Music defined

Forming a baseline definition, we tussle with what we believe music to be.

Never one to shy away from the big topics, today we’re going to define music. Many are likely to disagree with our definition. You may disagree with it. Frankly, amongst ourselves, the people writing for The Phonograph, we may disagree with elements of the whole. What we are aiming for here is broad strokes.

It doesn’t matter if we disagree; in fact, should you disagree with us we’d like to hear why because it is only through conflict that we can flesh out a solid theory. What is important is that we discuss it so that we can the look out from our conception of music to understand why things do and don’t fit within our definition.For instance, traditionally, music could be considered a deliberately melodic construction. Someone has created something they believe to sound good. I don’t like the term “generic” music but if ever it were appropriate this would be the time to use it, generally music is created with the intent to be musical.

Immediately, though, we have trouble with this definition. Take an experiment by Brian Eno:

I had taken a DAT recorder to Hyde Park and near Bayswater Road I recorded a period of whatever sound was there: cars going by, dogs, people. I thought nothing much of it and I was sitting at home listening to it on my player. I suddenly had this idea. What about if I take a section of this – a 3-1/2 minute section, the length of a single – and I tried to learn it? So that’s what I did. I put it in SoundTools and I made a fade-up, let it run for 3-1/2 minutes and faded it out. I started listening to this thing, over and over.

Whenever I was sitting there working, I would have this thing on. I printed it on a DAT twenty times or something, so it just kept running over and over. I tried to learn it, exactly as one would a piece of music: oh yeah, that car, accelerates the engine, the revs in the engine go up and then that dog barks, and then you hear that pigeon off to the side there. This was an extremely interesting exercise to do, first of all because I found that you can learn it. Something that is as completely arbitrary and disconnected as that, with sufficient listenings, becomes highly connected. You can really imagine that this thing was constructed somehow: “Right, then he puts this bit there and that pattern’s just at the exact same moment as this happening. Brilliant!” Since I’ve done that, I can listen to lots of things in quite a different way. It’s like putting oneself in the role of an art perceiver, just deciding, now I’m playing that role.

By treating the random assortment of sounds as music – applying the same behaviour towards it – he had made it so. Were he to stage a performance in which he simply played the tape to an audience, he would be playing music. This isn’t something he had created or arranged in any way. It’s not melodic, nor is it even obeying classical rules of music. Though, rules may apply to it, the sounds weren’t formed in a manner that was aware of these rules.

John Cage’s “4’33” involves a full orchestra remaining silent for 4 minutes and 33 seconds.  Is this still music?

(When a musician improvises and the resulting sound fits the rules then it is obeying. When found sounds fit the rules it is coincidence.)

If the Eno example seems a little too off base then look at whale song. A means of deep sea communication between mammals swimming miles apart. They aren’t singing to each other, they’re essentially shouting “I’m over here” and “Got me some lovely krill, come share, I’m not shell fish” (Ed: couldn’t resist, sorry). Yet, we call it song. People listen to it at night. They will likely hear it so many times that they begin to recognise segments, preparing for “that bit coming up”. How can we say it is isn’t music when it is being consumed in the same manner as I listen to Lady Gaga?

So it isn’t actually in the content but in the consumption. Music is consumed audio. So, music is what we decide it is – what is important is that our definition does not necessarily need to be qualitative. Through defining and redefining what we mean by “music”, artists are able to present us with a cacophony of “soundworlds” through a palatable medium. Maybe it is through a broadening of the term “music” that we avoid stagnation and promote creativity and innovation in the field.


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