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Using Words to Describe Music

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Try to define music. I’m not being rhetorical, it is a sincere request. Write it down now and leave it as a comment once you’ve finished the article. Please do your best to compose a practical definition of music (a piece of language less than five sentences long that can be used to distinguish music from other sounds).

Merriam-Webster defines music as ‘the science or art of ordering tones or sounds in succession, in combination, and in temporal relationships to produce a composition having unity and continuity.’ That definition succeeds in encompassing all forms of composition but it fails to include the act of creating sound, something integral to music. It also excludes the use of silence. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy discusses the topic using over 900 words and brings up an important question—is John Cage’s famous silent piece ‘4’33”’ music?—but still fails to deliver a practical definition of music.

Music is difficult to define from a technical perspective because of all the conditions you cannot use. Using distinct pitches as a qualifier isn’t acceptable as it excludes white noise. Rhythm cannot be used either (or at least there is no reason to) because everything has it; rhythm is just a series of changes over time (we could debate about patterns but let’s not for now). To require certain types of harmonic relationships would leave out atonality and to require premeditation would leave out improvisation. Even intention cannot be used—music is often serendipitous, though many musicians (myself included) would rather not admit it.

While I would not be so bold as to say that a technical definition for music cannot be composed, I will say that I find it doubtful that one can find a practical definition for music without including the concept of musicians. Music is the manifestation of musicians. It cannot exist on its own and it cannot be practically discussed on its own. That defining a musician without having first defined music is a Catch-22 is all the more reason to discuss them simultaneously.

To be continued.

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