The nature of music itself seems to resist concrete definition. In addition, modern categorization of music into the realms of “art” and “popular” music, as well as an increased awareness and usage of non-Western art and folk musics, complicates the question of music as it is defined by the modern world. However, in defining music this essay will consider two critical facets of the word: the nature of music as a nonrepresentational medium and its role in a technologically mediated age.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines music, which derives from the Greek legend of the muses, as “the art or science of combining vocal or instrumental sounds to produce beauty of form, harmony, melody, rhythm, [or] expressive content.”1 The combining of tones associated with performer and composer is defined as both art and science, so that even a short definition encompasses the multiplicity of natures associated with the term. In addition, the definition implies a hidden third party, that of the listener, who aurally experiences the tones and, through them, the music’s abstract qualities. This definition suggests both aesthetic and communicative functions of music, and it is the balance of these two functions of music that has preoccupied musicologists since the discipline was set forth by Guido Adler in 1885. 2
Classical conceptions of music as a medium vary. The Pythagorean harmony of the spheres, which regards proportions in the movements of celestial bodies as the “music universalis,” associates the concept of music not with sound but with mathematical principles. This association not only links the musical art with other disciplines, but also imbues it with the notions of natural cooperation and concord. Boethius suggested the division of music into three realms– music mundana (harmony of the world and the universe), music humana (harmony of the human body and the soul), and music instrumentalis (musical sound).3 This conception, which played a key role in medieval thought and discourse on music, associates the term with both the aural creations of musicians and the natural and concrete spheres of the world and the human body. In Poetics, Aristotle defines music as one of a triad of lexis (language), melees (music), and opsis (spectacle), which serve as the media through which man imitates his object.4 Aristotle also emphasizes the expressive nature of music in chapter 5 of Politics, where he suggests that “anger and mildness, courage and modesty, and their contraries, as well as all other dispositions of the mind, are most naturally imitated by music and poetry; which is plain by experience, for when we hear these our very soul is altered.” 5
The widely varied approaches to musical definition and description may be personified in two compositional titans of the early 20th century, Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky. For Schoenberg, whose introduction of serialism and focus on the formal aspects of music shaped early 20th century modernism of the Second Viennese School, “Music is at its lowest stage simply imitation of nature. But soon it becomes imitation of nature in a broader sense, not just imitation of the surface of nature but also of its inner essence.”6 His contemporary Stravinsky opposed a vision of music as communicative of emotion, and went so far as to say, “Music is essentially unable to ‘express anything, whether it be feeling, attitude, psychic state, a phenomenon of nature, etc. ‘Expression’ has never been an intrinsic trait of music.” 7 Stravinsky’s emphasis on the autonomous nature of music, which may be considered in relation to the “pure music” of Haydn and his contemporaries, led him to compose deliberately unexpressive works like his Octet for Wind Instruments (1923). Given the evocative nature of The Rite of Spring (1913) and other works, Stravinsky’s exploration of autonomous music illuminates the flexible nature of the medium with regard to its emotional expressivity. The primary question to consider, in light of the disparate views of these two prominent and highly influential composers (articulated by Theodor Adorno in his 1947 essay Philosophie der neuen Musik), is how the composer’s unique interpretation affects the inherent balance of aesthetic and communicative functions within the musical experience.
The common consensus seems to be an agreement of what music is not— it is not painting, drawing, dance, or writing. Music is, in effect, a nonrepresentational medium defined by the communication of meaning through, not visual imitation, but the transmission of sound. The issue, then, is how to distinguish between noise, sound, and music. The burden of this differentiation, especially in the experimental and “noise” music realm, may fall to the listener. Musicologist Philip Alperson suggests that “any sound can be listened to… But such attention is possible only within narrow bounds…such an art [as music] must be one of producing sounds having an interest that other sounds lack.” 8 However, especially in the highly diversified arena of modern music, a definitive system seems critical to true understanding of the music’s message. While most listeners would accept W.A. Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro (1786) as “real” music, works like Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire (1912) and John Cage’s Imaginary Landscape no.4 for 12 radios (1951) might prove more problematic; Cage’s iconic 4:33 (1952) also challenges musical boundaries by making the sounds of the environment surrounding the listener into music. Anthropologist Alan Merriam proposed a theoretical model that posits three sectors of sound, behavior, and concept, which affect each other constantly but remain equal components within the musical whole. Music, then, becomes more than merely or even principally sound. Merriam also suggests ten key functions of music which separate it from pure noise: emotional expression; aesthetic satisfaction; symbolic representation; entertainment; physical response; communication; encouraging conformity to social norms; validating social institutions and religious rituals; contributing to the continuity and stability of culture; and contributing to the integration of society. Although not every piece of music fulfills all of these functions, Merriam argues that this list provides analytical insight into “the question of what music does for and in human society.”9
