Sunday, 18 September 2011

Watch your step as you make your way from the church into this world of sin. Picture an angel with a cigarette burnin’, with a long slow drag as she welcomes you in...

Music: What is it really? More importantly: What is it to you?

“National Steel” by Colin James (1997)

I think it is very difficult to define what music is. I am going to get a bit heavy in this blog but bear with me as I give you some thoughts and ideas so you can frame your own ideas – or conversely tell me I am full of crap. I was at this multimedia presentation the other day and the question was asked: What is music? (Thanks James!)

It seems pretty self-explanatory on the surface but the more I thought about it the deeper it got...

It is not a universal word to all cultures so let’s just stick with the English word for the time being.  Let’s also make the assumption that music is unique to humans and like a tree in the forest to exist it has to be played out loud.

So I started with this working definition off the top of my head to see if it would fly:  “Music is a sound to communicate thoughts and feelings.” Does that fly?

This definition would cover sounds that are a cappella – or just a voice, all the way to songs that have no voice and are only instrumentals. (Doo-wop to Jeff Beck maybe). Both of these could convey feeling if you are ‘moved’ by the sound of an instrument or an orchestra or band.

Merriam-Webster would say in this context that music is:  “a: the science or art of ordering tones or sounds in succession, in combination, and in temporal relationships to produce a composition having unity and continuity b : vocal, instrumental, or mechanical sounds having rhythm, melody, or harmony” 

So what did I miss that MW got?

First off, I never thought of music as much of a science, but I guess with all the electronics involved now it has become more of a science. There does have to be an intention of ordering motes or sounds – an ambulance siren is not music – well at least not to me. Interestingly the sound of an ambulance can still elicit emotion in the listener (even if it is not coming for them or their loved one).   

Secondly MW considers the ‘ordering of tones or sounds, in combinations, and in temporal relationships’. I guess the fact that generally you start a song and end a song with the same note would reflect this (the root note). When a series of notes is played, people have an expectations of where is will go next – always surprised when the wrong or different note than was expected to be played is played. Generally it is agreed that there is an ‘ordering of tones’ though. 

The thing that seems to be missing here is the thought or feeling conveyed and the facts that they are doing so in order to have the listener feel something or understand something. Can it be music without that? Again it is not a tree in a forest. 

O.K. so let’s look at another definition, this time Wikipedia who defines music as: “the art or science of combining vocal or instrumental sounds (or both) to produce beauty of form, harmony, and expression of emotion.” 

This seems better, still includes the science thing but says that it is to ‘produce beauty of form, harmony and expression of emotions’. I think the beauty is in the ear of the beholder in this case, but this would seem correct. There is beauty in symphony orchestra’s sound as well as a punk band, speed metal, or rap music, if that is what you like. The “expression of emotions” I guess is good, but is it possible to just express thoughts without the feelings? We are such tightly wound bundles of emotions as human beings that I would suggest that it would be very hard to write a song, which is an expressive form in and of itself with only thoughts. I am trying to think of a song with only thoughts and no emotions. I can’t think of any. 

The definition here though says it is the musician that expresses the feeling and it is not clear if there are any reciprocal feelings and emotions by the audience.

The other thing that seems to be missing is that each listener is unique and the reaction can be very different feelings, moods, thoughts and ways of looking at the world.  No one really experiences it the same I would argue. The human brain creates unique feelings, images, memories, it is interpreted thought the emotional, cultural, spiritual, intellectual, environmental and situational filters of the listener. We search again.....

Philip Tag of the University of Liverpool would suggest that the short definition of music is: “that form of inter-human communication in which humanly organised, non-verbal sound is perceived as vehiculating primarily affective (emotional) and/or gestural (corporeal) patterns of cognition.”  Wow! That is a mouthful, but has he improved on the definition to what we had so far?

The fact that he is saying it is a form of ‘inter-human communication’ bridges the gap we had in the previous definitions and we clearly now have the listener involved. He is saying the ‘non-verbal’ sound or the instrumental part of a song, if you will, is perceived by emotions and even the physical sensation of listening. (There are deaf people that enjoy music.)

So given this long and tedious discussion (but so very far from exhaustive) let me take another kick at the cat  
Music – is the art and science of inter-human communication that occurs when the ordering of notes, tones and sounds are played to form an expression of emotions. This is heard for the unique personal and transitory physical and emotional perception of the listener, given their background, outlook of the world, and situation and mood when listening. 

Do I have the definition? I don’t know. The one thing I do know is that the experience of music to each listener is very different. Sometimes if a song does not resonate with you, you are left cold, flat. When it does – Wham! I would say the song is successful in some way then (still may not be good or enduring mind you). (A song can physiologically change you!)

The one example I can give off the top of my head about my own experience is a Collin James song “National Steel”. First of all you have to understand that both my birth mother and my adoptive mother died of diseases related to the long-time use of cigarettes.  Whenever I hear the lyrics “Watch your step as you make your way from the church into this world of sin. Picture an angel with a cigarette burnin’, with a long slow drag as she welcomes you in” I think of my mothers. The imagery I see is borrowed from a couple of sources: A picture I have of my birth mother when she was in her late 30’s or early 40’s and the image of the arch-angel played so effectively by Tilda Swinton in the movie “Constantine” (one of my favourite movies BTW).  The image I have is of a descending angel that looks like my mother (in the style of Tilda) lightly descending down to gingerly land on the ground with a cigarette in her hand. She is casual in her greeting and I think I am in heaven or something.....hmm. (Let the psychoanalysis begin!)

O.K. so ya I know I have an over-active imagination but my point is – no one else experiences this song quite like I do. Music is a very personal experience! Think of a song that resonates strongly with you? Do you think anyone else perceives or feels this quite the way you do?

Tell me what you think music is by posting a comment. Thanks.

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