A green alien with yellow eyes is seen listening to music using black headphones. They are standing against a night sky with stars and music notes surrounding them
Credit: Katrina Siân Williams

‘That’s not music, that’s just noise!’

By Callum Sneddon

Why are the alien sounds of noise music entering the mainstream?

You would be hard pressed to find any experimental genre of music conceived over the last century which has not been dismissed as “noise”. Almost every challenging new addition to the collective sonic palette is, at first, met with disapproval and accusations of its unmusicality. But what of the artists who intentionally employ harsh, dissonant sounds in their music, deliberately making the listening process uncomfortable or even painful? Though once on the far-flung fringes of musical experimentation, in recent decades this practice has become increasingly part of the mainstream. With chart-topping pop stars like Charli XCX embracing the abrasive ear candy of hyperpop and glitch, and elements of harsh noise continuing to thrive on the experimental frontier with post-punkers like black midi, the genre has arguably never been more relevant.

So how did we reach this zenith of noise’s musical relevancy, where listeners clamour for more unpleasant sounds? A little knowledge of the genre’s storied history goes a long way towards answering these questions.

Tracing the genealogy of noise back to its roots, we can already uncover hints of what the sound would mean to listeners in decades to come. The 1910s saw the genesis of various modernist visual art movements such as Dada and Futurism, wherein European artists created absurdist works in-line with the growing anti-war zeitgeist. Here, we also find the first examples of noise being used to create musical art. In 1917, Italian artist Luigi Russolo composed works for a “noise orchestra”, using machines which he built specially. These works, and the swathes of public disapproval, would later inspire 1930s musician Arseny Avraamov to create his aptly titled Symphony of Factory Sirens.

Noise music remained the domain of lofty experimentalists for some time, reserved for the consumption of high-brow chin-strokers in the art world. However, by the 1960s elements of noise had finally begun to break through into the realm of popular music. Boundary-pushing bands such as The Velvet Underground and The Beatles started to experiment with non-musical sounds, incorporating these elements on songs like Tomorrow Never Knows, Revolution 9, and Heroin.

Though it was yet to be fully embraced by the mainstream, it is at this time that the “noise bug” truly started spreading. Among the excesses of the 1970s, noise gave birth to its most extreme, enduring, and influential iteration yet: industrial music. Bands such as Throbbing Gristle and Einstürzende Neubauten would tie industrial noise with postmodern horror and even the occult through shocking stage shows performed with instruments made of scrap metal, tools and even bones. A testament to their sheer experimentality, songs such as Throbbing Gristle’s Hamburger Lady still impose the same feeling of shock today as in 1978.

It is hard to overstate just how important noise music in the 1970s was in the development of popular music across the genre spectrum. On one hand, bands such as Sonic Youth combined the sound with more traditional ideas of rock and pop, reacting against punk to create noise rock and no-wave (which, in turn, would become core influences on grunge acts like Nirvana). On quite another, the likes of Aphex Twin and Brian Eno digitized the ambient sounds of machines and early computers to create pleasing melodies, laying the groundwork for decades of EDM.

In the contemporary era, no band has flown the flag of noise music quite as proudly (and successfully) as Death Grips. From their sampling and deforming of heavy machinery à la Russolo to their Throbbing Gristle-esque aesthetic of angry absurdism, Death Grips’ merging of classic noise tropes with their own brand of industrial hip-hop has done more for the genre than arguably any band that came before. Despite the frequent cries of “it’s just noise”, their innovations have changed the modern music landscape to an unbelievable degree. The ubiquity of industrial production found in hip-hop projects like Kanye West’s Yeezus and the meteoric rise of hyperpop and glitch on platforms like TikTok are testament to the band’s genre-defying influence. I, like many others, found myself bitten by the noise bug after first encountering songs like Takyon and Hacker in the 2010s which, as coarse and aggressive as they are, simultaneously manage to be eminently listenable.

Now that we have reached the end of this crash course in noise music, we can return to the main question: why have noise elements only grown in popularity over the century? It is still unclear what attracts listeners to noisy and abrasive sounds, but there is room to speculate. Much of modernist art was created in response to the rise of industrial society, the horrors of the war, and the increasing dominance of technology. Looking further down the line, we see that, as noise genres have developed, they often associated themselves with nihilism, the postmodern, and politics of dissent. None of the issues of the 1910s have dissipated – if anything, many have begun tipping forward into cataclysm. Similarly, the music seems to ramp up to an ever harsher, noisier degree as global capitalism tightens its stranglehold: it is not difficult to see the glitching, scraping, screaming noise of modern music as an artistic cry of despair from the throats of an ever more alienated society.


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