Lately, I’ve been having fun rediscovering my favorite Wikipedia, the Simple English Wikipedia (or, S.E.W.).

Favorite? Well, in the realm of learning I’m a sucker for clear explanations, using the simplest of terms. As a workshop facilitator at the N.F.B. in Montreal, it’s my job to find the best ways to explain stuff to youth audiences (film animation, for example). And simple always gets the best results, in terms of understanding and excitement generated for the subject at hand.

That said, if you’ve ever taught some basic concepts or skills to someone, you know that making things simple and clear… isn’t all that simple.

Take our favorite subject: music. As soon as I head over to the music department of the S.E.W., I get hit by a juicy paradox.

Damn it’s hard to define music

I don’t mean describe music. Most definitions of music actually describe music, and pretty well at that. For example, here’s what the S.E.W. lay savants have to say about music:

Music is an art that puts sounds together in a way that people like or find interesting. Most music includes people singing with their voices or playing musical instruments, such as the piano, guitar, or drums. […]

Music is sound that has been organized and made on purpose. If someone bangs saucepans while cooking, it makes noise. If a person banged saucepans or pots in a deliberate way (on purpose), they are making a simple type of music. Blues music was a music that was played by singing, using the harmonica, or the acoustic guitar. Jazz musicians used instruments such as the trumpet, saxophone.

Music started many thousands of years ago. When early people first banged pieces of wood together and enjoyed the sound, they were discovering music. Early people also discovered that when they cut off the horns of animals they had killed and blew through them, they could make interesting sounds. People also blew into conch shells and made sounds that they liked. They probably started to sing or shout in celebration. (italics mine)

This is actually a pretty good definition overall, especially in terms of speculating over the discovery of music. Except there’s one pitfall. It assumes that organized sounds made on purpose – or even merely interesting sounds made on purpose – can be called “music”.

Does this make Morse code an example of music? How about shouting at a clerk in a supermarket? (Hmm… see next section…)

Yep, the purpose part of making sounds hasn’t been clarified in this definition.

Most music theory avoids this “deliberate-sound definition pitfall” by immediately calling to attention the elements of music – melody, rhythm, harmony – and by looking at the historical/evolutionary development each of these elements.

The end result of this approach is that it has produced a very rich understanding of the development of music genres (my favorite example is the UK Channel 4 series How Music Works, hosted by Howard Goodall). But not as much about the purpose of music.

psychology lab

In the 20th century, an experimentalist tradition rose in Western music to reopen the questions of music’s inherent ambiguity. This tradition decided that composing and performing music wasn’t sufficient in itself to fully realize music’s aspirations. Instead, it sought to probe music as an open-ended experiment in human psychology and perception.

Overall a good move. Only thing: the basic stance of most experimentalists was polemical – whether a modernist composer seeking to break conventions, or avant-garde musicians wanting to go free – and stay free all the time. In other words, “experimental” and “avant-garde” music today is widely seen as a rejection of – or rebellion against – “mainstream” music. This has meant that it has carved out its niche on the basis of people accepting or rejecting its “anti-establishment” stance.

Which means that the original questions on the nature and meaning of music kinda got lost during the process of bickering about the rules.

My own feeling is this: if the experimentalists did accomplish one thing, it was to test the assumptions that everyone had been holding for so long about what is music, and what isn’t music. It did this by taking what was considered culturally as noise, and by demonstrating it could be “music”, too.

How? By staging a noise event in a concert venue.

back to the beholder?

So far, we’ve seen that attempts to define music in the details has led to more argument than insight. So why is it so hard to define the human cultural phenomenon of music?

Here’s my hunch. At root, music is a subjective phenomenon.

In other words, in our attempts to define music we’ve too long paid attention to the object of interest/contemplation – the art of music – and not enough on mind/body of the composer, the performer and especially the listener.

Yet the more I look into it, the more music seems to belong to the the “beholder” part of beauty (i.e. “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”).

One good example of this is that everyone has a fairly clear idea of what music is – and what music isn’t – for him/her.

“This stuff is music to my ears… This other stuff is just noise, crap!”

try this!

Here’s an exercise: on a blank sheet of paper, draw a vertical line to create two columns. Title one column “music”, and the other “not music”. Then start to fill in with examples.

See if you can avoid putting music you really hate in the “not music” column 😉

This exercise might not tell you that much about music, but at least you’ll have a profile of your tastes. For bigger kicks, try this exercise with friends.

Or family, yeow!

a fresh start

Beyond personal and critical debates, I feel that this difficulty of defining music should be taken as an important clue to revise our method of looking at things. Today, in a world awash with music, more than ever we need to look at why we invented music and continue to reinvent it.

My two cents: as previously stated, Philip Dorell’s arguments about “human musicality” might be the right place to gain a fresh perspective in our efforts to understand this elusive phenomenon.

So if you don’t mind, follow me back to square one. Humans, with instruments, making noise on purpose.

Person Howard Goodall

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