Friday, July 15, 2011

BEYOND SOUND: What is Music?

Near the beginning of my career I participated in the development of a 1.25-second connection tone for AT&T Long Distance. 1.25 seconds doesn't provide enough time to deliver a story, but it suffices for a mark –a carrier of data– and it is therefore fully capable of conveying a message, branded or otherwise.

But can an audio mark also be considered a work of music?

It begs the question: What is music?

At one level, anything that can be described to exhibit wave like motion might be considered music. Others go a step further to define music as a subset of sound by limiting it to those sounds or collections of sounds which are organized.

As a sophisticated example of organized sound, the answer is yes, an audio mark is music.

But as a mere signifier, the answer is no. It's like asking if a STOP sign is a sentence.


I'm of the dual opinion that 1) all movement describes musical activity, but also, 2) that the sensory experience which we commonly describe as music is more than simply organized sound (as Edgard Varèse and others often regard it).

The problem I have with Varèse's definition is that it lacks recognition that 'organization' does not simply describe intent but also impression, and sometimes impression is a false construct. So, instead I attribute the following characteristics to that which we call music by traditional standards:

• Purposeful design (whether 'composed' or 'improvised')
• Deliberate execution (demonstrating mastery of dynamics and phrasing)
• Unified by sustained control of coherent pitch and rhythm
• A specifically timed sequence of sound

So, what happens if non-musicians decide whatever it is one is playing is not music. Well, it happens all the time: if the consensus judges your art is noise, then it's noise (until such time as the audience decides otherwise). As Varèse points out, the audience will call anything new 'noise'. And so what if it is?

This is not the definition you'll find in Webster's, but it works for me.


The purpose of the above described filter is not to provide a megacosmic definition music, but rather just the opposite. And the purpose of this limitation is to control the focus and scope of specific conversations by eliminating those random or otherwise atmospheric emissions that we perceive as music, even if we can describe them as musical.

One of the most profound musical experiences of my life occurred while walking though a patch of forest and hearing a cricket apparently synchronize in concert with birdsong, a brook and indeed, what seemed to me all of of nature. But I would not define the composite as music, although it was certainly music to my ears. First, it was only my impression that my experience of the sound was organized, but as to whether it actually it was or not, one can't say.

Language, for another instance, is also organized sound, but I generally eliminate language from my definition of music, although that may only be the result of a sonic bias. I'm certainly open to any argument that includes the spoken word as evidence of music. Personally, I feel as though I experience a different psychology when I sing than when I speak.

What about rap?

Rap and other metered or otherwise poetic verse also feel different to me than either 'regular' speech or sung lyrics. I recognize rhythm devoid of melody as music, but I also stipulate that song requires melody.

Certainly, there are tonal languages which one might perceive as more musical than other languages, such as Mandarin. But lacking recognizable phrasing, non speakers might equally perceive a conversation as impenetrable gibberish as they might discern musicality as a result of pitch differentiation. Regardless, is there anything one might call melody produced by the vocalization of tonal languages during common conversation?

It would be interesting to me if a person who raps in English and who claims his or her craft is essentially musical in nature would also agree that the 'simple' act of speaking Mandarin is even more so. Anyone? No doubt, there are many examples of rap and song blends.

Not to say rap is not music, because a rap within a hiphop context most definitely is. However, a sung lyric without harmony is still a song, but whether a rapped lyric without a musical accompaniment is still music, I'm not so sure. What is poetry in relation to music? Is a poem music? Is it important that a rapped lyric be thought of as music instead of poetry? Yes? No? And if so, why?

Ultimately, music is everything and anything we designate it to be, but people still draw lines and make divisions, and I'm interested in the rational behind the why.

Then there are those who wish to dispense with genre, who claim there is only good music and bad music, but in my experience what people mean by good music is only the music they like.


For the casual listener of traditional music, my guess is music need only exhibit a steady beat and a sing-able melody.

By the full standard, the 1.25-second ATT mark (or any such mark) may be wrought of music, but it is not a work of music. Though purposeful in its design, it lacks phrasing, existing within a time frame in which phrasing is irrelevant, except at a micro scale. Music must exist at scale, and by that I mean, at the scale of human intelligibility.

The audio mark is therefore better described as an utterance, like a burp, even if it is one meant to announce the presence of a branded service.

Indeed, such utterances are better understood as a unit within a category of elementary particles (Quantum Audio) that serve as building blocks for music. As an example, few would consider a pitch or even a short sequence of pitches (motif) music, much less a musical work, even if we recognize the capacity for both pitch and motif to blossom into music. This limited definition does not invalidate the power of the audio mark. I never cease to be surprised by how much information a deftly constructed mark can convey.

Both 'Hello' and 'Help' are also utterances (and audio marks of the highest caliber), and both capably increase one's significance in the presence of others who happen to be on the receiving end of either message.


That organized sound should within its organization also demonstrate phrasing and dynamics happens to be a contentious idea in some circles. Indeed, music being a medium from which we create experience, communicate ideas and alter perception, it should not follow any dogmatic rule. The laws of physics yes, but someone's subjective aesthetic? No, not unless you want to become an expert in a particular style, of course. Regardless, the point is, the absence of either phrasing or dynamics is often the very reason many may snub both highly polished commercial works and their polar opposite: aggressively performed amateur pieces.

Over quantization, correction and processing –or just banging the drum loud all the time– might be suitable activities towards producing various examples of audio craft, but employed with a heavy hand or jaded ear and a track can be drained of all its musicality, not to mention humanity (which may be the key to understanding and defining 'what is music' in the first place).

