What’s being said about music: Part 1

I’d like to begin by thanking Dom for inviting me to write for the Dormitory. If I could introduce myself briefly, my name is John Henderson, and I am currently working on my Masters of Music in composition at The Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. 
In my few years of studying music in a university setting, I’ve found that the greatest challenge one faces therein is deciding what music actually is. Ironically enough, those who dedicate their lives to music seem less able to agree, in definition and in practice, on what one should call music than the amateur (which term I do not use condescendingly but rather to refer to those doing music solely for the love of it verses as a profession. I’d hope that all professional musicians remain amateurs at the core). Some people are writing adagios for vacuum cleaner and xylophone, others, 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence. Meanwhile, there are many still writing what most people on the street would, on first hearing, refer to as “music,” whatever that actually is.

What I’d like to do here is present a series of three reflections on the ontology of music. The first being on what most people seem to mean when they say “music”. The second will be on the writings of one of the 20th century’s most prominent American composers and musical philosophers, John Cage. The third will focus on what 20th century Russia has to say, primarily through the words of Nikolai Medtner and Igor Stravinski. By the end of this little triptych it is my hope that the reader and I will both have a firmer grasp on what we mean when we refer to that which, in the words of J.S. Bach, has as its sole purpose “the glory of God and the recreation of the human spirit.”

So, with that lengthy introduction out of the way, let’s begin. What, then, is that thing people are referring to when they say “music”? Let’s start by looking at the sorts of things people call music. To start, there are songs – Twinkle Twinkle, Holy God We Praise Thy Name, Moonshiner, Last Friday Night, etc. All of these are marriages (or shack-ups) of text and melody. Take away the text, though, and you still have melody, which alone would constitute music by most people’s standards. Let’s say then, for a pedestrian definition, music is sound structured primarily around melody, or sound is music insofar as it is structured around melody.

Devil’s Advocate: But what is melody?
Me: Wait, who are you?
DA: The Devil’s advocate.
Me: Who invited you?
DA: I did.
Me: Good answer.
DA: And what about pure rhythm? Are the drum calls of the Fulla tribe in Guinea or the 8-bar loop of shaggy teen on a drum set not music?
Me: Oh you annoying little mind. Why did you have to bring that up? No matter. We’ll continue. First I’ll deal with your melody question, and then your drum question.

From here we can go in one of two directions:

1) Creating a categorical box in which fits all melodies ever know to man and from which is excluded everything else.

2) Giving a verbal field sketch of the strange thing we see in the distance that we think is that thing which all melodies have in common.

I fear number 1 because of the chance of coming under the critique of Wordsworth. “We murder to dissect,” or, in this case, to cage in. Like Shamu’s dorsal fin, I’m afraid our subject would go limp in we tried to stick it in a box. Let’s go with number 2 then.

The first thing we must say about melody is that needs man to exist. While someone may argue that a tree falling in a forest outside the reach of any ear drum still makes a sound (if we refer to sound as mere airborne waves that could or could not come in contact with an eardrum), melody is just sound if devoid from the interaction with the human consciousness. Imagine a birdcall. It is nothing new for composers to mimic exactly in their composition the noises these animals make, yet before the human hears these sounds they are simply that – sounds. Once these sounds resonate with a human consciousness, though, they can then become melody. Just as a cave is just a cave but can become a home the instant it interacts with a human consciousness, a man willing it to be his shelter against the elements, so is sound just sound until a human soul recognizes it and makes it melody. Why is this? This is because the capacity for melody exists first and foremost inside the human soul. If, by a freak coincidence, something happened between a seagull, a door slam, a fart, and a VW’s engine in the same instant that was heard by no one but on an oscilloscope looked completely identical to the first five seconds of the Baltimore Philharmonic playing Beethoven’s 5th symphony, the latter would be melody and the former not. Let’s say, then, that melody is that which results from the interaction of certain sounds with human soul’s…melodious capacity?

Devil’s Advocate: That’s the worst definition and the best example of self-reference I’ve ever heard.

Me: Now wait!

DA: Mr. Archer would have thrown you out of logic class for saying something like that.

Me: No, really listen. If I replace “melodious capacity” with “capacity m,” it would no longer be self referential, right?

DA: Sneer. Fine.  

Me: Booyah.

DA: Ok then, define “that melodious capacity in man’s soul.”

Me: (cricket, cricket) ummmm

DA: Well?

Me: I can’t. It’s just…there.

That’s right, readers. It’s just there. Why did God put it there? I don’t know, but He did. With this, then, let’s summarize.

DA: But what about the drums?!

Me: I’ll get to that later.

What comes first, the chicken or the egg? I’ll tell you – melody, but causally, not temporally. Yes, melody is a mysterious thing that happens inside man’s soul when certain sounds (e.g. a bird call, a violin reel, a lullaby) interact with and succeed to resonate the soul’s capacity m. Music occurs when man builds something around/out of melody (e.g. by humming/playing it, listening to it silently in his head, or, as in the case of a listener to a musician, just recognizing acknowledging it).

DA: Certain sounds?

Me: Yes.

DA: What makes a sound a “certain sound”?

Me: Didn’t I already tell you about Shamu? I’ll talk about that next time.

DA:  Ok. And the drums?

Me: Yeah, next time.

Now, to thank you for reading all the way through that extremely long post, here’s a link to a piece I wrote. Nocturne for Bassoon and Piano. Enjoy! (And please critique, comment, whatever. You can’t have too many DA’s).


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