Saturday, April 26, 2008

What is music?

Lisa has been pondering how to define music, and offers her own definition: "Music is organized sound moving in time." I think this is a little too narrow, since it does create problems for Cage-ian music as well as other chaotic music forms. Instead, I suggest that music is sound considered as art. This definition allows someone to consider bird song or other natural sounds as music, even if it hasn't been organized. It allows static sounds to be music, as long as someone regards it in an artistic way. (They can also then call it bad music if it's artistic connections are tenuous.) It also removes the problem of who the creator is, placing the issue of defining music on the perceiver. It does raise the question, how many people must regard a given sound as art for it to be called music. I'm going with the radical answer of "one," though I leave open that others can still declare it to be not music. It is an individualized definition, thus ACD can still view Stockhausen's work as "not music," and college students can still hotly debate whether 4'33" is music. A given researcher or critic could use numbers of people to determine a reasonable view, thus if 98% of the population regards Beethoven's Fifth Symphony as artistic, then it is very reasonable to define a performance of it as music. My definition at best clarifies what we are arguing about, whether a given sound can be considered as art.

10 comments:

Lisa Hirsch said...

Your definition puts us into the mire of which styles or types of music are to be regarded as art, though. That's not what I'm arguing about at all. I don't think anyone would deny that, say, Hungarian folk music is music, but plenty of people would say it's not art because it's not composed in an art-music tradition.

I specifically addressed the matter of chaotic music in my blog posting because I don't want to exclude Cage.

Steve Layton said...

But it leaves out sound considered as *not* art, which can still definitely be music. It also leaves time completely out of the picture, something that can't happen since that's the only way to introduce the equally important element of silence (whether absolute or relative).

I would say, at its most basic, that music is "sound intentionally considered in time".

SOUND is obvious (though that sound may be purely imaginary); TIME (real, relative or imaginary), because it's integral to creating either a sound or a silence (real relative or imaginary); INTENTION, because whether as transmitter or receiver we must conciously choose what part of our sonic environment constitutes that particular music; CONSIDERATION as the action(s) that are shared by and unite the other three.

Scott said...

I would disagree that folk music isn't considered art. Whether it is intended for rituals, socializing, entertainment, or whatever, any music is crafted with the intent to create something aesthetic (artistic, creative, whatever term you want). I don't define "art" only as high art, or art for art's sake, or anything like that. Art is anything created or perceived with an aesthetic intent. And the definition of aesthetics is valuing the thing for itself, rather than for any utility it may have. See Wikipedia. I agree with Steve on the Intention part, I'm uncertain why consideration is a separate action or concept from Intention. I don't think Time is necessary for any definition, since as Steve says, time is integral for ANY sound, whether aesthetic or otherwise. It would be like when giving the recipe for ice, to require that the water be wet.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Scott, that's a useful perspective on the notion of art. Let's just say that I'm trying to...um...dodge various prejudices with careful wording. And while I'm not Steve, I'll just say that "intention" is such a loaded word it's best avoided.

Steve Layton said...

I didn't mention folk music, and don't necessarily equate it with "not art". folk traditions can create art, just as classical traditions can create not-art.

I can understand the reservation over the word "time", since time is really only a measure of one activity against another. But I think it's more than the "water=wet" thing. It's the fundamental frame that we use to define, delimit a musical experience.

Lisa says "intention" is a loaded word. That may be, but I still think it's best word for that most fundamental action we use to make sound Music. It doesn't matter whether folk, Coltrane, Beethoven, listening to birds as music, or even Cage's "non-intentional sounds"; they all start with an intention to stake out, carve up and create meaning in some patch of the human sonic experience.

Steve Layton said...

Oops, knew I forgot something (it was late last night...):

"Consideration" stands for all of the action the flows from the intention. Intention is essential, but is only the spark, the commitment; consideration carries out the intention.

Anonymous said...

I like to go with the "organized sound" definition, but tend to add this caveat: "Who does the organizing?"

Of course, sound can be organized by a composer and a performer, but a listener, too, can organize sound.

Phil Ford said...

Music is sound organized or listened to with aesthetic intentions.

Done! That was easy.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Very nice, Mr. Ford.

Scott said...

That's why he get's paid the big bucks.