Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
Part of the difficulty of defining “music” is the implicit notion that music is a thing. Music is erroneously conceived as a sort of organism that can be taxonomically defined by a set of fixed morphological properties. Not only is there a multiplicity of divergent elements that can constitute music, especially when viewed cross-culturally, but those elements also need to be in motion in order for music to exist. Unlike static objects, like a statue, painting, or table, music becomes music through active relationships.
This dynamic quality is encoded in the term “composition,” perhaps music’s closest equivalent to a concrete thing. Composition means “putting together.” It is a noun that is really a verb. The composer (“one who puts together”) combines notes, beats, rests, articulations, and other audible components. The musicians (“ones who make music”) put these components into active relationship.
This process is most obvious in improvisation—spontaneous composition—where the acts of composing and music-making occur in the same moment. But it is also evident in the most meticulously written scores. As Sarte and others have observed, the printed page cannot be called music until and unless it is translated into sound. Thus, even music publishing, the best attempt at musical reification (“thing-making”), cannot force music into noun status.
The foregoing discussion is not limited to music. Other actions are often misconstrued as things, thereby obscuring their active essence. This is true of such lofty concepts as love, hate, good, and evil. Such terms are as convenient as they are misleading. They are, fundamentally, abstract nouns applied to a dynamic amalgam of sentiments expressed through action: loving, hating, doing good, and doing evil. Love is not a tangible or definite thing; evil does not exist as a concrete entity. Like the elements of music, they are multi-layered chains of events that unfold in real-time and in the context of relationships.
These observations could be expanded to include all of life, which itself is a deceptive term for the active process of living. From a certain point of view, everything is verb. But philosophical maneuverings are not needed to appreciate music in this way. To paraphrase Forrest Gump, “Music is as music does.”
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