightning, volcanoes, infernos, etc
      • Light: clarity, exposure, safety, knowledge
      • Furnace/crucible: refining, purification, strengthening
      • Burning fire: destruction, judgment
    • Ether/cosmos: stars and space
      • Stars: glory, magnitude, time markers, wordless speech
      • Space: vacuum, power of silence, peace, emptiness
    • Series: Elemental Noises
  • Historical paradigmatic categories
    • Creation (from the creation week account in Genesis 1)
      • Physical
      • Conceptual
      • Functions/functionaries
      • Noise as positive, potential, pure, powerful, plentiful
    • The subsequent curse on creation and man and the resultant effects on sound and noise
      • Noise as dangerous, damaging, destructive, depressing
      • Inverse parallels of the Creation categories
    • Ramifications of the incarnation/death/resurrection/ascension of Jesus Christ on sound/noise/music/art/culture
      • Noise as renewable, redeemable, realistic, refreshing
    • The eternal destiny of sound and noise
    • Series: A Brief History of Noise
  • Trinitarian relational categories applied to sound and noise
    • Sound-related metaphors for God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit respectively and how these portray their individual roles
    • Relationship to self (ontology) – God as God
      • Essence of sound/noise
      • Sounds in themselves
    • Relationship to other sounds (economy) – inter-Trinitarian relationships
      • Sounds interacting with sounds
      • Sounds that combine
      • Sounds that clash
      • Interference
      • Feedback
    • Relationship to non-sounds – God’s relationship to his creation and to mankind
      • Functions of sound
      • Effects of noise
  • Covenantal categories applied to sound and noise
    • Transcendence, causation, source, choice, power
    • Hierarchy, image, subordination, service, stewardship
    • Rules, boundaries, parameters, ethics
    • Consequences, effects, evaluation
    • Time, community, progress, trajectory
    • (This section may seem rather oblique, but it will make a whole lot of sense eventually in the bigger picture of where my research and writing will end up.)
  • Bible words related to sound and sound-making actions
    • Human actions
    • God’s actions
    • Meteorological phenomena
    • Noisy things
    • Noisesque concepts
      • Crooked/straight
      • Delusion/confusion
      • Chaos
      • Destruction
      • etc
  • Understanding noise and its role in the context of different types of writing/story
    • The place of noise in human experience and thought
    • God’s perspective and purposes in the Bible’s treatment of sound and noise
      • Historical noises: types of noisy events recorded in the Bible and their significance
      • Poetic noises: the use of noise as metaphor (and other literary devices) to evoke or communicate spiritual truths
      • Prophetic noises: the power, hope, promise, and threat of noise in the context of Biblical prophecy
      • Teaching noises: explicit or implicit noises within didactic Bible passages

It should be immediately apparent that some of these lists have a lot in common with each other and also with the earlier lists higher up. The differences often lie in the emphasis or underlying theme or whether the basic categories work from the physical to the conceptual or vice versa. Which approaches are more useful, and in which contexts? What are the fundamental categories for any given listener/noise-maker/other for any given purpose/need/situation? Are there any interlocking groups of categories that are relevant and meaningful across the board?

These biblical-theological categories will need working though in terms of both sound in general and noise in particular, and then will need applying across the practices of listening, noise/music-making, and understanding and interpreting the worlds of sound, both natural and man-made. Some dividing lines need to be redrawn, and some of them need to be erased altogether.

Conclusion: what does it matter, and where to go from here?

What does it mean to be a responsible listener? How can we be more aware of the sounds around us? How can we grow in appreciation for the array of sounds we encounter and sounds we seek out? How do we deal with unwanted noise? How can we discern and handle the spectrum of constructive to destructive noise? Are there any objective standards by which we can demarcate positive and negative noise? How do we relate our subjective preferences for sound to other people’s differing preferences? How can we beneficially disentangle and re-integrate the physical, psychological, aesthetic, and other dimensions of noise? What role can and should the mind and words and analysis have (or not have) in tackling these and other issues?

Are new definitions and classifications of noise needed? Or do we have too many attempts already? Can or should noise even be understood properly at all? Is it a worthwhile goal, let alone attainable? Or should we be content to leave noise be, subjective, uncatchable, undefinable? Is it wrong to want to build a unified perspective on noise? Is it not rather more freeing and inspiring to embrace the full gamut of ideas and opinion on what constitutes noise? It’s the age-old conundrum of unity vs diversity – which sides wins out, or can we find and rest in a delicate balance and harmony between the two?

One of my objectives in researching and exploring the many themes of noise in relation to the Bible is to see whether any of the aforementioned potential systems of Biblical-theological categorisation are at all fruitful. I am intrigued to see whether there are patterns and correlations that actually help make sense of the world of sound and noise in a fresh way. I want to find out if there are any practical benefits along these lines of inquiry: benefits for my everyday listening habits and sensibilities, benefits for the focus and expansion of my music and noise-making activities, and benefits for the integration of my faith into how I live in the soundscapes of this world. Cerebral exercises can be dead-ends: stultifying creativity, obscuring reality, sucking the life away from the worthless vantage-point of an ivory tower. But they can also be life-affirming: enhancing creativity, generating innovation and conversation, vivifying reality, and bridging the divide between theory, practice, faith, and culture. If I ultimately fail in the latter endeavour it won’t be for lack of trying my best with passion and conviction.

I don’t quite know where my investigations will end up, but it will be an exciting – and noisy – ride.

He who has ears to hear, let him hear!


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5 Responses to Classified Noise (series: The Word on Noise, part 7)

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