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What Is Music?

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First posted on Mark Is Cranky:

A bunch of years ago, I went on a serious Captain Beefheart jag. Trout Mask Replica was fed through my ears on a daily basis. My officemate at the time, spying the CD’s bizarre cover art (yes, that was a real fish boys ‘n girls), become interested in what was going on inside my headphones. I offered an overnight loan (“spread the word”, I was thinking).

The next morning I arrived late to work to discover the Beefheart CD on my chair, affixed with a short Post-It note:

    This Is Not Music

Well, that certainly left no room for debate!

Seriously though, it’s fairly easy to hear why Trout Mask isn’t for everybody. In fact, there’s a whole world of music with limited appeal that I like to refer to as ‘difficult listening’. That categorization for me has always pushed forward the mystery of why things sound ‘good’. That’s a giant problem best left for another essay. A more basic question might be: what is music?

Dictionary definitions tend to bring up melody, harmony and rhythm, all of which are categories of organized sound. Folks in the West like to think that melody is the most important aspect of music (read: if there’s no melody, it’s not music). This ‘rule’ leads to heated debate (OK, shouting matches) about the musical validity of certain forms. Rap music takes the most heat here.

After years of pouring (maybe too much) music into my head, I’ve come to the conclusion that none of the “big three” are necessary for sound to be music. Nosir. Instead, it’s closer to the following dictionary entry:

    An aesthetically pleasing or harmonious sound or combination of sounds: the music of the wind in the pines.

Think of it as: perceive it as music…and it is. I’ll admit that this is a sort of over-intellectualized stance (go ahead, call it eggheaded) but if it was good enough for people like John Cage and Frank Zappa then it works for me.

What, a sensible person might ask, does this open door policy do for me? It doesn’t really work like that. See, the reason I’ve adopted this ‘rule’ is that it appears to explain, and I suppose legitimize, my hankering for odd sounds. So, periodic thunking tones of mallets on stalactites of ice? Music. Electric guitar strings being scraped behind the bridge with a spatula? Music. A snare drum struck crisply in a cavernous room? Music. The human voice rhyming a story on top of a shattering beat? Music. Definitely.

Of course, none of this means that other folks have to like (or even appreciate) any of this music. It’s just a framework that I use to justify the honks, shrieks, and clanks that ooze by my earbuds or out from under my listening room door. I will say this though…when a person declares that something is not music (let’s use Rap as an example, where the most conflict occurs) maybe they should stop and think about the parallels to legitimacy being ignored. A spoken phrase, no matter how aggressive, has a contour to it – not unlike a melody. The syllables form a rhythm. Hey, we’re two thirds of the way there!

I didn’t blame my old work associate for pullin’ the ripcord on Trout Mask Replica. The psychotic jazz/blues/field recordings presented there easily quality as ‘difficult listening’. I can only hope that the seeds of the tree of odd music had been planted.

(For more thought-provoking ruminations on the nature of music, check out Blogcritics own mpho and the recent series Soothe Me, I’m Savage).

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About Mark Saleski


    Cattle Decapitation!

  • Eric Olsen

    rhythm and noise, my friend

  • Vern Halen

    Trout Mask – music. The jury’s still out on Metal Machine Music by Lou Reed, though. It’s got noise, but no rhythm.

  • Long ago I remember a definition of music that I heard somewhere that music is “organized sounds”. I like that one. Like standing on the corner in the city. Cars and buses racing by on schedule in time with the traffic lights. The sound of the construction of a building with the pounding rhythms of machinery. And the layers of sound go on.

    Music is all around us, I guess.

  • Eric Olsen

    oh, but the rhythm doesn’t have to be overt

  • The rhythm doesn’t have to be pleasant either.

    I like “organized sounds.” Then again, I listen to Phish, so I’d prefer “Organized or semi-organized sounds.”

  • Duane

    Very well written post, Mark. I can’t imagine that anyone would disgaree strongly with your definition of music.

    There’s music in nature, I suppose. Birds, crickets, water, wind. thunder even, if you want to stretch a point. I would rather listen to traffic noise than most rap, country, church music, polka, 70s disco, well, most styles, actually.

    Now, I think it would be more interesting to answer the question, What is good music?

  • thanks duane. the ‘good’ music questoin opens up a whole ‘nuther can of worms.

    some people will think that there’s a sort of objective set of criteria for that. i mean, it’s obvious that, say, Brittney Spears is ‘bad’….and then along comes somebody like Richard Thompson who plays “Oops I Did It Again” in his songs of the last 1000 years show. funny.

