Saturday, December 4, 2021

What is music?


Attempts at defining music generally begin with “Structured/ organised Sound”, and end up questioning this definition. A universally acceptable definition may not yet exist. Scholars have, however, devised a workable description, which enables them to pursue their study of musical activity. A brief look at the issues is interesting.

It is argued that “Structure” cannot be part of an acceptable definition because the perception of structure is subjective. The same group of sounds may appear “structured” to some and randomly placed to others. Some also argue that music must be “pleasant” to qualify as music. This view raises the same problem. There is no music that will please everyone in the world. Pleasantness is subjective and hence an imprecise criterion.

Another objection cites sounds in nature – chirping birds, cascading waterfalls. They are structured and pleasant. Can they be considered music? The implication is that music needs to arise from a human intention to communicate. Music, then, becomes music only when there exists is a shared notion of “musicality” between the music maker and the listener. 

This discussion allows us to infer that “musicality” is defined by communicative intent and the existence of a listener.  The emerging modern view suggests that any set of sounds, which engages anyone as “music”, qualifies as music. In short: If you think something is music, it is music. And, if you think it is not music, it is noise. 

Once the issue of “engagement” enters the argument, the context becomes relevant. Sounds that may engage listeners as music in a certain context, may either fail to engage, or be considered “unmusical” in a different context. Music, then, functions a lot like a language which forges a link only between those who understand its “meaning” (communicative intent), which is itself dependent on a specific  context.

Neuro-sciences support the similarity between music and a language because the Broca’s region in the human brain processes both – language as well as music. And yet, music differs from a language in an important respect. A language has words, which represent the information, ideas, or feelings they wish to convey. Music, on the other hand, is a specialist language for communicating emotions, though it is still not clear how exactly it works. That is why a “dictionary” to aid the interpretation of music is not a foreseeable possibility. 

This view does not answer all the issues involved in defining music. It does, however, permit musicologists to study this mysterious area of human experience through musical features and related social contexts.

As a working definition, music is regarded as (a) a combination of sounds and silences (b) produced by humans and/or inanimate objects, incorporating elements of (c)  pitch (melody or harmony), (d) rhythm (tempo, cadence, meter), (e) dynamics (loudness/ volume), (f) and timbre/ texture.

Having defined music thus, we are obliged to also consider the notion of “engagement” critically. Does the engagement of the listener need to possess an “intentionality” which we consider an essential attribute of music-making? Two categories of music prevalent in contemporary society require this question to be addressed – even if controversially.

 (i)    Advertising music: Do we engage with the musical component of advertising/ commercial messages as music? The answer is “no”. Do we even engage intentionally/ consciously with advertising itself? The answer again is “no”. We merely accept advertising in the media as a part of the ecosystem which subsidizes our access to the media. But, does the musical component of advertising influence our behavior? The answer is “yes”, because it would not exist if it did not influence us. Therefore, even if we “engage” only unconsciously/ incidentally with advertising and its musical component, it needs to be recognized as “music” because it satisfies our definition, and has a well-defined social function.

(ii)  Ambient music: Commercial establishments like hotels and shopping malls expose us to music whose presence we are not expected to even notice as music, let alone “engage” with it. We can assume that this category of music is known to persuade us to spend more time and/or money within the host establishment. It is a form of “advertising”, but different because it works subliminally. There is “intentionality” in the transmission of the music, but none in its reception. This music also needs to be recognized as “music”, because it fulfils our definition and performs a well-defined social function.

On these considerations, and specific to the Indian context, it is possible to distinguish between musical endeavours characteristic of different social contexts. (a) Primitive/ tribal music (b) folk music (c) devotional music (d) ceremonial music (e ) martial music (f) popular music (g) advertising music (h) ambient music (i) classical/ art music (j) semi-classical music.

While being useful for scholarly explorations, these categories are all expressions of a single, but complex, culture. Collectively, and separately, they respond to social and economic changes, and also influence each other. Consequently, it is not even certain that this classification will remain relevant for all times to come.

(c) Deepak S. Raja December 2021