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Matt Dorey

A bird is sitting on the grass with a kite

What IS That Noise?

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I recently spruced up a post I wrote four years ago about Biosphere’s wonderful album Substrata. I added the following footnote about the difference between voice samples and found sound:

I suppose I am distinguishing between found sound and vocal samples here. Perhaps there is very little difference, or that one is the other? When is a vocal snippet something more than found sound? Is it the fact that one has meaning? Isn’t a “meaningless” sample – like the ones here in Russian that I can’t understand – little more than found sound anyway?

These are rhetorical questions and they have gone unanswered. That’s a shame but I appreciate that the passing traffic for that particular post is quite low, let alone the footnotes. Perhaps we could address them here?

And wait! I have more. These are some other similar questions that sprung to mind at the same time:

  • Do all human utterances have intention and therefore meaning, even if you haven’t understood it?
  • Does all noise have a physical explanation? (Sound is just atoms vibrating after all?)
  • Does experiencing the recreation of a physical noise represents a repetition of the event that created the noise, even if it is just an abstract reification1 of that event?
  • If all experience and knowledge is subjective, would that mean that even meaningless “noise” or “found sound” can have intention, meaning, and purpose?

Note that for the second question a possible “non-physical noise” might be the memory of one. For example, a song going around in your head2 has no physical basis — “hearing” it does not come from your brain interpreting signals generated in your auditory nerve in response to your eardrum vibrating, though of course neurons are firing3 and this does have a physical basis.

I am thinking about these ideas for two reasons: one is the ongoing growth of my beautiful niece who continues to develop every time I see her, particularly cognitively. She’s at that wonderful stage where she is talking without any meaning, just that burbling baby-talk that young children use to work out the intonations of speech. The best thing is she can tell the difference between my imitation of her baby-talk (which delights her) and my invention of totally different baby-talk (which confuses her).

The second reason is Daniel Dennett’s great book “Intuition Pumps”, one of about twenty books that I seem to be about a third of the way through at the moment. (I wonder how many of my questions here he might dismiss as mere “deepities”?) He writes at length about viewing systems from the intentional, design, and physical standpoints. These are shorthand for how systems can be condensed so that they considered in an effective manner. If we return to the found sound versus vocal samples debate as an example, we can say that the difference between the two sound sources is that we have to interpret vocal samples from an intentional stance and found sound from a physical stance.

To come to some sort of conclusion and kind of answer my initial question, I think that found sound and vocal samples are genuinely different instruments on the Substrata album4 because your brain is interpreting them through these different stances. As to what happens when the language of the vocal sample is foreign to the listener, I don’t think you shift to a different stance but I do think it has a different effect, one that uses the cognitive dissonance between knowing something has meaning without knowing the actual meaning.


Hero image is “Noise Generator” by Feans. (cc-2.0).

  1. Reification is the act of realising an idea – such as a building a chair after thinking of something to sit on. Hence “abstract reification” is something of an oxymoron, but one that works in this instance. It’s a fault in my vocabulary for sure, because there’s probably a name for that Proustian recollection of past events.
  2. SOPHIE’s Lemonade perhaps?
  3. Even Beliebers are not brain-dead. Probably.
  4. Other ambient albums are available.
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