  • bah..the finest definition of Music i have ever heard of comes from Miles Davis

    Miles sez..
    “music is the space between notes”

    nuff said?


  • Duane

    And literature is the space between the words, I spose.

  • nah…Literature , since it is a static format, not a dynamic like music, is not defined by those “spaces”, but instead by the totality

    but thas a whole ‘nother Discussion, eh?

    i’ll stick with Miles’ definition…think about it a bit and hopefully you will understand why

    thanks for the great Read in your Post…nice and tasty thoughts..


  • excellent post, Mark. I don’t know that i ever gave a lotta thought to it, other than thinking how some music is next to unlistenable, but it’s still music. And i don’t think i ever listened to Trout Mask in its entirity. Certainly he’s a fine painter.

  • That is one of the best posts I have read recently. Puts a lot in perspective. It reminds me of when I was very anti-rap in my mid high school years, I did not think it was music. Back then I was a big metal guy and had a narrow definition of what music was, and it usually involved the playing of instruments. Then my father gave me the idea that if it had a rhythm and such, it is music (even though he detests rap) and my thought process changed. It is now similar to yours although I haven’t given it as much thought as you.

  • Nice one, Duane.

  • godoggo

    Categories are static but creativity isn’t. It’s the nature of creativity to push boundaries, to break rules, to defy categorization. So this kind of question gets raised about music, about literature, about art, about grammar, etc. ad naseum amen.

    What I care about is profundity. Profundity and fun. No, what I care about is how it makes me feel. And think. And an almost fanatical devotion to the pope.

  • According to my super-stimulus theory of music (as described in my book, “What is Music? Solving a Scientific Mystery”), music is the super-stimulus for “musicality”, where musicality is actually a perceived aspect of speech. Things like melody, rhythm and harmony are super-stimuli for the perception of musicality within individual aspects of speech perception (where musicality is always a secondary aspect). Thus each aspect of musicality may or may not appear in any particular item of music.

    Variation in a super-stimulus between different people doesn’t necessarily reflect significant variation in perception of the “normal” stimulus. For example, different people have different favourite foods, but the definition of “delicious” does relate to the requirements of good nutrition, and this relationship is a consequence of evolution by natural selection. Also there is still substantial agreement between what tastes nice for many people, and what tastes so bad that probably you shouldn’t eat it at all.


    I am willing to give anything a chance, but having downloaded and listened to the 3 Cattle Decapitation songs linked from their website, I really can’t seee bricklayer’s constant and unwavering mention of them to be anything more than the electronic equivalent of the drunk guy at any concert who yells “Freebird”.

    I just don’t feel them.

  • yea, brick’s favorite does go over the line a little bit for me too! that’s ok, i hear he cleanses his palette with The Carpenters. 😉



  • Ah, Mortician; a palette-cleanser to be sure!


    The growly vocals remind me of Sesame Street’s Grover on a lithium binge, and brings to mind the image of SCTV’s Count Floyd saying, “ooh, scary stuff kids!”

  • yea, i always refer that as “cookie monster vocals”.

  • According to my super-stimulus theory…

    hmmm, i just might have to pick that book up.

  • Eric Olsen

    According to philosopher Suzanne Langer in her Philosophy In a New Key, musical structures are analagous to the structure of feelings. Music expresses, “just what is unspeakable in verbal language … music can reveal the nature of feelings with a detail and truth that language cannot approach … music is an abstraction of feelings as is algebra to arithmetic … music sounds the way moods feel.”


    As the arbiter of what or is not music (you didn’t get the e-mail?) I sometimes wonder iif peple listen to Cage, Stravinsky, or Stockhausen in public so they can feel cool by annoying people with the atonal squawking.

  • i have to admit that sometimes it’s fun to put on stuff like that (Stockhausen, Varese, etc.) just to see the reactions wash over peoples faces.

    …but i do seriously love the stuff. the ‘why’ is the hard part. something i haven’t yet written about because it’s the hardest part to get to.

  • Shark

    John Cage said that the sound of traffic is the “new” silence.

    Good stuff.

    PS: Mark, nice to include the late-great Harry Partch, CD, AND the photo!

    PPS: “What is art” and “What is music” are questions to be pondered ONLY by college students at 3 A.M. while smoking dope.


    It’s the law.

    STOP IT.


