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Musical Space: White Noise

White noise is the sound of complete randomness; a statistically equal combination of all audible frequencies at the same time. It is the ultimate cacophony and it is all around us; the hiss from a steam radiator and the static between radio stations.

By definition white noise has no discernible pitch, nothing to make it tuneful or inherently interesting. It creeps into our lives as an artifact of our mechanical world and mostly just gets in the way of what we are actually trying to hear. Noise is why it is hard to hear really soft sounds, and why a plane ride so fatiguing.

But noise can have musical value, like the unpitched sound of a snare drum or the hammer strike at the beginning of a note played on the piano. We can change the color of noise from “white” up toward the blue or down to the red ends of the spectrum, and that can be musical, too. This is how Frank Zappa used a low-pass filter at the beginning of his song “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” from 1974.

Mark Foley is principal double bass of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra and professor of double bass and head of Jazz Studies at Wichita State University.