What is Music?

A friend pointed out this piece to me.  Thought it was well written and a fascinating way to look at how we define things in a much more accessible way than I could ever write.  As I’ve been getting more into the Convention scene, this was particular interesting as the author is framing the discussion in the context of Sci_Fi Conventions.  Here’s an excerpt

So, then, I had kids. My daughter got all kinds of presents just for being born! And several of them were the sort of thing where Baby flails around (like babies do) and if she hits a button Something Happens. Lights flash, colors change…music plays. It seemed like every one of those toys used the same three or four songs. Which is fine, because you can’t get tired of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” am I right?**

Now, all these songs were very simple. Short phrases, nothing in the way of accidentals, no venturing into other keys, no syncopation or oddly subdivided rhythms. No harmony, usually. Just short, uncomplicated melody. Hmm, I think, that’s interesting. I never thought about it before, but really, we start training kids really, really early to understand and appreciate a particular kind of music, don’t we.

Then one day I was watching Barney. Well, my daughter was watching Barney. Barney, of course, is a big purple pretend dinosaur who teaches kids things like how nice it is to share, how wonderful it is to be friends, that sort of thing. But this episode, the kids pipe up and ask, “Barney, what is music?”

I was fucking floored. Yesterday they sang some songs about the colors of the rainbow and how popcorn was really neat, and talked about how it was sad if your friend moved away but you could still write her! Today it’s what is fucking music? What’s tomorrow? Barney, is there a God? Barney, what is the meaning of life?

So of course I can’t wait to hear Barney’s answer. Which is something along the lines of “Music sounds nice and has rhythm and a melody, and let’s all sing about popcorn!” (Yeah, that damn popcorn song is indelibly etched onto my brain. Actually I’m pretty sure the song wasn’t that one.) And I think to myself, Wow, Barney has just completely erased a whole shitload of music.

That moment was revelatory for me. You know those people who hear something that’s really, obviously music–it depends what sort, sometimes it’s hip-hop or metal, sometimes it’s 4’33” or Schonberg or free improv–and say, with contempt, “That’s not music”? Those people had always sort of confused me. I mean, any of those, I get not liking them, but they’re all pretty obviously music. (Well, okay, the Cage isn’t terribly obvious to a lot of folks. Still.)

But I realized then, that in fact not only have we all been very carefully trained to value a certain kind of music, we’ve also been told that one particular, very narrow sort is “music.” Not “tonal music” not “popular music” not “rock” or “parlor songs” or any of a number of other very specific types of music, but just plain “music.” That’s the default, it’s what “music” essentially is.

I think I’ll have more to say about this, but want to read through her other entries in this series of posts about Wiscon.


One thought on “What is Music?

  1. good post. What do you say music is to a child. But then you could go to the new AOL Huffington Post section that used to be about Art and music and now it’s all entertainment. In fact the whole arts and religion structure that Arianna set up and was unique is now gone. Someone was threatened and she sold out. Digoweli


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