  • to be pondered ONLY by college students at 3 A.M. while smoking dope

    i spose…tho the problem there was that “what is music?” was soon replaced by “who’s gonna call for pizza”.

  • Shark

    Oh. Almost forgot:

    it’s amazing how adaptable our ‘hearing’ is. (at least mine, heh)

    ie. Today’s “noise” is tomorrow’s music.

  • JR

    The old silence was way better than the crap the kids are listening to nowadays. In my opinion, it ain’t even really silence anymore.

  • not only that, their attention span is so short that they don’t even appreciate a full 4’33” of silence. hell, they hardly make it to 2’27”!

  • I’d tune in if a ClearChannel station starting broadcasting silence in either 2’27” or 4’33” chunks!

  • Shark, re: comment 27. The art question. I have the answer.

    Q: What is art?
    A: What isn’t?
    -Pablo Picasso

  • It’s been said before, and i agree.
    It’s all a perception thing.

    Something becomes music as soon as you perceive it as music.

    I think a key ingredient is time. Time provokes music. Standalone sounds start relating to

    eachother as soon as time gets involved.
    Sounds become series of sounds, and series of sounds can be perceived as music.

    I think Miles was referring to time when he said “Music is the space between notes”.
    Which makes a nice bridge to my next point.

    I’d like to add that i think the reach of music is not limited to our ears. I think it can

    be experienced with other senses just as well. You can see music in a motion, in a painting,

    I think it’s no coincidence Miles used the word space to refer to time.
    Space is a visual representation of time. Space is a distance on a time line.
    Defining music with a visual parameter is no abstract concept to Miles,
    space actually is what he perceives and tries to express.

    Many artists use such swithes to talk about what they do.
    Describing music with colors ( blue music, caramel drums, …).
    Describing paintings using terms as rhythm and harmony.
    Describing literature with dynamical elements as flow.
    Describing an architectural piece of work with “there’s a slow but steady beat to it.”

    Music is a mood thing, and moods are cross-platform.

    what about these questions :
    Does music exist ?
    Is music an illusion ?
    Is music mathematics ?
    Is music a perversion of our mind and senses ?
    Do animals experience music as music ?

    Well, I think I’ll have a big pepperoni with cheese and extra cacciatore.
    Burrrps …
    What was it again we were talking about only seconds ago ?
    Damn, I know we were talking about something really interesting, i just can’t remember what

    it was. What was it ?


  • Hey Mark,

    Great rumination. With this you’ve hit the nail on the head: “An aesthetically pleasing or harmonious sound or combination of sounds: the music of the wind in the pines.” Reminds me of the subjective nature of dance. You know how there’s always one or two people in the room about whom is said s/he can’t dance? My brother had a great observation. It’s not that they can’t dance, it’s that they’re dancing to a different song than everyone else, and that song is always the same: Jimmy Cracked Corn. Next time you see someone who you think can’t dance, get Jimmy Cracked Corn going in your head and you’ll realize that they are actually dancing quite well. Dancing, music, art–all so subjective, all aesthetically pleasing to one person but not the next one. Trout Mask Replica is a good example of music that isn’t conventional, but it has pleased (and influenced) a lot of people. Thanks for the props by the way. I’m going to cross-post you too. Kudos.

  • thanks mpho.

    and i tell ya, i’ve never heard that jimmy cracked corn thing about dancing…but it’s fricken funny!

  • Shark

    um, you’ve apparently never seen me “dance”.

    It’s best if you imagine I’m *dancing to John Cage’s 4’33” !

    *I’m not only extremely white, but I don’t move at all.

  • i liked douglas mays’ picasso comment. very cool.

  • Trout Mask Replica is chock full of melody, rhythm and harmony. These are some highly organized sounds.

  • very true.

    but there’s plenty of other music out there with none of those components.

  • Please be more specific, Mark. What would be some worthwhile music that does NOT have melody, rhythm or harmony? What artist, album, composition?

  • there’s a ton of fully improvised music out there that’s closer to what we’re discussing:

    Derek Bailey
    Han Bennink
    Bruce Eisenbeil
    Peter Brotzmann
    Evan Parker

  • Alright, that’s narrowing it down a little. Could you recommend specific works by some of these composers?

    “Improvised” however does not mean lacking in melody, but just describes the manner in which it is being generated.

  • go ahead and check out almost anything by Derek Bailey. no melody there. still music.

  • hi!!!!!!!!!!! you see me dancing me? i’m damme vi necesario fron cadiz city negross occ. in philippines and i know also in singing………………