Is It Music?

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Neither the particulars nor the generics of musical sound are universally agreed upon. Music exists in many and widely variegated “dialects.” No single conception of what constitutes music is applicable cross-culturally; a definition that satisfies Western principles might fail when applied to a non–Western society. Arriving at a useful conception of music is further complicated by the fact that ideas about sounds change over time, as most music-cultures interact with the outside world, respond to internal and external pressures, and contain subgroups with divergent tastes and preferences.

It is not even foolproof to identify music by ingredients traditionally thought of as musical: rhythm, meter, pitches, durations, dynamics, etc. The musical envelope has been sufficiently stretched in our postmodern world to include an endless array of possibilities. Perhaps the best we can do is combine a few intentionally broad definitions, if only to enhance our recognition of music’s subjectivity.

Edgard Varèse famously called music “organized sound.” Taking a lead from ethnomusicology, the Encyclopædia Britannica states, “while there are no sounds that can be described as inherently unmusical, musicians in each culture have tended to restrict the range of sounds they will admit.” Philosopher Lewis Rowell avoids the “dangerous task” of defining music, recommending an inclusive approach instead: “let music signify anything that is normally called music.”

Merging these quotations, we arrive at a practical (though still lacking) elucidation: Music consists of tightly or loosely organized sounds that adhere to strict or lenient parameters of a given culture or sub-culture, and are accepted by a consensus large enough to qualify it as “normally called music.” But, as intimated above, attempting a catch-all definition is hopelessly problematic. Hearing something as music always depends on a complex web of culturally and personally determined factors, which are themselves subject to shift depending on the agenda of a person or group.

An illustrative case in point is the shofar, a sound-maker fashioned from the horn of an animal in the Bovidae family (excluding the cow). The shofar appears seventy-two times in the Hebrew Bible, usually to announce festivals, rally troops, intimidate enemies and call out to the deity. Any discussion of biblical instruments, long or short, includes a section on the horn. But Talmudic sources refrain from labeling the shofar a musical device.

The rabbis’ rationale had a double motivation: one part aesthetic, one part pragmatic. Outside of modern-day novelty acts (like the shofar player who blows Hatikvah), the shofar is a notoriously temperamental horn. The average blower produces two to three tones, which typically come across as unsettling or unattractive. Unlike other instruments, the shofar does not accompany singing or provide mood-setting preludes, interludes or postludes. Rather, it serves a ritualistic role akin to lighting candles or drinking from a ceremonial cup. For these reasons, it was not thought of as musical.

On a practical level, the rabbis felt obligated to include the shofar in the sacred service despite their ban on musical instruments (a ruling based on historical factors too involved to be discussed here). First and foremost, the biblical command to observe Rosh Hashanah decrees that the day be commemorated with shofar blasts (Lev. 23:24). Added to this are the vivid and abounding associations aroused whenever the horn is blown. Since biblical times, the sound and appearance of the shofar have served as a symbol of group identity, and eliminating it from practice would have diminished Jewish solidarity and self-awareness. Thus, it was not advisable to lump it in with other (banned) instruments. (As an aside, in communities bound by Jewish law the shofar is not blown on Shabbat—not because it falls under the prohibition against instrumental playing, but because it might be carried four cubits in the public domain, which is considered work. See BT RH 29a.)

Taking the minimal view that music is defined as organized sound understood as music, the shofar is clearly a musical instrument. And it has been described as such in enough publications and conversations to make it indisputably so. Still, the rabbis had ideologically coherent reasons for excluding the shofar from the musical realm. Similarly overt motives are present whenever someone remarks that a certain genre “isn’t music,” or makes (elitist) claims about “real music.” Though it is difficult to formulate an objective definition of music that is applicable everywhere, subjective opinions and agendas are easy to spot.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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5 thoughts on “Is It Music?

    1. Michael Chusid

      You discuss shofar as it appears in Tanach. This leaves out a wide range of other uses of blown horns throughout millennia of human experience. Ancient bas relief testify to the horn’s use in musical ensembles. The shepherd tending a flock entertained himself blowing on horns. Today’s “novelty act” was novel thousands of years ago.

      The question about music has to be separated from the instrument. Even the finest brass trumpet is just a noise maker when blown as a fog horn.

      Reply

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