What’s that racket? The curious case of noise music
It feels like sonic assault, but can cause a sense of euphoria. Noise music is thriving in the US, Japan, Europe, even India. Take a look at the science of why.
There’s a kind of music that really is largely noise. How did we get here?
In early 2016, there was a small concert at Colaba’s Project 88 art gallery that I helped organise. It featured three experimental electronica artists.
The act I was looking forward to most was Jessop&Co, a Kolkata duo who use synthesisers, software and instruments they’ve made themselves, to create walls of tinnitus-inducing sound, a formless cloud of abrasive frequencies that slowly coalesce into shapes and patterns.
Five minutes into their hour-long set, 45 of the 50 attendees had left the room. (A few did return, driven back by curiosity.)
It was a sonic assault, but after it ended, we were left with a sense of euphoria; energised rather than exhausted. This, it turns out, is a common reaction to a noise show.
There are thriving noise scenes in the US, Japan, Europe, even India, built around the idea of making music that is discomfiting. Harsh-noise artists range from the confrontational Merzbow of Japan to America’s experimental and genre-defining Richard Ramirez, Daniel Menche, and The Haters.
Before we get to why this kind of music appeals (and there are real reasons), a bit about how this musical fringe came to be. In the 20th century, influenced by the industrial revolution and the pervasiveness of new technology and an already-accelerating pace of change, composers began experimenting with dissonance and atonal sounds.
A prime example is The Rite of Spring, an orchestral composition written in 1913 by the Russian Igor Stravinsky. The discordance of this music — unfamiliar registers, unresolved harmonies, complex polyrhythms — seems relatively tame today, but it caused a near riot when it was first performed in Paris.
People began throwing things, at each other and the performers. Outraged wealthy patrons tussled with a “Bohemian” group of supporters, as the musicians continued to perform. The event has gone down in history as one of avant-garde music’s foundational ones.
Months later, World War 1 began. Amid its devastation, more composers would seek to reflect and “emancipate” the dissonance they saw in the world around them. These artists included the Austrian-American Arnold Schoenberg and the Italian Luigi Russolo.
As the 20th century unfolded, new technology helped. Guitar distortion pedals, synthesisers and, more recently, software programs have made it easier to generate noise while controlling pitch, timbre and the volumes of different layers of sound.
This art form is characterised by a lack of discernible patterns and predictability. Where music that employs rhythm and harmony lulls the mind, this jolts it awake and then shakes it from side to side.
Studies explain why some people enjoy it. The brain releases dopamine when it experiences new, unfamiliar sounds; that’s part of the reason for the frisson caused when a song one is going to love for life is heard for the first time.
The dopamine overdose caused by a noise show results in disorientation and discomfort in most people. In some, it causes a kind of euphoria.
The levels of noise also boost the body’s production of epinephrine, a key component in the fight-or-flight response. The amygdala, which processes negative emotions such as fear, is activated. In a safe setting, this can feel — to some people — akin to the thrill of jumping out of an airplane with a parachute on.
More on why some brains react like this comes from research into the impact of genres that are a little less brutal, such as heavy metal and punk rock. It turns out that some people turn to extreme music because it allows them to process and purge emotions such as anger and sadness. A 2015 study by researchers at the University of Queensland, published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, found that the main reasons people listened to such music was to fully experience their anger. Heart rate analysis showed that, rather than making such people angrier, extreme music helped lower their anger response.
There’s also the reality that the modern industrial age is awash with noise. Car horns and sirens (about 120 decibels each) are louder than almost anything one would have heard on a pre-industrial street. Would we enjoy, or even need, this kind of catharsis if not for the clamour of our everyday? It’s hard to say.
What we do know, for now, is that Merzbow and Jessop&Co can help process the trauma of living in a sensory-overload world. At least in the minds of some of us.