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Your Brain Is Like Beethoven

We survive noise by transforming it into patterns, like composers create music.

Prior to the rise of urban culture, the sounds of clucking hens must have been among the world’s most ubiquitous annoyances. For…By Jonathan Berger

Prior to the rise of urban culture, the sounds of clucking hens must have been among the world’s most ubiquitous annoyances. For millennia, humans have been “up with the chickens,” demarcating time by the rooster’s crow. But the infernal clucking of poultry must have constituted a constant din. It seems odd, then, that this obnoxious noise has found its way into a vast repertoire of music, from “La Poule” by French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau in 1726 to “Chick Chick” by Chinese pop singer Wang Rong Rollin in 2014.

But poultry is not the exception. The noises of life—both annoying and pleasant—have been represented through mimicry or abstraction in all music cultures. Schubert used the sound of galloping horses to haunting effect in his ballad, “Erlkonig,” a sound also heard in music played on traditional Chinese instruments. Tuvan throat singing often imitates the sounds of rushing water and whistling wind. Beethoven orchestrated birdsong and thunderstorm. With the development of tools and machines, noises created by humans have also permeated music. Schubert, Dvorak, and Saint-Saens transformed the obstinate repetition of the spinning wheel to melodious patterns.

FEAR FREQUENCY: Scary music activates the same brain areas implicated in fear and threat. Bernard Hermann tapped those areas with screeching violins in Psycho’s famous shower scene. John Williams did the same with rumbling low frequencies in his Jaws soundtrack.Universal Studios

As machinery became pervasive and increasingly loud, so did its presence in music. In composer Steve Reich’s 1969 work, City Life, the sounds of car alarms supplant the infernal clucking of the hen in Rameau’s “La Poule,” aestheticizing our urban soundscape. In fact, the car alarms and clucking share common acoustic features. Both are obstinate rhythmic patterns with a significant component of noise—highly repetitive yet unnervingly unpredictable. These are precisely the characteristics that make noises annoying and their musical use endearing.

The way composers weave environmental noise into the fabric of their music has an interesting story to tell us: It mirrors how the human brain manages noise—how it transforms noise into something palatable and even exciting. Noise represents disorder and uncertainty. We try to fight through it and find coherence. It’s a process that involves evolutionary adaptations for managing risk and uncertainty. And a process that calls on the body’s natural rhythms to establish order. Like a drum roll that prepares us for something dramatic, noise sets in motion mental steps that harness cacophony. We live by making music out of a noisy world.

Music and motion are biologically linked. We march to music, dance to music, rock babies to sleep to music. We sway, bop, and shimmy to music. But it isn’t just rhythm and entraining to the beat that makes us move.

Acoustic noise itself generates a kinetic response. The etymology of the term bears this out. The Hebrew word for noise, “ra’ash,” is synonymous with shaking. The term appears in the Bible typically describing wrathful and furious destruction. Coined in much quieter times than today, the word noise shares its etymological root with the Latin “nausea,” which, in turn, is rooted in the Greek “naus” or ship. Noise, although an auditory phenomenon, is strangely related to seasickness, a result of the odd conjoining of the auditory and vestibular systems.

The fact that the ear combines the auditory and vestibular mechanisms is a peculiar outcome of evolution; in the transition from sea to land, fish gill arches became inner ear bones, and integrated balance with vibratory signal sensation. The sacculus, the vestibular organ responsible for balance regulation that goes haywire on rollercoasters, is responsive to sound. That powerful drive to boogie when we hear loud, driving, rhythmic music originates in the vestibular system. As composer John Adams described his orchestral work, A Short Ride in a Fast Machine, “You know how it is when someone asks you to ride in a terrific sports car, and then you wish you hadn’t?”

In addition to noise-related anxiety and confusion, prolonged loud noise can be physically disorienting. Phylogenetically, the auditory system evolved from the vestibular system. Along with the hair cells that detect sound in the cochlea, the vestibular nerve contains fibers that respond to acoustic signals. In uncommon cases, loud, sudden noise can generate a sense of unbalance, which can translate into the same unsettling physical instability generated by rapid motion. Think of it as auditory vertigo.

The word noise shares its etymological root with the Latin “nausea.”

We are generally pretty good at habituating to noise, able to push it into the recesses of consciousness if the volume is not obtrusive, the frequency bandwidth does not vary dramatically, and there are no sudden changes or interruptions. But the moment it grabs our attention, it is disturbing. The spectral characteristic of noise is inherently aperiodic—that is, the signal lacks discernibly recurrent patterns necessary to impart a perception of pitch. This renders noise irresoluble and confusing. We cannot sing the pitch of a noise. We cannot make sense of it. And as is commonly the case with things we find hopelessly confusing, noise is defined as unpleasant.

The inherent confusion that characterizes noise also challenges perceptual processes. Noise obscures and masks communications and diminishes our ability to perceive and interpret meaningful auditory signals. As we all know, unidentifiable or unexpected noises make us anxious. Sound is a fundamental attribute of trepidation. The auditory system plays a key role in the neuronal circuits for anxiety and fear.

