This is the first in a series of two articles by neuroscience student and musician Matt Gartry entitled ‘What is Music and What is Sound Art? A Neuro-Historical Approach’


The Problem

I owe a lot to music. Its influence on me has been vast and by now it is woven inseparably into my own sense of identity. Music shapes my thoughts and emotions and drives my very behaviour. In my mind, even the tiniest jazz bar warrants a weekly 3am gander through the seedy backstreets of London’s East End. Yet, I have struggled to find any quality or characteristic of music itself that should justify its pervasiveness within my life. More troubling still, teasing out music from general noise or other sonic art forms has proven problematic too. Desperate for a sense of understanding and resolution, I here turn to recent scientific research in the hope of shedding some light on the nature of music and sound art.


Introduction to Noise, Music & Sound Art

Music and sound art involve creating artistic effects by making use of sounds and listening. Characterising either with any precision is a messy affair, partly because there are no individual sounds which your brain finds inherently musical or pleasing.

For centuries, philosophers, artists and scientists have struggled with the notion of musicality. In his 1913 Futurist manifesto, The Art of Nosies, Italian composer Luigi Russolo criticises the limited variety sounds that are utilised by orchestral music and urges composers to consider the musical potential of everyday noises. Russolo designed instruments, his widely renowned intonarumori, capable of reproducing the urban soundscape of early 20th Century Milan. Based on his original schematics, intonarumori have recently been reconstructed; a thunderous performance can be heard here:


Luigi Russolo_Llizard

An iconic image of Luigi Russolo with his noise-instruments, the intonarumori

Image by Lliazd


Percepts & Concepts in Sound Art

Sound art comes in many forms. It can contain music or completely lack it and often incorporates other non-musical sequences of sounds, as well visual components too. A great example of this is Susan Philipsz’s haunting 2010 Turner Prize winner, Lowlands:

Central to this piece is Philipsz’s raw, melancholic, untrained voice which chants melodic variations of an ancient Scottish lament. Her works explore place, space and memory and so she prefers to exhibit her sound installations in specific locations. Lowlands has been installed beneath bridges in her hometown, Glasgow, where city sounds can be heard droning in the background, as well as in galleries across the world.

The way you see, hear and understand the world around you relies on percepts constructed by the brain. It is important that sound artists and musicians recognise that auditory and visual percepts can shape and distort one another. In effect, people can see with their ears and hear with their eyes.

So it is perhaps not surprising that art critic, Ben Luke, feels Philipsz’s works are “neutered when shown in the minimal, sterile confines of the art gallery.” That is, merely simplifying the visual environment detracts from the artistic merit of the sound work.

Another striking example of this phenomenon is the McGurk Effect, a well-known audio-visual illusion which demonstrates how speech perception is influenced by watching the movements of a speaker’s lips: Notably, mood, memories and expectations also have their roles in shaping a percept [1].

Unlike music, which is largely perceptual, most art has an additional conceptual turn. The influential conceptual artist Marcel DuChamp was a fierce opponent of what he termed ‘retinal art’ – that which is intended solely to please the eye. Building upon DuChamp’s thoughts, contemporary artist Seth Kim-Cohen advocates ‘non-cochlear’ sound art, going as far as to suggest that some sound works, such as Lucier’s seminal I Am Sitting in a Room, are better understood without listening to them at all!

The concept behind a work of art yields yet another means by which artistic effect can be exerted. In neuroscience, the term ‘cognition’ largely refers to intelligent thinking and the capacity for problem-solving that make us uniquely human. These ‘higher functions’ are intimately integrated with emotional systems in the brain. In fact, the distinction between purely cognitive and purely emotional brain regions is rapidly dwindling [2]. Thus conceptualisation in sound art can in itself stir up emotions in a way largely absent from the sound production itself.

Perhaps a drawback of concepts in art is that they demand much more conscious attention than sights or sounds alone which are, for the most part, processed automatically and subconsciously. In stark contrast to music, conceptual sound art often requires a certain level of education about the piece to be fully appreciated and enjoyed.


Still To Come

This first article of the series has introduced the difficulties of defining the boundaries between music and sound art and begun to explore some key differences between the two. Following on from this, the second and final part of this discussion will focus on how the human brain hears music and non-music and will put forward an evidence-based framework for artists, against which sound art can be distinguished from music.



1. Hartmann T, Schlee W, Weisz N. It’s only in your head: expectancy of aversive auditory stimulation modulates stimulus-induced auditory cortical alpha desynchronization. Neuroimage. 2012; 60(1):170-8.

2. Pessoa L. On the relationship between emotion and cognition. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2008; 9(2):148-58.


Links to mentioned work:

Russolo’s Intonarumori


Cage’s 4’33


Lucier’s I Am Sitting In a Room


Phillipsz’s Lowlands:


 Score of John Cage’s ‘Winter Music’. Image by Steve Bowbrick 

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