Jogging up Mont Royal this morning, I trotted past a small gathering of people playing basic rhythms on wood blocks. Two things struck me (ha ha):

  • How people like to find enjoyment in simple things (especially when they are outdoors and the weather’s nice). They were playing the same rhythmic pattern when I came back down!
  • Being musical means, at the very least, that you must have some sense of rhythm. The perennially popular tam-tam events in Montreal are proof that music can do quite well without melody, thank you.

As for me, it’s the enjoyment part that really stuck, and led me to consider again looking at music in its simplest manifestations to better understand it.

musicians like simple english

Back on-line, I have a look at the basic definition of ‘music’ up on the Simple English Wikipedia. The current ‘sticky’ definition (as of midnight, June 26, 2008) is the following:

Music is an art that puts sounds together in a way that people like or find interesting. […]

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.

Though I wouldn’t strictly limit my definition of music to an art, the first sentence is a little hard to improve upon. At first, the words “like” and “interesting” seem kinda lukewarm. I’m tempted to change to:

Music is an art that puts sounds together in a way that people enjoy or find meaningful.

But actually the word “interesting” here has its merits. It is more encompassing in terms of possible reactions to music, and by placing emphasis on music’s attention-getting capacity it reminds us that music is essentially an art of “intentionally produced patterns”.

Caught by the human ear.

sounds made on porpoises

The second sentence, however, has a flaw which I addressed in a previous post:

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.

If you read that post, you may recall that I took issue with the scope of this statement, that “sounds made on purpose” didn’t properly circumscribe the art of music within the general topic of aural communication. In fact, what’s missing from the example is a description of the type of organization you give to sound to “make a simple type of music”.

If you’re banging on saucepans to make music, chances are you are organizing sound rhythmically. Just like those fellows up on the mountain this morning.

trying to keep it simple. honest.

Seeing the issue more clearly, I’m going to jump in Simple English Wikipedia and add my own two cents. Here we go.

In my view, music is:

  • making or organizing sound following rhythmic, melodic (and sometimes harmonic) ideas or patterns, for the purpose of expression and enjoyment.

My modifications, therefore, to the existing entry:

Music is sound that has been organized using rhythm, melody or harmony. If someone bangs saucepans while cooking, it makes noise. If a person banged saucepans or pots in a rhythmic way, they are making a simple type of music.

Let’s see how long my modifications stay up as is 😉

still not convinced…

Overall, I find this activity of defining music to be challenging. Why is it so complicated for musicians to summarize their occupation using general language?

Here’s my theory.

  1. We’re too close to it. Try describing the object of your love to someone who hasn’t met him/her, and you’ll see what I mean.
  2. From my experience, the focused activity of music making is one where all senses are heightened and engaged. Music provokes altered states of consciousness. Logic no welcome hear.
  3. Last but not least: our definition of music varies with our experience and knowledge of it. A folk singer might put self-expression at the center of her definition. A filmmaker might think of music as a way to communicate inner states and moods. An artist might see music as an opportunity to get an audience to pay attention to sounds in their environment. In other words: as purposes differ, so do definitions.

To summarize: it seems that the main challenge in coming up with a good, catch-all definition is that music is many specific things to different people, and that it’s hard to stand outside of something that’s so deeply part of ourselves, even if we’re not a “music lover”.

Or is it just me? Be happy to know your definitions of music. Here, or at the Simple English Wikipedia.

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