A brilliant piece on what music means……

By Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

A universally applicable definition of music will never be constructed. As an ever-present and ever-malleable aspect of human life, music, it seems, has taken as many forms, shades and variations as humanity itself. A truly objective view of what music is (or can be) would be so inclusive as to be almost useless. Every aspect of the musical entity is open to challenge and reconfiguration: devices used to produce sounds (instruments, found objects, electronic sampling, vocals, etc.); modes of transmission (oral tradition, written notation, live performance, recordings, etc.); means of reception (speakers, headphones, classroom, concert hall, etc.); the sounds themselves (tones, rhythms, consonances, dissonances, etc.).

Yet, at the same time, sources like the Encyclopædia Britannica remind us that, while no sounds can be described as inherently unmusical, “musicians in each culture have tended to restrict the range of sounds they will admit.” Philosopher Lewis Rowell likewise defers to the role of convention: “let music signify anything that is normally called music.” In both cases, monolithism is discarded in favor of relativism: an awareness that ideas about music depend more on one’s location and exposure than on sonic properties themselves. And now, with the aid technology and global connectivity, it is possible to cultivate an ever-expanding musical vocabulary that reaches far beyond one’s own cultural milieu.

But, even if we embrace globally diverse musical offerings (or, at minimum, acknowledge that what one culture accepts as music is not the final word), it is still the case that music is a cultural product, and, as such, comes to us through a long and multi-actor process of experimenting, selecting, sculpting, modifying and normalizing. Indeed, while abstract considerations may lead us to abandon hard and fast rules about what constitutes a musical sound, whatever music can be said to be is the result of a cultural process. Music, in other words, is defined for us. (It bears noting that even “rule-breaking” systems like twelve-tone serialism and free jazz draw their raw materials from pre-established tools and conceptions.)

To perhaps state the obvious, we do not begin with the view that music is a loose and inclusive category. Rather, it is the existence of musical variants within and between cultures that forces us to recognize that music is a loose and inclusive category. What we are left with, then, is a formulation that is not entirely satisfactory, but is at least defensible: cultures organize sounds in such a way that they are heard as music.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

(Not) Defining Music.

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