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The amygdala, critical in processing fear and emotion, adapts as fearful sounds are acquired and stored away in memory. Although the research literature is rich in studies that demonstrate how organisms anticipate adversity with auditory cues after relatively few repetitions, and retain that memory for extended periods of time, the neuronal networks and connections implicated are not yet clear. Nevertheless, traumatic events affect synaptic strength and sensitivity, making noise particularly troubling in post-traumatic stress and anxiety disorders.

The hazards of ambient noise are concerns of governmental occupational health and safety agencies. It disrupts concentration, increases stress, and has been implicated in hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and stress-related disorders. Studies of cortisol in saliva implicate noise in the release of stress hormones. Noise-induced stress impairs the prefrontal cortex’s functions of reasoning and moderating impulsive reactions. High levels of ambient noise and loud music also affect gustatory and olfactory sensitivity. Sweet and sour tastes are different in loud restaurants than in quiet ones. (Generally, noise dampens taste. But in one study, sweet taste was enhanced by the presence of white noise, which raised stress levels, influencing taste perception.)

Noise, then, is a warning system. We are wired to be aware of our surroundings, to identify both threat and opportunity. So we constantly seek coherent informative patterns—and struggle to do so under noisy conditions. We focus on the sound of footsteps rustling through leaves on a night when the wind outside our tent is howling and the tree branches are quaking. We concentrate with particular attention attempting to hear a conversation amid the din of city traffic.

Although comprehensibility of speech is often lost in noisy or highly reverberant situations, we manage to retrieve lost information by concocting lost sounds—filling in the blanks where intelligibility falters. As these lost noises are reconstructed, masking noises are effectively suppressed.

This capacity was described back in the 1950s and was respectively called the “picket fence” effect, alluding to the way the visual system manages to preserve a complete image by filling in the gaps occluded behind a picket fence, or the “acoustic tunnel” effect, referring to the imagined continuity of a train seen entering and leaving a tunnel. Examples abound, from the phonemic restoration of a speech obscured by a nearby cough, to the continuity of a song segment marred by static. The brain will even invent sound when it sees fit.

Conductor Sir Thomas Beecham described the harpsichord as the sound of “two skeletons copulating.”

Research on ferrets (whose auditory system is similar to that of humans) further demonstrates how the primary auditory cortex can boost the gain of the desired signal while attenuating the surrounding noise. Researchers measured the animals’ neural response to sounds and found that the animals interpreted noise-obscured sounds similarly to how they interpreted clean sounds. The brain, it seems, suppresses noise to enhance communications.

We are, in fact, so determined to extract meaning out of noise that we are prone to auditory hallucination when subjected to prolonged auditory confusion. We imagine illusory objects embedded in the noise—a telephone ringing, our name being called—an increasingly common urban phenomenon known as auditory pareidolia.

Imagined structures and messages are heard or seen in circumstances of both sensory overload and deprivation. Ghostly voices are believed to emerge from electronic recordings of static—an occurrence called Electronic Voice Phenomena. Similarly, people subjected to sustained darkness experience phosphenes in which psychedelic-like bursts of light often take on human forms, a phenomenon known as “prisoner’s cinema.”

In the early 1900s, amid the chaos of a world at war, the psychologist, Max Wertheimer, investigated the underlying principles that enable humans to find structure in noise. Wertheimer’s gestalt laws of perceptual organization described how the mind groups disparate objects if they are proximate or similar. He demonstrated how patterns can be inferred if they suggest connection or continuity. Wertheimer termed the fundamental principle of gestalt perception prägnanz, as the tendency to seek simplicity through recurrence, order, or symmetry.

Wertheimer’s gestalt principles explain how humans delineate stellar constellations in the cosmos, and imagine life forms in cloud formations. The sheer creativity of finding structures in noise was noted by Leonardo da Vinci, who was inspired by the random patterns of speckled surfaces. “Look at walls splashed with a number of stains, or stones of various mixed colours,” he wrote. “If you have to invent some scene, you can see there resemblances to a number of landscapes, adorned with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, great plains, valleys and hills, in various ways.”

The genesis of music, Leonardo might agree, is a creative urge to find patterns in noise. It’s an act of rhythm, in tune with the body’s beating heart. From the earliest days on the savanna, humans scream, they shout, they hiss. They clap their hands, they stomp feet. They create noises to chase away adversaries—threatening intruders and imaginary spirits alike.

Humans have always generated noise in the creation of their tools. The tools they create, in turn, generate noise as they perform their tasks, like chipping stones. In time, specialized tools were made whose sole function and purpose was to make noise. Among the oldest known musical instruments are noise-makers—cymbals and tambourines. The noises they make, the Bible tells us, please God. Early percussive instruments—idiophones, scrapers, and membranophones—tapped the body’s pulse as they created (sometimes painfully) loud sounds. These instruments also sounded alarms and summoned to battle.

