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What Makes Music Musical

It’s music to my ears.
That’s not music, it’s noise.
Turn down that noise!

 

What is music? How do we know what’s musical and what’s not? Why is music music to some ears and noise to others? Everyone thinks they know music when they hear it, but few can say exactly what it is and why. If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a command like “turn down that noise,” you know how slippery ideas about music can be.

 

Few have succeeded in truly defining music. Imposing a single definition on all of the world’s music is difficult because people’s opinions differ about what music is and what is musical. Many scholars of “world music” study behaviors and sounds that are not considered to be “music” by the people who make it—the chanting of the Koran, for instance. It’s our job to figure out a way of studying music that makes sense to the people who make it. Rather than trying to come up with a definition of music, we look for a concept of music that works for the culture we study. Here are a few that are likely to work for any music.

  1. Music can best be understood as “humanly organized sound” or “the purposeful organization of sound.”1

     

  2. Music is a form of communication. Music has much in common with language, and the two are almost inseparable as ingredients in popular song, opera, and other musical forms. The relationship between music and language has been an important part of the human musical experience since prehistoric times.

     

  3. Music is difficult to describe in nonmusical means (i.e., words). As Elvis Costello has observed, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”

     

  4. People’s concepts of music do not always match the way they perform and experience music. For example, societies may claim that music is highly valued, but deny artists a livelihood, persecute them politically, or call them a danger to public morals. Asking questions and comparing answers about the activities and social status of musicians is key to the informed study of music.

Many music lovers insist that music is best appreciated if we do not define it, analyze it, or expect it to communicate anything at all. So what does music have to tell us? Why study music? Music offers a record of history and human experience that words and images cannot. This record is especially important in nonliterate societies, or in cultures where colonization, war, and social rupture have interrupted the transmission of written history.

 

Second, music has a unique ability to convey memory. Both song texts and tunes can remind us of people, places, and events, accessing an ancient “hard drive” of historical memory. In my own study of elderly Jewish immigrants, singing particular songs in the Yiddish language helped them retrieve important recollections from their past. It made it easier and less painful to recall their experiences in the Holocaust, and as refugees in New York City and Israel. Certain songs situated them (and me, their listener) at a specific place in time, conquering the inadequacies of historical facts and events to describe a particular situation.

 

We must always respect the fact that for many people music is just music, and it acts on them in ways that are personal and individual. Yet ethnomusicologists have found that music is often “implicated,” or repurposed for different ideas and agendas beyond its original conception. For example, Richard Wagner’s music was used by Nazis to express notions of Aryan supremacy in Germany. Music has been used to strengthen the power of governments, sell cars, foment revolution, and convert souls to a particular religion. Music does not just act as a mirror of the culture that created it; it “performs” that culture.

 

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1 John Blacking, How Musical is Man? (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1973), p. 3; Kay Shelemay, Soundscapes: Exploring Music in a Changing World (New York, London: W.W. Norton and Company, 2001).

 

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