Although it may be that while some consider such commercial pop works unmusical or unsophisticated because they lack sublimity, others might be stimulated by the way these constructions provide an uncluttered platform for meaning produced by words or sonic symbolism.


That some will find the idea that music must employ a sing-able melody will also no doubt strike others as an offensive, restricting or even heretical idea.

However, no doubt, it is one reason why a lay audience might categorize a modern symphonic, jazz or self defined noise piece as unlistenable or unbearable. Because while any of these forms may present a tapestry of harmony or rhythm, and though its performers may exhibit immense musicality, without a sing-able melody to unify a given work, these compositions sound like amalgams of disparate sonic elements to a casual listener, rendering them a pleasurable experience only to the fan.

'Wait, no melody?', the Einsturzende Neubauten or Igor Stravinsky fan replies, 'there's melody all over the place!'.

And yet, to a non-fan, strident strings or a given anvil solo on a post industrial track sound only like noise, which may be the performer's intention (no doubt), but nevertheless and otherwise torturesome to many other listeners.

The ears can't even begin to approach it; the mind not given a chance to assimilate it.

Similarly, a saxophone solo on within a modern jazz context doesn't sound like a melody to many people. It sounds like an incomprehensible sonic emission.

By contrast, there are also audiences bored with same old, same old, who find melody old hat, so last century and all that, and these persons crave a sonic experience composed of disparate elements that find cohesion in a single idea.

Maybe you are one of those people?


Personally, I have varied tastes. There are plenty of recordings I enjoy that present as either mono dynamic walls of commercial sound, as noise and as waves of non melodic harmony adorned with 'sonic emissions'. I am equally happy with a gourmet meal as I am with an apple and cheese. And as with some food creations, I enjoy a bit of over processed music, too, from time to time. For me, variety is the spice of life.

But I'm also okay with the notion that such works deliver a different audio experience than traditional works of music.

And whether or not every form of sonic expression is music, so what, if it is nevertheless intended as a genuine attempt to communicate an aspect of one's soul, and whether or not that expression is made manifest as a Rite of Spring, a Tanganyika Strut or a Rage Against the Machine. So much the better if you find yourself entertained or elevated or whatever else it is you draw from the magic of a given aural experience.

Yet for some reason, too, it seems important to many sonic artisans of disparate crafts that each be considered a musician. Is a guitar player a musician? A trumpet player? A drummer? Most people say yes. Is a DJ or sound designer a musician? The answer isn't so universal.

More interesting (to me) than whether or not a turntablist who uses the combination of old vinyl and modern decks as a percussion instrument, is to ask whether or not the violinist who uses a strange mix of nineteenth century spruce, horse hair and animal gut to make unearthly sounds is also a musician?

Or is the sound designer who purposefully creates an aural experience with which we can discern a mastery of such things as dynamics, phrasing, timing and pitch, –is he or she a musician? (Varèse called himself "not a musician, but 'a worker in rhythms, frequencies, and intensities'." Sounds a lot like a sound designer to me.)

Is it the instrument in your hands that makes one a musician or what you do with it?

And if a composer is responding to a dancer (or other moving image), who is actually designing the musical work? The person making the sound? Or the person directing the placement of sound?

And what is happening when we recall or compose music using only our imagination, no instrument involved but our brains?

Does music even need sound?

The dancer who draws elegant phrases or who otherwise punctuates space without a pianist or drummer in the room understands that music exists as much as a directed feeling or thought as it does an audible wave.


In fact, the definition of music Varese claims to have preferred (other than his own) was one proposed earlier by Polish philosopher Józef Maria Hoene-Wronski who suggested music is "the corporealization of intelligence in sounds", which I find actually more accurate when we eliminate the last two words, so that the complete phrase is limited to "the corporealization of intelligence," with the desired net result, of course, that one masters one's art and instrument.

But whether that instrument is a cello or a conga; whether you pluck strings or turn knobs; whether or not you even make a sound at all is secondary to what music is. Music is in your brain, not your hands. Although if you've got hands, by all means, use them.

Having rhythm, for instance, has far greater applications than simply being able to blow or beat or bow in time. Surgeons and athletes (and lovers) use rhythm as performance tools. Who says what the surgeon or athlete or lover is doing is not music but a response to music? So is playing in a band, but that doesn't diminish the musicianship of any member of the band.

It may be that your listeners become your collaborators in a derivative work the moment they use your music as a platform with which to create something else -and I don't mean another musical work. I mean, anything at all.

And then there will be those who argue whatever sonic emission they produce from whatever orifice suffices for music, and as it happens, if I am locked into not examining one specific aspect of sound, I tend agree with them.

Marshall McLuhan famously said (among other things), "Art is anything you can get away with." But the truth is, the answer to the question, 'What is Music?', changes with context, and it may be that context itself exhibits conceptual wave like characteristics.

Isn't it interesting that if I have steel, and I build a car with it, I can say that I have steel and I have a car. But if I have music, and I construct something with it, I still call the end product music.

I don't accept that music is one thing possessing a given absolute form –or even that it necessarily may be limited to sonic manifestations. Rather I believe music to be nothing less than a conceptual medium capable of being shaped into many different things and infinite forms for as many different purposes (even non musical forms and purposes!)

So what is music?

In the widest sense of the word, music is, indeed, whatever it is we want it to be.

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