As instruments progressed, composers found manifold ways to weave their environments into music. The Turkish crescent—a pole with metal jangles—shook both on the battlefield and in courtly ceremonies. The crescent, together with bass drums, cymbals, and buzzing shawms, constituted the Janissary band, whose sounds became integrated into 18th-century music, first as a reference to the “exotic” Ottomans and later as an integral noise component in the developing symphony orchestra. Variants of the Turkish crescent abound in a wide range of cultures. Australians of British origin adapted an aboriginal instrument and replaced its rattling shells with beer caps—they dubbed their creation the lagerphone.

Numerous composers—Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven among them—integrated the noise and clusters of the Janissary band in their work, often alluding to the Ottomans with compositions subtitled alla Turca. Meanwhile, composers became increasingly interested in pictorial descriptions of environmental and human noises such as thunder, wind, and the din of battle.

Musicians were quick to discover the ironic element in noise: Some incoherent sounds—a waterfall or a gushing stream—are deeply pleasurable. The chaotic randomness that makes noise confusing could be a prominent feature in music. Humans have always been thrill-seekers. We manufacture unsettling situations that simulate danger and uncertainty, stimulating adrenaline release, accelerated heartbeat, hastened breathing, imbalance and vertigo—the proverbial rush.

Composers love to tap the visceral emotions of fear and suspense. The stormy opening of Verdi’s Otello combines crashing cymbals with a low sustained organ cluster that rumbles through an enormous opera house for a very long time. Low pitch works as a threatening cue, particularly in conjunction with an irregular rhythm that simulates a physiological response to fear. John Williams’ score for Jaws combines the rumbling low frequencies associated with threat with the accelerating breathing of the threatened.

As machines and factories set the sound and rhythm of Europe, the industrial revolution and the inventions of audio recording and radio transmission added new dimensions to the use of noise in music. In 1913, the Futurist artist Luigi Russolo wrote a manifesto titled The Art of Noise, in which he called to integrate the sounds of machinery and urban industrialization into the vocabulary of music, just as the apparatus of industry found their way into the visual arts.

In the decades that followed, numerous composers used machine sounds, such as the manipulated recorded sounds of trains in Pierre Shaeffer’s musique concrète, while others, like Edgar Varese, synthesized sounds that had no apparent reference to natural sounds. Varese’s called music “organized sound” and effectively erased the distinction between music and noise. That definition opened up a new world for composers, and composer John Cage mapped the way forward.

“Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise,” Cage wrote. “When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating. The sound of a truck at fifty miles per hour. Static between stations. Rain. We want to capture and control these sounds—to use them not as sound effects but as musical instruments.”

Cage made good on his philosophy in his famous work, 4’33”, in which a pianist sits silently at her instrument, prompting people to attentively listen to the noise around them and find meaning in the chaos.

Artists like Cage expose another truth about noise: Context influences its emotional valence. Human hearing is fickle—yesterday’s noise is today’s art—and yesterday’s art is today’s noise. Early 20th-century composer Arnold Bax compared the last movements of Bach’s works to the “running of a sewing machine.” Conductor Sir Thomas Beecham described the noisy twang of the harpsichord as the sound of “two skeletons copulating.”

Technological innovations—electricity-facilitated recording, amplification, filtering—gave composers all kinds of new ways to turn noise into expressive elements of their music. Distortion and feedback became sculpting tools for sound. Jimi Hendrix’s iconic rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner” was the voice of the generation.

Today, heavily reinforced sound systems project unimaginable power to the audience. The experiments in 1960s rock evolved into genres in which sensory dissonance was the norm rather than the exception. The list of today’s subgenres of noise music is absurdly long—with the nuances that characterize each of these styles (dark ambient, power noise, noise/shock), ideologies (martial industrial) techniques (death growl) indicative of listener’s ability to constantly refine their hearing.

Ultimately, music challenges us to face ambiguity, seek solutions and, in the absence of resolution, turn confusion into a positive emotion by reveling in its ambiguity and vagueness. Looking back, noise has been integral to music as long as music has existed, incorporating imitations of birdcalls, animal sounds, and the cries of street vendors. It sounds ironic to say that indulging in noise is how we manage it. But apparently that is how humans shake, rattle, and roll. The visceral, disorienting response of sound’s interaction with the body is what—quite literally—moves us.

Once, sitting in an airport departure gate, the noise was driving me bananas. I tried, with some success, to divert my attention from it. As the plane took off, the rattles that were merely annoying before were now ominous and threatening. They conjured up fleeting images of the plane breaking up and all hell breaking loose. I turned hypersensitive to each unidentifiable noise. I inserted my ear buds and cranked up Kiss’ “Rock and Roll All Nite.”

Jonathan Berger is a composer and the Denning Family Provostial Professor in Music at Stanford University. His compositions include chamber, symphonic, vocal, electroacoustic music, and opera. Berger’s research explores how and why humans persistently, even obsessively, engage with music.

Lead image: madjembe / Shutterstock

A version of this article first appeared in our “Noise” issue in July, 2016.

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