What is Music?

Throughout this course, we have seen how Western art music has changed in significant ways from the Middle Ages to the present day.  Recall the textbook author’s definition of music from the Week One readings: “Music is  . . . an art based on the organization of sounds in time”.  We have observed, indirectly, how the prevailing conception regarding what constitutes music has changed over time.  Consider the shift from the strict monophony of Gregorian chant to the development of polyphony later in the Middle Ages; or from the strong tonality of Baroque music to the heavy chromaticism and tonal ambiguity of late Romanticism; or from the hazy and misty sounds of Impressionism to the atonal dissonances of Expressionism and the experimental works by such composers as John Cage and Edgard Varese.  In general, we see a broadening of the definition of music.  That being said, the more experimental works discussed in this week’s reading material are not without controversy.  Many have argued that they should not be considered music.  This brings us to this week’s discussion.  Please address the following questions:


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  • How would you define music?  Does a work need to have a melody to qualify as music?  Does it need harmony?  Does it need rhythm?  Does it need a recognizable form?  Do you agree with the definition that music is “an art based on the organization of sounds in time”?  Or, do you think that this definition is too open?  Are there works that you feel fit this definition but are not music?  (Please keep in mind that I am asking you “What is music?” – not “What is good music?”)  Please provide your personal definition of music that you feel is broad enough to include all different musical styles, yet specific enough to be meaningful.
  • The textbook includes a brief discussion of John Cage’s 4’33.’’  This piece consists of a performer not playing his/her instrument for 4 minutes and 33 seconds.  As the textbook author explains, “The ‘music’ is made up of the unintentional sounds that an audience might produce in this time span”.  This is an excellent example of Cage’s approach to aleatory music (also called chance music).  If a chair squeaks, if an audience member coughs, if the heater in the concert hall makes a noise – all of this would be part of the music.  Thus, every “performance” of 4’33’’ is unique.  Do you feel this piece is music?  Why or why not?  It could be argued that it fits the definition of the art of organized sounds in time.  But, does it fit your personal ideas of what music is?
  • Similarly, Edgard Varese’s Poeme electronique – which was created entirely in a tape studio where the composer manipulated and organized a variety of recorded sounds – may fit the textbook author’s definition of the art of organized sounds in time.  Do you feel this piece qualifies as music?  Why or why not?

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