Mar 07 2010

A definition of music (with due regard for where angels fear to tread)

Category: musicharmonicminer @ 9:47 am

So, I was plowing through some old disks, trying to locate a musical project that a client from years ago seems to want to remix.

While I was at it, I ran across a definition of music that I’d written many years ago, when a professor essentially forced me to do it, even though I thought it was an impossible task.  For the record, I still think it’s an impossible task.  But, for your entertainment and derision, and because I can’t think of anything better to post today, here it is:

Music is sound, created by a human being or surrogate (such as a computer programmed by a human), designed to be heard and understood at some level other than language. It isn’t just explicitly referential sound effects (as in the work of a foley artist for film). It isn’t a more or less accidental result of some other process, whose main purpose isn’t the creation of sound (as in the sweetly purring motor that is “music” to the mechanic’s ears). It is sound created primarily to be experienced as sound, designed to he heard without a specific extra-musical meaning attached to its elements. (This doesn’t mean that a given composition can’t have a program assigned by the composer to some element or other. It does mean that there is no automatic understanding of extra-musical meaning built into the “musical language” itself.) Its closest linguistic analog is poetry, as opposed to prose. Its closest physical motion analog is dance, as opposed to athletics of a team or solo nature. Music itself is neither language nor dance, though it partakes of certain similarities, having to do with the ways that events are organized temporally.

If communication requires a shared language with clear definitions for terms, music is NOT communication. It is possible to listen to a language that one does not know, recognize that it is a language, and yet understand nothing that was said, not even emotional overtones or context. In such cases, the only thing that is communicated is that no communication is taking place, beyond the fact that someone is trying unsuccessfully to communicate! When we listen to a musical style whose basic precepts escape us, we usually still know it’s music, or at least that it was intended to be.

Different kinds of music depend on different kinds of listening on the part of a presumed audience. Therefore, except in the most general of terms, no single kind of listening can be termed “musical listening”, without reference to the particular type of music being heard.

If you enjoy this sort of philosophical wool-gathering, you can find more of it here, on another site that I haven’t been maintaining much lately…  probably because I have little that’s new to add to the topic, that I haven’t already written and posted there.

One Response to “A definition of music (with due regard for where angels fear to tread)”

  1. Aurelio Chesley says:

    What about my number one reason… I have a comment but I’m too damn lazy at the moment to force it out of me.

Leave a Reply