I would like to introduce this week’s article by asking one compelling question:
“What is Music?”
Finding the Words
to Say What You Mean
Throughout our lives and careers as musicians we often come across this question in multiple settings, and, as active thinkers, are compelled to sensibly produce a different answer within each context. Depending on that context, we ascribe a different meaning for what music is from our perspective. Those differing responses to such circumstantial situations are as endless as music itself and as unique as each person that conjures them into conversation. Most musicians have their own distinctive belief as to what music is. However, how do we honestly muster those words? How is that possible; to define the seemingly indefinable? Is there a “proper definition” of music?
If you were to take a moment to Google the phrase “music is,” both in Search and Images, you would find that the perspectives are rather wide-spread. Everything from metaphorical quotes to Wikipedia definitions, visual renderings, and even scientific analyses of sound. Each of which offer interpretations of what music is and communicate a perspective very effectively. However, there is a phenomenon behind the art of music that eludes language entirely. The following are a few examples of interpretations/renderings I have found in my research.
Meaning Through Metaphor
- Music is what feelings sound like.
- Music and rhythm find their way into the secret places of the soul. –Plato
- Music = Life (This is a commonly used metaphor around the web)
- After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music. –Aldous Huxley
Meaning Through Definition
We may also define music in the simplest and most straightforward of terms:
New Oxford American Dictionary
1 the art or science of combining vocal or instrumental sounds (or both) to produce beauty of form, harmony, and expression of emotion
“Music is an art form whose medium is sound and silence.” Read more…
Meaning Through Image
Meaning Through Science
Scientifically, we can explain how sound waves behave according to physics and even how the art of music is formed through interpretations and conditioned responses to sound. Comparing the differing perspectives of the sound, Christopher Dobrian, composer and professeur of music at the Claire Trevor School of the Arts at UCIrvine, acknowledges the cause and effect of sounds and the perceptions thereof in his article Music and Language.
“For example, when we hear a lion’s roar, our ear drum simply receives continuous changes in air pressure. The cochlea, so we are taught, responds to the frequencies and amplitudes of those changes and conveys those responses to the brain. Our brain, by means largely unknown to us (past experience, instinct, deduction, instruction in roar analysis?) evaluates those time-varying frequencies and amplitudes as a lion’s roar. Our brain then derives further information about the actual source of the sound and its meaning. A person in one time or place might interpret the sound to mean “My life is in danger. I must run away from the sound source immediately as fast and as far as I can.” A person in another time or place might look around calmly for the electronic recording device that produced the simulation of a lion’s roar. A person who had never learned to associate that sound with any particular source–e.g., a person who had never heard a similar sound before–might attempt to compare it with other known sounds, or might even remain unconcerned as to what produced the sound.
[...] the sound phenomenon which is external to our body–the fluctuation of air pressure–is considered an objective informational message, and everything that happens once it is converted by our “transducer” is subjective, based on our brain’s understanding of the transducer’s output, our own life experience, and our own favored ways of deriving knowledge. We may quite easily say, “That sound symbolizes a lion,” but would we so easily say, “That sound symbolizes a tape recorder”? Are we talking about the sound or about our own personal referents derived from the sound?”
Finding the Music
To Express What Cannot Be Spoken
Does this help us conceptualize what music is? It certainly shows how subjective it is to interpretation. One of most resounding facets, which is in itself an interpretation, is that music is incredibly mysterious and vast. However, is there really a need (to cite author Dan Brown’s neologism) to decode this cryptex. We can try, and may even come pretty close at times, but I offer the following paradox that lies therein:
While music (as a member of the fine arts) is one of the truly universal languages, how is it that no spoken language seems to communicate what music really is?
On a personal level, I have been known to profoundly overanalyze things. Acknowledging this, it seems that part of the beauty of music is that it is so indefinable, or on the contrary, universally meaningful. To claim that one definition of music outweighs the importance or validity of another would be close-minded. Meaning, or belief, is as unique as one’s fingerprint and as infinite as the universe. My own “definition” that has grown out of this concept of multiple perceptions is as followed:
1 . the art or science of combining vocal or instrumental sounds (or both) to produce beauty of form, harmony, and expression of emotion
–New Oxford American
2 . my single most ineffable paramour
3 . my Atman, a means to exist
I personally choose to assign multiple meanings that infer different things, because in my mind music is not as black and white as the notes on the page. Technically, this three-part definition could easily grow into dozens upon dozens of derivatives. There is certainly more to music than I have addressed here. It is worth noting that music is as much a verb as it is a noun, and that it functions in society as a living, breathing entity. Yet, that is a topic for another day.
It seems that we build a language-based meaning for what music means in our lives when there are truly no words that could begin to describe what music is. For the sake of those reading this, consider your perspective. First, ask yourself how you would finish the phrase “Music is…,” then ask yourself, “Does that even come close?” You may find, as I did, that music is so incredibly vast that it cannot be restricted to one set of definitions. As a universal language, music is translatable into most any language and thusly lends itself to a “vast sea” (more metaphor) of possible interpretations and perhaps is not meant to be defined in one way, but all ways.
I would like to thank my brother, Billy Mickelson, and many others for sharing this perspective with me. You have inspired me to procreate many of my own ideals. I also wish to acknowledge and appreciate music for being my means of communicating that which cannot be spoken, because words are messy, and music is what it is.