Column: Hannemann’s Music Corner – What is Music?

Hannemann’s Music Corner
By Richard Hannemann
 
What is Music?
 
Music is defined as sound organized in a meaningful way. This is a somewhat problematic definition.
 
First off is the problem of “sound.” Then there is the problem of “organized.” And there is the problem of “meaningful.”
 
Sound is simply vibration moving through a medium. That could be anything – air, water, earth. If a tree falls in the forest there is a sound. Actually a multiplicity of sounds as vibrations occur, which are at different frequencies.
 
While it could be said that music is a multiplicity of sounds at different frequencies, it could hardly be said that the tree falling counts as music.
 
Whether or not sound is “meaningful” is probably meaningless. If a tree falls in the forest, the anthropomorphic requirement of the presence of a human to give meaning to the sound is silly.
 
The sound certainly has meaning to any bird or animal that can hear (or sense sound vibration directly) – the meaning being “run!” But though the sound is meaningful, it still does not count as musical.
 
Nor is “organized” a particularly apt descriptor. If you are walking past a graveyard at midnight, you might find yourself whistling to keep up your spirits (or to chase away spirits.)
 
This might simply be random tones of random duration and random pitch, which hardly seem organized. Similarly, a musician may play tones randomly on an instrument – something we call “noodling.” Again, this is hardly organized. But each is musical.
 
What makes sound musical is that it is by intent – sound being produced for the purpose of producing sound – and with purpose of expression.
 
The sound of the tree falling is a side effect of the event of the tree falling. But it may be an inspiration for a musical portrayal of the event (usually involving a lot of cymbal crashing and dissonant instrument clashing.)
 
Whistling in the dark may be random, but it is done with by intent for the purpose of feeling comforted. This context – sound produced by intent for the purpose of expression – implies sentient experience, be that experience of place, event or feeling.
 
But still, within the context of music qua music, is it not “organized” and “meaningful”? Probably not. Random noodling is not “organized” in the context by which we normally understand “organized,”
 
but it is still music. At best the only organization here might be in the sound frequencies, which we have chosen to recognize as musical tones. Even that is somewhat fluid as there are composers and musicians who experiment with micro-tones seeking to broaden the musical palette.
 
“Meaningful” depends entirely on that which the maker or the listener chooses. I have a piece called “The Fountain.” I wrote it while listening to an actual fountain in an attempt to capture the musical essence, or musically symbolize, that fountain.
 
In this I was partially successful – most people who have heard the piece do, indeed, hear some form of running water. Some people hear a fountain, some people hear a brook or stream, some people hear a rainstorm – the exact meaning being somewhat (ahem) fluid depending on who is listening.
 
When Beethoven premiered his 3rd Symphony a critic asked, “who are you writing for” by which he meant that the music did not seem to follow the accepted standard rules of meaningful organization of sound, to which Beethoven replied, “I am writing for a generation not yet born” by which he meant people for whom the accepted standard rules of meaningful organization of sound would no longer apply.
 
Both examples tend to make the phrase, “organized in a meaningful way” somewhat nebulous – enough so as to make “meaningful” meaningless.
 
So what is music then? Music is sound produced by intent as an expression of sentient experience. It “speaks” primarily to the maker of the music and if it speaks to any one else it does so only by virtue of shared experience or the willingness of the listener to partake of new experience.
 
Whether it is Bach or Beatles, diatonic or 12-tone, Western or World, random or tightly organized, it is all music and, as such, it is all good.
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