(Not) Defining Music

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

A universally applicable definition of music will never be constructed. As an ever-present and ever-malleable aspect of human life, music, it seems, has taken as many forms, shades and variations as humanity itself. A truly objective view of what music is (or can be) would be so inclusive as to be almost useless. Every aspect of the musical entity is open to challenge and reconfiguration: devices used to produce sounds (instruments, found objects, electronic sampling, vocals, etc.); modes of transmission (oral tradition, written notation, live performance, recordings, etc.); means of reception (speakers, headphones, classroom, concert hall, etc.); the sounds themselves (tones, rhythms, consonances, dissonances, etc.).

Yet, at the same time, sources like the Encyclopædia Britannica remind us that, while no sounds can be described as inherently unmusical, “musicians in each culture have tended to restrict the range of sounds they will admit.” Philosopher Lewis Rowell likewise defers to the role of convention: “let music signify anything that is normally called music.” In both cases, monolithism is discarded in favor of relativism: an awareness that ideas about music depend more on one’s location and exposure than on sonic properties themselves. And now, with the aid of technology and global connectivity, it is possible to cultivate an ever-expanding musical vocabulary that reaches far beyond one’s own cultural milieu.

But, even if we embrace globally diverse musical offerings (or, at minimum, acknowledge that what one culture accepts as music is not the final word), it is still the case that music is a cultural product, and, as such, comes to us through a long and multi-actor process of experimenting, selecting, sculpting, modifying and normalizing. Indeed, while abstract considerations may lead us to abandon hard and fast rules about what constitutes a musical sound, whatever music can be said to be is the result of a cultural process. Music, in other words, is defined for us. (It bears noting that even “rule-breaking” systems like twelve-tone serialism and free jazz draw their raw materials from pre-established tools and conceptions.)

To perhaps state the obvious, we do not begin with the view that music is a loose and inclusive category. Rather, it is the existence of musical variants within and between cultures that forces us to recognize that music is a loose and inclusive category. What we are left with, then, is a formulation that is not entirely satisfactory, but is at least defensible: cultures organize sounds in such a way that they are heard as music.

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

5 thoughts on “(Not) Defining Music

  1. John Morton

    I can’t remember who said that writing about music is like painting about ballet but you might agree that such gallery-appealing statements are usually unhelpful. Our mere involvement in discussions such as these implies our acceptance of that principle. Most composers are simply too busy to spend too much time on these issues but I agree that, within cultural pockets, there are important divisions that complicate the argument. The crew of a visiting UFO would depart with a completely misleading idea of US culture if they only visited a rock club.

    Musical form, evolutionary though it may be, provides the constraints that are required to render effort and achievement meaningful. Long exposure to ‘free’ music of any kind becomes tedious to me because such music debases the coinage. Anything goes.

    Just to recap a previous topic, the quest to be able to prescribe the subtleties and nuances of ‘true’ music (that you refer to above) is not necessarily rendered to be futile because it is beyond current capabilities. (There’s a cross-reference to the ‘free will’ argument here.) The quest, as you say, would be useless but, in my view, only because current methods work OK.

    Try as I might, I still can’t abandon the possibility that there is a *fundamental level at which music would have a more universal appeal if people became able to shed a few of those superficialities, often masquerading as ‘taste’ or ‘culture’, that obscure the solution. At ‘higher’ levels of taste (for lack of a better word) music doesn’t divide itself into Mozart fans and Beethoven fans.

    * I try to avoid the word ‘fundamental’ because it has caused me so much trouble, as it does to this day.

    1. jlfriedmann Post author

      Thanks, as always, for your stimulating feedback.

      Are you familiar with the satirical project by artist Alex Melamid, who went to Thailand and showed rural folks reproductions of paintings by European masters (like Van Gogh)? Those paintings, which are so awe-inspiring in for those culturally conditioned in the West, had no noticeable impact on the Thai participants. (I’m sure Melamid would have also missed the nuances of the native “masterworks.”)

      Because of stuff like this, I have a hard time making firm aesthetic judgments (like “higher” and “lower”) out of cultural context. It is, I think, possible and probably necessary to judge something against other creations of its own kind (one Baroque piece against another, one rap song against another, etc.); but even then, that ephemeral beast called “taste” rears its head.

      One of the reasons I wrote this post is because, in casual conversation, people often remark that something or other “isn’t music”–which is a euphemism for “I don’t like it.”

      I tend to agree that writing about music is somewhat useless (as opposed to the useful work of the theoretician), even though that’s part of my job. I actually wrote something on that a little while ago, using the arguments of philosopher Vladimir Jankélévitch (https://thinkingonmusic.wordpress.com/2013/12/19/real-music/).

      1. John Morton

        Didn’t know of that project, Jonathan. My approach is based on the belief that, whereas the graphic arts are, broadly speaking, representational, music, on the other hand, is a temporal, kinetic idiom enabling it to represent the very nature of existence, even extending back to a time before mankind arrived on Earth. I’m repeating myself here, of course. Interestingly, I’m very fond of action expressionist paintings where the painter’s actual bodily movements in creating the work are recorded. Obviously, the arrival of photography assisted in the reduction of the expectancy for paintings to be realistic.

        The rural population would not have anything within their experience with which to relate to what the paintings represent. A nice picture of a Ferrari can’t be separated from the desire to own one but Ferraris make a lousy tractors.

        I realize, of course, that my idealistic view of the possibility of music becoming completely universal will never become reality exactly as it stands and I’m not sure I want that.

        I do agree with your comments about ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ and I apologize for not expressing myself more clearly. I only ask that music should be good of its kind.

      2. jlfriedmann Post author

        I agree that of any art form, music has the most potential to approach something close to universal.

        I’m reminded of Arthur Schopenhauer, who maintained that while other art forms are copies or repetitions of specific ideas, music expresses deeper and more universal truths, revealing the “inner nature” or “in-itself” of the world. He found music’s impact “much more powerful and penetrating than that of the other arts, for they speak only of shadows, but it speaks of the thing itself.” As he wrote:

        “Music does not express this or that definite joy, this or that sorrow, or pain, or horror, or delight, or merriment, or peace of mind; but joy, sorrow, pain, horror, delight, merriment, peace of mind themselves, to a certain extent in the abstract, their essential nature, without accessories, and therefore without their motives.”

        But music does not exist in a vacuum, and there is always cultural conditioning and the associations, tastes, and perceptions that come along with it. I appreciate what you wrote previously about the composer being too involved in the craft to worry about this sort of thing. I like that approach, as there’s a little bit of Taoism in me.

  2. Pingback: (Not) Defining Music | Zvembira

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