Monday, July 30, 2007

Question of the Day

Here is a question that came up in class today, when we were discussing Varèse's Poeme Électronique: what is the difference between "music" and "organized sound?" One possibility is that there is no difference. Some students felt that structure was involved, or the appeal to authority (if an "expert" says it's music, it's music). What say you?


Harry said...

Music is organized and sometimes unorganized sounds, almost all pleasing to the ear and to the soul.

Organized sound often is not pleasing, even irritating.

james cook said...

Perhaps the easiest way to answer the question would be to say: music is art whose medium is sound.

Obviously, that merely reduces the question to that of the definition of "art". About that, I would say only the following:

It is probably best not to regard "aestheticity" (in general) or "musicality" (in particular) as properties of things, independent of human perception. I think one should regard these attributes as characterizing modes of human perception.

As an analogy, suppose you ask whether a dollar bill is "money". The answer is that it is, precisely to the extent we think of it that way. We might, however, choose to think of it simply as a piece of paper. The property of being "money" isn't "absolute" in the same way that the property of being "green" is.

Similarly, one may choose to regard any sound as music; some sounds, however, are more interesting than others when heard in this way. On the flipside, one could choose to hear a symphony as mere sounds, even though it is normally thought of as music. In either case, the operative word is "as".

Max said...

Taking this one step further, the right question to ask may be: What is the difference between music and sound? John Cage would have said nothing: that sounds is music. There is no law that says music must be pleasing to the ear, nor is that a valid definition. To many, rap music is pleasing to the ear; to just as many more, its not.

The Musing Musicologist said...

Not all organized sound is musical. James Cook correctly points out that being perceived as musical is one possible qualification, but there is another. Consider the jackhammer: on a construction site, it produces sound that is organized on several levels, but few people could succeed in perceiving it as music. I think a jackhammer only creates music when it is used with musical intentions. Playing the jackhammer is different from using a jackhammer in ways which are likely to be perceptible in the way the sound is organized.

John Cage would disagree. He'd probably also ask if it's music when a construction worker coincidentally creates a pattern of sound that one perceives as musical. It may or may not be an answer that the most lasting of Cage's works recognize a role for musical intent.

Peter (the other) said...

And what is noise? I am very grateful that questions like these are functionaly rhetorical, answers revealing more about the answerer. Philosophy is probably like science, all about the "eureka!" when one false belief is replaced by another.