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From my reading I've gathered that the difference between music and noise is that music is an organized collection of sounds. In that definition, noise would then be an unorganized collection of sounds.

If this is a viable definition, then my question is:

What does organized mean? Do we (as a society) define what organized sound means or is there some universal law defining what sounds can be interpreted as music?

If you disagree with the first paragraph's definition about the difference between music and noise, then my question is:

Is there a way to universally distinguish music from noise?

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Not all organized sound is music. Normal talking is organized in many dimensions, but not music. –  Dave Mar 6 '13 at 14:49
I recommend The Rest Is Noise by Alex Ross. It's a history book about peoples' perception of what music is over the last century, among other things. –  Tony Mar 7 '13 at 21:10
Maybe not entirely on-topic but there is a psychological phenomenon called the "speech-to-song" illusion. This is an experiment of perception, where a fragment of speech is heard as music when given the right context. See here –  Roland Bouman Mar 25 '14 at 21:05
Here's another article on the speech-to-song illusion that discusses repetition as the main trigger for our mind to recognize sound as music –  Roland Bouman Mar 25 '14 at 21:10

3 Answers 3

up vote 13 down vote accepted

No, there is no universal definition which can objectively distinguish noise from music.

Most people will probably agree that a Mozart symphony is definitely music. Most people will probably agree that continuous white noise is not music.

But there is a very wide grey area in-between, in which the distinction between music and noise is entirely subjective.

For example, Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music, a cacophony of atonality and absence of rhythm, is music to some -- but many more people would not consider it to be music. Sunn O))) make whole albums consisting of a slowly modulating drone - but to some people it counts as music.

Many kinds of pop music, from Elvis, to The Beatles, to rap, to dubstep have been dismissed as "not music" by traditionalists.

Then there's John Cage's composition 4'33" -- arguably designed to draw attention to impossibility of the question of what music is and isn't.

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Oh, people quite objectively distinguish what is music, but then they apply various prejudices in order to deny it. Most people who say that X is not music don't actually believe it. If it wasn't painfully obvious that X isn't music, there would be no need to vehemently deny it. It's rare for someone to feel the need to stand on the corner and point out to everyone that screeching tires aren't music. But there is no shortage of those who will inform you that Justin Bieber isn't music, that rap isn't music, etc. –  Kaz Apr 18 '13 at 1:03

Organized in the context you quote means organized in time. Think of a musical piece or song as a graph. The Y axis is notes or sounds, and the X axis is minutes and seconds. When notes and sounds are planned to occur, in sequence, at specific points on this graph, relative to the X axis of minutes and seconds, then this is music.

Generally speaking, music is sounds organized in time.

By the way, with regard to the physics of sound, there is a distinction between musical notes and noise.

Musical notes are sounds that have, as a major component, prominent identifiable frequencies that repeat in a regular oscillating waveform. This is what we call a pitch or a tuned sound.

Noise refers to individual sounds that do not have a regular oscillating waveform, which is to say, among other things, that they have no recognizable pitch.

Now many percussion instruments do not produce a strong recognizable oscillating waveform, so technically a sound from such an instrument would be called noise. We call these instruments non-pitched percussion. But these are used in a musical context, meaning that the sounds they make are played by the player in a manner that is organized in time, so we regard them as musical instruments.

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If you take many kinds of noise, and add echoes and reverb, and amplify it, it instantly becomes music. :) –  Kaz Apr 18 '13 at 1:02
Noise can be turned into a note while fundamentally remaining noise. Take some random noise, and then shape the frequency envelope a little. Choose musical frequencies. You can do this with your mouth. Make a steady "chhhhhhh" sound (hiss from the back of your throat) and vary the shape of your mouth. You can make notes. –  Kaz Apr 18 '13 at 4:44
+1 because while music is subjective like Wheat Williams says, this answer applies to an overwhelming majority of cases. –  Kevin Mar 25 '14 at 16:36

What you call music is a combination of particular sounds like guitar notes to transmit emotions to one another. Organized means that between different sounds, there exists some relationship in its physical characteristics like frequency or intensity. Thinks to the ADSR (attack, decay, sustain, and release) of the sound wave.

PS. This is my opinion. The other answers maybe more specific and correct.

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