Daniele Martella

Personal Statement – Daniele Martella


In this short essay I would like to further dedicate myself to the conceptual unification of music and sound. As I have already stated in the first submission, Clarke (2012, 17) suggests that differentiation between those two entities must be regarded as problematic, simply because all sonic events, including music, can be recognised by the same human perceptual system. Not only I completely agree with this argument, but also I want to support this by additionally placing different kinds of philosophical arguments and concepts in the discussion’s context. Those philosophical concepts mainly derive from two theoretical currents, namely post-modernism and romanticism.

In a first step I would like to explain what the main thesis of post-modernism is. Especially a critique on narrative (scientific) meta-systems from the perspective of Lyotard shall be examined. This criticism, in a second step, shall be applied to the distinction between noise and music in order to elaborate its illegitimate character.

Philosophical framework

It was Lyotard who postulated the end of the grand narratives and the great metaphysical systems in the tradition of Hegel, Kant, Marx and Freud. These meta-systems were originally designed to ontologically describe all aspects of reality, usually by connecting them through a couple of fundamental or meta-physical mechanism or ideas (Ruffing, 2006, 255).

Lyotard distinguishes two different kinds of narrative meta-systems that create only a system-inherent and very specific knowledge. The first one can be described as an ancient narration-system. Its principles and contents only persist because the system itself is passed on over many generations. Ancient knowledge systems, furthermore, do not need to withstand modern, potentially falsifying procedures. They legitimise themselves by their existence and thereby become true. Enlightened or rather scientific meta-systems, in contrast, need to wander through different kinds of empirical procedures in order to receive legitimisation (Kubsch, 2004, 4).

Lyotard, however, argues that especially scientific narration systems cause different kinds of problems. First of all, that type of system (like every other narrative meta-system) claims not only to be valid for science, but also to become expanded on every other part of life, daily routine and even culture and arts (Kubsch, 2004, 5), although it is highly questionable whether meta-systems that claim to be solely logically consistent and highly intuitive fields, such as arts an humanities, are even in the slightest way compatible. Especially because of their universal approach and their specific procedures, meta-narrations are predetermined not to be able to embrace a piece of art in its whole, especially unconscious, depth. Even worse, those meta-systems can potentially draw artificial and superficial lines between entities although they actually have nothing relevant in common. On the contrary they can overlook subconscious or intuitive connections by simply not regarding them as legitimate (because subconscious does not appear in the algebra of the meta-system). Romantic philosophers from the 18th had already recognised all these kinds of dangers. Their whole movement can be understood as a denial of the meta-narration of enlightenment (Safranski, 2010, 53).

The crucial point that Lyotard states, however, is that we can use apparently objective and scientific tools in order to make highly specific statements, but their ontological truth content in the end can only be based on arbitrary presumptions (Kubsch, 2004, 5).

It is highly important to be aware of the fact that these imperfect meta-systems and procedures in reality still decide the construction of the most basic terminologies, categories and distinctions. This should be worrying.

Music and Noise

So, what does this all have to do with the distinction between sound and music? In my opinion Lyotard’s critique on narrative meta-systems and their constructions of categories is perfectly applicable to the concept of music. Either the term music can be seen as a result of a meta-system, or it actually is a small meta-system itself.

If we have a closer look on how music is defined nowadays, we can conjecture what does this actually say about the status of its subcategories.

Michels (2012, 17), who distinguishes between noise and music, develops two conditions that, for the term music, need to be fulfilled. Firstly, the music’s entities, the tones, must consist of periodic sine oscillations. Noise, instead, behaves the other way round. Secondly, music itself must be related to harmony, which means that frequency ratios generally consist of simple fractions. If we compare these definitions to the criticism that was raised towards narrative meta-systems, we can state a couple of things: Michels here clearly refers to empirical methods: periodic sine oscillations and simple frequency ratios can be read as very specific physical measurements. This reference alone apparently provides a sense of objectivity. Michels, however, does not state why aural events must fulfil these very specific empirical criteria in order to be called music. There is absolutely no relation between that kind of specific measurement and the potential assignment to a very open category. This clearly shows not only how the truth claims of scientific measurement are ideological, but also how they fail. The problem is that, in this case, scientific meta-narration over-simplifies what can be called music. Music is, simply said, more than that. It surely has a physical dimension, but it is also part of an inner quality, or experience, and most important of all, it is highly subjective. Under all these circumstances, the artificial distinctions between noise and music seem to be nothing else than grotesque.


Clarke’s critique towards the distinction between music and sound could successfully be supported by the deconstructive nature of post-modernist ideas. Lyotard’s objections helped revealing inadequate constructions of apparently ontological truths. With this critical mind-set it was possible to potentially widen and reconstruct an open understanding of music; one that understands “noise” as part of music.

Clarke, E. F. (2005). Ways of listening: An ecological approach to the perception of musical meaning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Kubsch, Ron (2004). Von Ende der großen Erzählungen. MBS. Texte 3.

Michels, U. (2012). Dtv-Atlas Musik . Systematischer Teil. Musikgeschichte von den Anfängen bis zur Gegenwart, Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuchverlag.

Safransi, R. (2010). Romantik. Eine deutsche Affäre