Goodness, I have written lots of word about music, but I’m not sure if I have ever thoroughly defined what I mean by “music.” In this post you’ll find my definition, of course, but I want to clarify right up front that this may read to be slightly antagonistic. In a sense it is meant to be, but ultimately it is about how to define music in the context of communication. I’m trying to push boundaries, not hurt feelings.
I don’t claim all of these thoughts as my own, but this may be a unique synthesis of standing ideas. I’ve also touched on some of these ideas in previous posts, but I wanted to put them all together.
Music describes a way of thinking about sound.
Music is a bit like the infamous Supreme Court ruling on pornography: it’s hard to define but when you’re presented with an example, you recognize it immediately. Once you start leaving the very obvious examples, it gets kind of hard to find the boundary between music and regular sound. That’s because music describes a way of thinking about sound, not a specific kind of sound.
I think the most famous example of pushing the boundaries of music in the western world might be John Cage’s 4’33.” A pianist sits down, prepares to play, then does nothing for 4 minutes and 33 seconds. Is that music? Well, Cage would certainly say so but the audience in the music hall is split. Some say yes, some say no. Who is right?
I would argue that 4’33” in that example is definitively music, and here is why: the context. In his autobiography, Frank Zappa argued that context is key. He called it “putting a frame around it.” Let’s explore this a bit. The audience in my example above is at a music hall to hear music. A performer sits at an instrument, prepares to play, then plays silence for 4’33”. While it is certainly up to audience members to decide how much they enjoy the performance, they can’t really argue about whether or not music happened because the context clearly articulated that music happened.
Here’s another example: you’re walking in the woods alone, and you come to a clearing to find a pianist sitting at a piano. As you approach, she hops up and says “ah! I just finished my performance of 4’33”! What did you think?” Did you hear music for the last 4 minutes and 33 seconds? I don’t think so. There was no contextual clue to encourage you to think about sounds as music for the previous four and a half minutes. (Unless, of course, you just so happened to be doing it on your own free will, but the odds of that are remote.)
Another way to think about it is the old paradox: don’t think about an elephant. It’s impossible to not think about an elephant when you are given this prompt. Similarly, the people in the music hall are thinking about music and thinking about sound as music. Even if they’re thinking “ugh, this is stupid, this isn’t music,” they are still thinking about sound as music.
Music is communication.
When we hear sound as music, we are interpreting and processing it. Music is inherently more vague in its meaning than language, but there is still meaning. Music has emotional impacts, triggers memories, and causes physiological responses. Language does all of these things, too.
I think a lot of people get hung up on the idea of “music is communication” because music isn’t specific or declarative. I agree wholly that music is non-specific and non-declarative. I can’t play you a tune on a recorder to ask you to get me a beer (I would if I could, though!). And if you ask 10 people to listen to the same song, they’ll each tell you something different when asked what it means.
However, language suffers some of the same faults. Has anyone ever misunderstood you? Or have you ever said something that came out wrong? Of course you have. Language is specific, but the interpretation is difficult. I think music suffers a somewhat similar fate: a composer can intend to convey a scene or a feeling, but different audience members will have different responses.
Also, I’m blogging right now. (Duh.) But why? Well, blogging has a certain set of affordances that other kinds of communication lack. I could say this out loud, but only the other people near my desk would hear me. And once I’ve said it, it’s gone forever. I could write a book, but that means people need to buy it to read my thoughts. I could write a poem, but my prose is terrible. The point is that I’m writing this in blog form because it seems to be the best way for me to share these specific ideas in a way that I want to share them. Music is no different. I can express things that are difficult or impossible to express outside of music.
I think a more complete analysis of the affordances of music would be a swell thing to do, but here’s a short sketch: musical expression has no substitute mode of expression. I can’t accurately tell you about a piece of music, I can only approximate it in words. Information is lost when I talk about it compared to you experiencing it first hand. I think what is lost is the thrill and the emotion. Not only am I sharing words, but I’m sharing my interpretation of it. I’ve taken the experience out of it. It’s like baby food: the nutrition is there, but the experience of texture is lost in the processing.
Music is interesting.
Unlike language, music is inherently interesting. Language is designed to convey specific ideas. The goal is clarity and meeting expectations of normal patterns of communication. Sentences have at least a noun and a verb. Normal communication is utilitarian and functional. Musical communication is impressionistic and fanciful.
Part of the joy of listening to music is the blend of having your expectations met and defied in unexpected but carefully constructed ways. A piece of music establishes or implies a set of rules, but then defies those rules for your enjoyment. For example, a common thing to do in a pop song is to modulate up part of the way through the song. This defies expectations because the song has clearly established itself to exist in a given key, but then everything suddenly shifts upwards. The foundation the song was built on just got pushed upward a little bit. It’s startling, but it can be pleasant when done artfully. Another example is establishing a phrase (a pattern) by repeating the structure, but then unexpectedly stopping the pattern short. Again, this can be quite exhilarating and pleasant when done carefully. Imagine that happening in a conversation, though. Someone is talking to you and they just stop right in the
… Language doesn’t work that way, does it? Language is meant to inform and music is meant to challenge and entertain you, in a broad sense. Attempts to describe music in terms of musical forces (like physical forces) sometimes stumble because music does unexpected things. A thrown ball will always obey physical forces. In that sense, it is uninteresting. Music, however, will only sometimes obey musical forces and that’s part of the point.
Music is important.
Music is a means of expression for both performers and listeners. It is therapeutic. Music helps build identity both for individuals and groups. These are concrete, real psychological benefits. Music helps us survive, and it helps shape societies.
And now, I think a brief explanation of what music is not would be useful.
Sheet music is a lie.
Sheet music is not music nor is it an accurate representation of music. It is a shorthand expression and a necessary means to preserve musical ideas in the era before recording audio was possible. It is a useful guide for memorization and performance. Systems that explicitly or implicitly rely on sheet music as if it is real music are faulty. Sheet music captures onsets and durations in an abstract and imperfect way, and make little to no attempt to capture feeling.
Schenkerian analysis is a way to analyze music, but it is not the way.
Schenkerian analysis is a useful tool to analyze music of a certain type when asking certain questions. However, since it is by far the dominant (heh) method of musical analysis, it is often applied to situations where it is not relevant or meaningful. Schenkerian analysis also presumes that sheet music is an accurate representation of music. Schenkerian analysis is performed on sheet music, not actual music. It is also produces a tautological result: each piece of music can be reduced to simpler and simpler versions, eventually ending in a descending pattern of notes. On the surface, this is a stunning revelation about how music works but the problem is that Schenkerian analysis demands this outcome.
When studying the psychological implications of music, it is important to ask questions about the music that most people actually experience.
Remember, music is a phenomenon that exists in the mind. It then follows that it is important to study the kinds of music found in most minds. And I think it’s safe to say that Schubert isn’t it. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and dig into the music of the now.
Music perception and cognition research largely limits itself to SERIOUS CLASSICAL MUSIC and maybe jazz when feeling cheeky. This is a problem! And please don’t think I’m knocking serious classical music or jazz, or the study of this music. It’s very important and relevant and I am grateful that people do it because both of the forms of music profoundly influence our current popular music.
What I am advocating is that music be studied in such a way that is more related to how most people experience music. Artificiality is a challenge in any line of research, but this stumbling block seems easy enough to avoid. The barriers to studying popular music are institutional elitism, not practical issues.
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this or at the very least found it provocative. I know it helped me a lot to codify all of these thoughts in one place, so I thank you for the indulgence.