The Noise Floor: Signal and Noise

Peter Krapp’s chapter Noise Floor: Between Tinnitus and Raw Data discusses sound glitch by differentiating between noise and signal and between sound and sound art. Ultimately, Krapp realizes the potential of glitch in sound production, and its uses in innovation alongside the history of digital technology and evolution of sound.

The difference between noise and signal, according to Krapp, is under the intention in which the sound is made. Noise is to exclude all other sounds, and is a sound that is not intentionally made. Signals are sounds that have meaning and are created with a purpose.

The emphasis placed on intention in the chapter is interesting and yet again reminds me of various communication theories. Noise can occur in communicative capacities regardless of intent. Noise can also alter an interaction and create a different message than what was intended for the receiver.

The relationship between sound and sound art is a little more nuanced and complicated. The glitches that occur with digital technology allow for new sounds to be created. Digital noises, or “raw data,” as used by Krapp, are used in experimentation that often results in transformed works, different from music of prior eras (53).

Much of the rest of the chapter also reminds me of videos I have watched recently, in which music is created from the multitude of sounds computers make in everyday use. The various noises are arranged and repeated to musical pieces that sound similar to classical songs. Ordinary noises can be used to make recognizable art, but can regularly understood music can likewise be glitched to be nearly indecipherable.

Krapp concludes the chapter with the reminder that there is very much a spectrum of error and control on which the noise versus signal and sound versus sound art falls in the relationship between people and digital technology. The question here, I wonder, is whether or not either ends of this spectrum can be reached and what the implications of that may be.

Glitch Muse: Skrillex vs.The Beatles (Who Did Noise Better?)


An accurate representation of myself listening to the  songs mentioned in this blog post.

This week, we are exploring the use of glitch and error in the context of sound and audio, and Peter Krapp’s chapter, Noise Floor: Between Tinnitus and Raw Data, addresses the ways in which noise has developed over the years into something that is now a part of our “aesthetic vocabulary” (62). One of the most interesting things about Krapp’s article is his connection between sound glitching and experimental music, which begs the question: how much music can be compressed in lossy sampling before it ceases to be music? (53)

I believe this is the main issue at hand, not only in this particular reading but also in a larger theoretical framework as well, because one aspect of glitching that I am preoccupied with is meaning, and the distinct changes in meaning that is derived when one chooses to impose error upon a piece of work.

Upon reading Krapp’s article, his ideas compelled me to reconsider what noise is, musically. Originally, for me at least, noise could be anything that I would call “garbage”. An unnecessary sequence of loud sounds, a cacophony of crap, and just a whole lot of shiz (pardon my French). And there is no better illustration of my own personal definition of noise than the ever-so operatic ragtime of Skrillex. Yes, Skrillex.

Now, here is a song that CLEARLY exploits sound glitches, noise, and multiple textures of distortion that can be heard throughout. To any normal human being, this song may very well be what invented the migraine. Does it make much sense? No. Will it make your ears bleed? Quite possibly. But of course, this may be due to what Krapp calls “the hegemony of a narrow operating definition of music” (57). And it’s true, because if it weren’t for this hegemony, then there wouldn’t be a distinction between what is “pop” music and what is anything beyond that, like the avant-garde or experimental. That being said, Krapp makes a good point when he mentions that different kinds of glitches in music can come off as all too similar-sounding:

“An important objection to casting the process of glitching or circuit-bending in an aesthetic dimension is that it might seem as if to a layperson, static is just static, so that different kinds of glitches would be indistinguishable. This could potentially be taken to mean that avant-garde art necessarily transcends an individual’s perceptual capacity, as repetition reduces originality and increases accessibility; because forms are intelligible, they reduce unpredictability” (69).

So is it completely reasonable that all the clicks, dings, and womps that you hear in Skrillex’s “Doompy Poomp” turns into a nonsensical fusion of literal noise? YES. Because according to Krapp, music that is so exploratory in sound may be beyond one’s ability to make any sense of it since its lack of formality and familiar structure renders it unpredictable. I’d like to think that Krapp would also not be the biggest Skrillex fan when he says that “music is not ‘electronic’ if it merely reproduces known sounds and forms”. SURELY, even The Beatles could produce better noise than this!

However, if that is the case, then what separates Skrillex from The Beatles and their song, “Revolution 9”? Is it a more credible or “artistic” piece than “Doompy Poomp” simply because it’s The Beatles? I would say no because it’s just as difficult to listen to as Skrillex, and both represent a musical style that sets itself aside from the easy-to-understand mainstream. But with all the high-brow criticism aside, I think that Krapp’s article has also allowed me to come to the conclusion that meaning is intrinsic to both the artist and the listener, individually, and perhaps sometimes even independently, for music is a medium that often celebrates resisting its semantics while putting on display the aesthetic freedom and opportunity.

Krapp’s ‘Noise Floor’ & the Taste Cultures of Sound

In the chapter Noise Floor: Between Tinnitus and Raw Data, Peter Krapp delves into the “hegemony of a narrow operating definition of music,” and discusses the differences between noises and signals, and music and sound art (57). First, he defines noise as a signal that the transmitter does not wish to send, which indicates that the source of the sound and the intention of the sender are the only real dividing factors. Later, he distinguishes sound art from music due to sound art’s reliance on computing hardware and software, which again points to the source of the sound as the differentiating element. I think it is interesting how taste cultures apply to sounds and mark what sounds are acceptable forms of music, and what sounds are essentially unwanted. Krapp points to today’s obsession with the noise-canceling technology of headphones, which also led me to thinking about all of the software designed to perfect sound. In filmmaking, flawless sound is essential and any extraneous “noise” becomes extremely evident, and can ruin a whole film. The desire to have crisp sound in most films makes sense because the filmmaker doesn’t want to take the viewer out of the world of the story through their acknowledgement of a mistake in the production. In general, we have created a stigma against noises, and often associate certain sounds with error. Some people even have contempt for electronic music because they do not understand how music can come from computer-generated technology rather than physical instruments. I think it’s interesting that we still accept certain man-made glitches in music, like Krapp discussed with the scratching of a record by turntablists. Perhaps it’s because the scratching foregrounds the aesthetics of the medium and the tangibility of a record, which is essentially the opposite of digital music.

Krapp goes on to point out how a new generation of amateurs have taken back the glitch, and explains how these experimenters play around with the frame of reception rather than subvert it. I have trouble with the way that sound art is defined in opposition to music, because music itself is sound art and can be computer-generated. I love how the audio glitch artists incorporate noises that indicate errors, or are just considered monotonous, and create a fusion of sounds that can then be interpreted as music. On the other hand, some glitch artists take melodic sounds or songs that are already considered music and glitch them to the point that they are no longer comprehendible. If either one of these approaches is considered sound art, then who demarcates what is music and what is not? Where is the line drawn, and when can glitches be celebrated or conversely rejected as distasteful?