Perhaps the reason this question continues to preoccupy scholars and theorists is music’s (generally) accepted role as a collaborative art, one which usually involves a triad of composer, listener and performer. For Roland Barthes, the nature of music is such that it blurs the boundaries of this triad, leading us to question, “What is the use of composing if it is to confine the product within the precinct of the concert or the solitude of listening to the radio? To compose, at least by propensity, is to give to do, not to give to hear but to give to write.” 10 In Image-Music-Text, Barthes aligns music with the Peircean index, a communicative medium that does not carry with it any central reference but absorbs meaning through interactions within the composer/performer/listener triad. The musical text becomes one in which we cannot conceive of a “tableau”; unlike the “dioptric” arts of painting, literature, or even cinema, it is impossible to picture music in one’s mind, and “thus is founded– against music (against the text)– representation.” 11
Music as a medium becomes vastly more complex when considering its ever-shifting role in a mediated age. With the invention of the first machine-printed music in 1473, sheet music became available to the masses, sparking new trends in music performance, education, and notation. The invention of Edison’s phonograph in 1877 triggered similarly earth-shaking advances in the musical world and shaped the modern system of musical production and consumption. The ability to record music initiated debate about the loss of interaction between performer and listener, the lowering of the elite status of art music, and the blurring of lines between art and commodity. Rudolph Lothar voiced these concerns in his 1924 essay The Talking Machine: A Technical Aesthetic Essay, saying, “Only if we forget that the voice of the singer is coming from a wooden box, when we no longer hear any interference, when we can suspend it the way we are able to suspend a stage– only then will the talking machine come into its own artistically.” 12 Theodor Adorno and Clement Greenberg exemplify the artists who saw a lowering of the status of art in the modern commodified age. For Adorno, composers who sought to commodify their art “under the pressure of total economic organization” lose the emotive tension inherent to their music, and “along with it the productive force of the composer and the inherent gravity of the work.” 13 In Avant-Garde and Kitsch, Greenberg displays a similar anxiety about the role of all art in a mediated and commodified artistic realm. 14
In the modern world of electronic and digital music, the drive to define what is and is not musical, and humans’ relationships to their musical creations, becomes one that is closely linked to our effort to understand our place in the world. In How Musical is Man?, John Blacking concludes that humans are basically musical and that music itself acts as a universal system, a conclusion that reinforces the humanity of music in a digital and computerized musical age. 16 Modern studies on music’s effect on the brains of infants and Alzheimer’s patients are one manifestation of this association of music with the body and its experiences. In the Grove Encyclopedia of Music, Bruno Netti highlights the use of the term “tone deaf” to describe someone lacking musical ability.15 While this term emphasizes the elevation of melodic aspects of the Western conception of music, it also associates an understanding of music with the physical act of hearing and thus with the ears. The use of the term “deaf” implies the loss or lack of a universal quality, suggesting that colloquial English considers musicality to be an inherent human characteristic.
A survey of the many attempts over centuries to qualify the nature of music illuminates the difficulties inherent in using the medium of language to define another medium that seems to be necessarily indefinable. However, the drive to elucidate the qualities that make music a powerful nonrepresentational medium, related to but necessarily separate from other forms of media, becomes critical when confronted by new technologies that make us question not only the nature of music itself but our relationship to it as a unique form of expression.
Adorno, Theodor, and Robert Hullot-Kentor. Philosophy of new music. Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2006
Alperson, P. (1994; 1987). What is music? : An introduction to the philosophy of music. University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press.
Aristotle, & McKeon, R. (. P., 1900-1985. (1947). Introduction to Aristotle. New York: The Modern library.
Aristotle, & Newman, William Lambert,b.1834,. (1902). The politics of Aristotle : With an introduction, two prefactory essays and notes critical and explanatory. Oxford, Eng.: Clarendon Press
Barthes, R., & Heath, S. (1977). Image, music, text. New York: Hill and Wang.
Blacking, J. (1974). How musical is man? Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Goodman, N. (1976). Languages of art : An approach to a theory of symbols (2d ed.). Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co.
Greenberg, Clement. The Collected Essays and Criticism: Perceptions and judgments, 1939-1944. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1986
Kittler, Friedrich. Gramaphone, Film, Typewriter. Berlin: Brinkmann & Bose, 1985
Merriam, A. P. (1964). The anthropology of music. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press.
“music, n. and adj.” OED Online. Sept. 2010. Oxford University Press. 23 October 2010.
Netti, Bruno. “Music.” Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, 2007-2010. Web.
Schoenberg : Harmonielehre (Vienna, 1922; Eng. trans., 1978)
Stravinsky, I. (1936). Chronicle of my life [Stravinsky, Igor,]. London: V. Gollancz.