Why Do We Enjoy Noise Music? Listen.

Nine Inch Nails brings the noise.
Nine Inch Nails brings the noise. Mike Brooks
Music predates language, and while we’d like to think some cavemen first discovered music by unintentionally creating harmonies in 4/4 time, archaeologists haven’t found footage of this. Still, it’s hard to imagine the creation of music going down any other way. Everything else that cavemen heard leading up to that watershed event had to have been shrill cacophony, whether it came from saber tooth tigers, babies or forest fires.

Whatever noises inundated their daily lives couldn’t have possibly been pleasant to the ear. After all, the very essence of noise is incompatible with our fundamental perceptions of music. Noise is clamorous, unmeted and abrasive; music traditionally has a sense of rhythm, consonance and resolution.


Modern century composers like Arnold Schoenberg and John Cage were controversial for pioneering atonality and aleatory (the principle of leaving a piece of music to chance) respectively. The Velvet Underground came out with profoundly grating, auditory streams-of-consciousness in the form of “Sister Ray” and “European Son,” just as the band’s cofounder Lou Reed eschewed every conceivable musical structure in his seminal 1975 album, Metal Machine Music.

These artists were commonly dismissed as creators of something that couldn’t even be defined as music, but that didn’t stop some listeners from enjoying these unpleasant sounds. But why?

To quote Trent Reznor, "I think there's something strangely musical about noise." On the surface, the Nine Inch Nails brainchild words aren’t exactly profound, but they merit further thought when you realize that Reznor’s affinity for noise made him one of the most commercially successful artists in alternative music.

The project’s signature full-length, The Downward Spiral, sold millions of copies and debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 chart. Its lead single, “March of the Pigs,” has a 7/8 time signature and clashes two mellow piano breakdowns with noisy, industrial rock passages. It doesn’t exactly have the common earmarks of a chart-topper, but somehow, it continues to resonate with millions of listeners.

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins introduced mainstream audiences to scream vocals in his groundbreaking single, “I Put a Spell on You,” and this set a precedent allowed scream-intensive genres like punk and metal to take form. Fort Worth’s own Ornette Coleman divided jazz audiences in his noisy, off-kilter brand of jazz in his aptly named album The Shape of Jazz to Come, and it stands as one of the genre’s most formative achievements.

Noise is a common thread in the expansion of music, but one that is often met with resistance. It stands as the antithesis of everything that makes music enjoyable to most people, but at the same time, it is also oddly compatible with mainstream sensibilities.

Below is a cursory album listening guide for those looking to get into noise music.

Throbbing Gristle – D.o.A: The Third and Final Report of Throbbing Gristle
Throbbing Gristle – 20 Jazz Funk Greats
Lou Reed – Metal Machine Music
Einsturzende Neubauten – Kollaps

Industrial Rock/Metal
Cabaret Voltaire – Red Mecca
Ministry – The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Taste
Godflesh – Streetcleaner
Chrome – Alien Soundtracks
Nine Inch Nails – Pretty Hate Machine
Skinny Puppy – VIVIsectVI
Neurosis – Through Silver in Blood

Noise Rock/No Wave
The Velvet Underground – White Light/White Heat
The Birthday Party – Junkyard
Shellac – At Action Park
Swans – Filth
Pere Ubu – Dub Housing
The Fall – Hex Enduction Hour
No Trend – A Dozen Dead Roses (ft. Lydia Lunch)
Flipper – Album: Generic Flipper
Teenage Jesus and the Jerks – Teenage Jesus and the Jerks
Boredoms – Chocolate Synthesizer
Six Finger Satellite – Law of Ruins

Noise Rock That Had More Direct Ties With Alternative Music
Sonic Youth – EVOL
Dinosaur, Jr. – You’re Living All Over Me
Butthole Surfers – Locust Abortion Technician
The Jesus Lizard – Goat

Suicide – Suicide
Big Black – Songs About Fucking
Atari Teenage Riot – Delete Yourself!
Venetian Snares – Rossz Csillag Alatt Szuletett
Whitehouse – Bird Seed (for the love of God, don’t listen to the title track)
The Flaming Lips – The Terror

Noise Pop/Shoegaze
The Jesus and Mary Chain – Psychocandy
Black Tambourine – Black Tambourine
R. Stevie Moore – Glad Music
My Bloody Valentine – Loveless
Ariel Pink – Before Today
Sleigh Bells – Reign of Terror

Industrial/Experimental Hip-Hop
MC 900 Ft. Jesus – One Step Ahead of the Spider
Techno Animal – The Brotherhood of the Bomb
Dalek – From Filthy Tongue of Gods and Griots
B L A C K I E – True Spirit and Not Giving a Fuck
Death Grips – The Money Store
Kanye West – Yeezus
Clipping. – CLPPNG
JPEGMAFIA – Black Ben Carson
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Garrett Gravley was born and grew up in Dallas. He mostly writes about music, but veers into arts and culture, local news and politics. He is a graduate of the University of North Texas and has written for the Dallas Observer since October 2018.