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Listening through the Noise

The Aesthetics of Experimental Electronic Music

Joanna Demers

Publication Date - July 2010

ISBN: 9780195387650

216 pages
6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches


Electronic music since 1980 has splintered into a dizzying assortment of genres and subgenres, communities and subcultures. Given the ideological differences among academic, popular, and avant-garde electronic musicians, is it possible to derive an aesthetic theory that accounts for this variety? And is there even a place for aesthetics in twenty-first-century culture? This book explores genres ranging from techno to electroacoustic music, from glitch to drone music, and from dub to drones, and maintains that culturally and historically informed aesthetic theory is not only possible but indispensable for understanding electronic music.

The abilities of electronic music to use preexisting sounds and to create new sounds are widely known. This book proceeds from this starting point to consider how electronic music changes the way we listen not only to music, but to sound itself. The common trait in recent experimental electronic music is a concern with whether sound, in itself, bears meaning. The use of previously undesirable materials like noise, field recordings, and extremely quiet sounds has contributed to electronic music's destruction of the "musical frame", the conventions that used to set apart music from the outside world. In the void created by the disappearance of the musical frame, different philosophies for listening have emerged. Some electronic music genres insist upon the inscrutability and abstraction of sound. Others maintain that sound functions as a sign pointing to concepts or places beyond the work. But all share an approach towards listening that departs fundamentally from the expectations that have governed music listening in the West for the previous five centuries.


  • Foregrounds the work of female composers of electronic and computer music
  • The first book to propose an aesthetic theory rather than a sociology or cultural history of electronic music
  • Includes one-of-its-kind glossary of terms in electronic and computer music
  • Includes access to website of listening examples

About the Author(s)

Joanna Demers writes on aesthetics, technology, and intellectual property in post-1945 music. She is Associate Professor of Musicology at the University of Southern California.


"A well-written, detailed, and though-provoking reflection on the nature of a wide variety of contemporary electronic experimental works/ genres, and the theories of perception and listening that connect them."-Richard Chartier, sound artist

"Lucid and surprising, Listening Through the Noise deftly traverses the eclectic world of experimental electronic music. Demers engages central problems in the aesthetics of electronic sound: To refer or not to refer? To mean or be? To situate or dislocate? It will change the way you listen."-Brian Kane, Yale University

"Creates a desire to re-examine a wide variety of music, both old and new, with fresh set of ideas and an expanded concept of their forms and foundations. Argumentation and analytic debates get pushed far awar in favor of doing what musical aesthetics arguably does best: creating informed and appreciative listeners."--Philosophy in Review

"As a level-headed introduction to this difficult topic, this book is hard to beat." --3 Quarks Daily

Table of Contents


    Part One: Sign
    Chapter One: Listening to Signs in Post-Schaefferian Electroacoustic music
    Chapter Two: Material As Sign In Electronica
    Part Two: Object
    Chapter Three: Minimal Objects In Microsound
    Chapter Four: Maximal Objects in Drone Music, Dub Techno, and Noise
    Part Three: Situation
    Chapter Five: Site in Ambient, Soundscape, and Field Recordings
    Chapter Six: Genre, Experimentalism, and the Musical Frame