Back in my community college days (little as I care for formal education, an Associates Degree is a handy thing to have), I enrolled in an Introduction to Music class. I found it a tolerable blend of basics I’d already learned in my twelve years of piano lessons and hitherto unknown, usually decently interesting facts about musical terms and periods and all that jazz (ignore the pun potential).
One of the assignments given in the class was a brief paper on the definition of music. We students were to find two or three different definitions, and then compare and contrast them with a definition of our own. (One of those “no right or wrong answers, so long as you can justify it” deals. Personally, I preferred the black-and-white world of quantitative literacy, which just goes to show what a contradiction this non-mathematically-inclined dreamer can be.)
To shamelessly plagiarize from my own paper:
“‘Music is love, love is music, music is my life and I love my life’ (McLean*). I don’t agree that this is a good definition of music. This is the type of definition that may sound nice, but falls short of defining what music actually is. With a little substitution, this definition could be translated as, ‘Music is music, music is music, music is music and I music music’, which is nonsense and tells us absolutely nothing…
“‘Vocal or instrumental sounds having some degree of rhythm, melody, and harmony’ (American Heritage Dictionary). …While I do think that this is a better definition of music than was the first, the first definition dealt with something that this definition does not: Emotion. The first definition dealt purely with the emotional aspect of music, while the second definition deals purely with the practical aspect of music. Each definition has what the other lacks, and… music is a merger of practicality and emotion…
“I have defined music as any sound that evokes an emotion in the listener. I was tempted at first to define it as any sound that evokes a positive emotion, but quickly dismissed this idea. Even if one’s definition of music included only songs heard on the radio, there would be songs that the listener would not care for, perhaps due to dissonance, agitated rhythms, painfully high pitches, or instrumentation that creates what the listener feels is an unpleasant timbre**. Music can bring us down just as easily as it can cheer us up.”
Some handful of years later, do I still stand by that? Not quite. Nowadays, I’m more a proponent of the minstrel philosophy, and the minstrels of my acquaintance say, “Why limit music to a sound?” Take, for instance, Gant-o’-the-Lute’s rebuttal when his mother dared disparage his singsong way of speaking:
“There is nothing absurd in attempting to word things
in ways that are pleasing for ears to hear.
Can the sun be told not to be bright? –
the lack of light kept separate from night?
What’s absurd is to think a musician can speak
without making the words that he spake into music.
There’s far more to song than a tune –
there’s a rhythm that can’t be escaped in the everyday; not for me;
not for the kind who can find music all the time,
in everything that he sees and he says and he lives and he breathes.
Such is music to me: It is breath, life, and beauty.
And truly, to think any less
is the height of what might be called absurdity.”
Lute would have made an interesting classmate in Intro to Music.
*That’s A.J. McLean of the Backstreet Boys, hands-down best “boy band” of the ‘90s and beyond! Long may they prosper! (Especially Kevin, who I’ll love extra forever, even though he left the group and I despaired of marrying him years ago, much to the hypothetical relief of his wife, I’m sure. What is it with these wonderful green-eyed hunks getting married without me, anyway? My tailor’s the same way, darn him.)
**Timbre – now, there’s a word, for you, meaning “the combination of qualities of a sound that distinguishes it from other sounds of the same pitch and volume”. A wonderful arrow to have in one’s verbal quiver, though the pronunciation will trip up the unwary. Looks like “timber”, I know, but it’s “tam-ber”. French origins, dontcha know.