Monday, July 13, 2009

Discussing the Definitions of Music

If this is to be a blog about the various aspects of music, it might be beneficial to discuss just what music is. Defining music, it should be understood (and perhaps, even, go without saying), is wrought with not only philosophical difficulties (those of defining its aesthetics and hermeneutics) but also practical problems (those of actual practices)—this is, of course, bypassing the question of taste (or, opinion) entirely. Thus, be forewarned, what ensues can only be considered intellectual meanderings on a few of the more interesting definitions of music.

There are three definitions of music which will be considered. The first is the work of my musicology professor, the late Irving Godt; the second a general definition of whose attribution I am unaware; the last is a definition by Carl Rakhonen, an ethnomusicologist.

When I was an undergraduate music history major, all of the students of Music History I were required to know this definition. Irving Godt, it might be worth noting, was part of the “old school” of musicologists, who—while not confined to “traditional music” entirely—tend to be conservative in their estimation of contemporary art. His definition and discussion can be found here.

The second: Music is the organization of sound and silence.

Carl Rakhonen is the Music Librarian at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He is one of the most interesting ethnomusicologists and music librarians I have had the pleasure to meet; though, granted he is the only one I have met—I imagine that his personality traits are prerequisites to his job description. His definition of music is simple and to the point:

Music is an accoustical phenomenon that is whatever a particular people say that it is.

To discuss:

Both the second and third fit readily into contemporary thought, while the first can seem highly exclusive. While the second and third best reflect contemporary thought, it is the first that is most readily accepted by the majority of both learned musicians and the lay public. That this first, seemingly exclusive, definition of music is the most widely accepted can be seen in the resistance of the majority of audience members to musical aesthetics which lie outside of the first definition.

How many times have you been to a concert and heard something like this?

The first definition is problematic due to the amount of grey area created by an evolving aesthetic—it excludes to a degree not clearly defined; thus, since we cannot define, in an objective way, the parameters set out by this definition, we cannot successfully decide that which is and that which is not "music" (at least not in any universally agreeable way). Discussion of music in the terms laid out by this definition would be preoccupied with the degree to which a particular piece of music adheres to the aesthetic principles therein. In short, it would lead to “hair splitting” and would offer little objectivity, though it appears at first glance to be highly elucidated.

The second definition is less problematic except, perhaps, on a purely philosophical level. To explain: If sound is the opposite of silence and it can be demonstrated that the opposite of sound (i.e. silence) does not exist, what is there to differentiate between music and any other noise?

Followed to its logical conclusion, this approach to musical thought resulted in Cage's "event" pieces (the execution of instructs to produce noise in a controlled way, as in the clip above) and his application of chance procedure, wherein he applied parameters to systematically remove the composer from the equation of musical creation (as counter intuitive as that might sound; chance procedure will have to be discussed in another post).

Cage gives example that even in an anechoic chamber, where no artificial sound is produced, the subject within those conditions would still hear (1) the sound of their own nervous system functioning and (2) the sound of their own circulatory system. Thus the question is raised, if sound is always a part of existence can it then be regarded as an artistic medium or simply as a condition of life?

The composer is simply superimposing sounds which are selected and executed in duration, timbre and morphology against sounds of similar characteristics which are not selected. Where, then, does the actual music lie? Since sound always fills a controlled musical objective (i.e. a piece of music), does that which is not controlled bear any less "musical" ends?

So, is it music? This question need not be asked on the grounds of personal hermeneutics. In this context, though, it becomes a potentially devastating question. If this question is asked of music of the 20th and 21st century, then it can equally be asked of the music of the 18th and 19th century. The only differences that might be notable are the intent of the composers and the process of selecting sounds. But this, too, becomes subjective and illusive. As the only differences between composers of the past and composers of the 20th and 21st centuries are the precess and the materials (this, too, will be saved for a later discussion).

Perhaps the only definition that is not philosophically dangerous and allows for all of the grey areas of an evolving aesthetic is that of Carl Rakhonen. John cage would have agreed with Carl Rakhonen, Irving Godt did not (they often debated their definitions of music). The trick is getting more people to understand music in terms of the Rakhonen definition.

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