Image link: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/be/Amazon_River.jpg
Amazon River, by Philip Glass, performed by Uakti
Another recording—by Third Coast Percussion
What is music?
When I ask this question, what are people asking? What music is—the character of music and who gets counted as a musician—is a point of contention for many scholars. Music is often defined in relation to: 1., expression (music expresses emotions) 2., musical elements/rudiments (music is melody, rhythm, and form in time), and 3., as musical works (Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony is music). Some of these definitions are better than others.
Consider the following definitions of music.
- Music education philosopher Bennett Reimer (1932-2013) defined music as an art, and suggested music is about symbolization—a process through which one thing comes to represent another. In 1958, he wrote, “The function of art is to symbolize for man the very deepest and most profound elements of his experience. The only way a human being can apprehend and taste of what he calls ‘reality’ is through such symbolization. Art uses symbols to construct a cosmos in order to give the life of man a setting and meaning. It is the depth of each individual’s personal experience with which art is concerned, and not … the horizontal relationships between person and person” (Reimer 2009, 12)
- The American composer Aaron Copland (1900-1990) seems to have shared Reimer’s understanding of symbolization, but added, “Music is many sided and can be approached from many different angles” (Copland 1980, 11).
- In contrast, musicologist Christopher Small (1927-2011) emphasized the horizontal relationships between people. He felt music was better understood as a verb, rather than a noun. “To music is to take part, in any capacity, in a musical performance, whether by performing, by listening, by rehearsing or practicing, by providing material for performance (what is called composing), or by dancing” (Small 1998, 9; emphasis in original).
- Music education philosophers David Elliott and Marissa Silverman (2015) take a similar approach to defining music as something people do in their groundbreaking book, Music Matters, now in its second edition. Musicing, in this sense, includes performing, improvising, composing, arranging, conducting and listening in a reflective process.
- Each of these definitions seems to place emphasis on humans, above other animal species. I challenge this anthropocentric position. Non-human animals make music (e.g., robins, dolphins, cicadas) for their own reasons. In my work I define music using the phenomenological idea of intentionality: Music is “the intentional experiencing of sound, and leave whether the intender and experiencer are human to the particular occurrence” (Shevock 2018, 42; emphasis in original).
Consider these five definitions. How do we construct a “good” definition? Since the earliest dialogues of Socrates, philosophers have struggled with what makes a quality definition. In philosophy, definitions help to solve epistemological questions—epistemology being concerned with knowledge, what counts as knowledge (in this case, what counts as knowledge about music). But it seems, in general, a good definition of music might serve two functions—distinction and inclusivity.
By distinction, the defined word ought to be distinguished from similar words. Inclusivity might be more challenging. By inclusivity, our definition of music should not exclude anything that’s called “music” by large-enough groups of people. At least without making a very logical argument. Of course, when it comes to music and religion, visual arts, and dance, it can be difficult to make precise distinctions. For instance, in Islam, scholars argue whether intoning the holy book with pitch and melody is singing. Further, what constitutes “large-enough” can vary—are the Suyá/Kisêdjê, an indigenous group of about 330 people in Brazil, large enough to have their understandings of music included in our definition?
There is a possibility, especially when studying Western Music, that colonial mentalities, classism, Eurocentrism, White supremacy, anthropocentrism, or androcentrism that are invisible to us will influence our definitions. But, we are all works-in-progress when it comes to unjust hierarchies. We ought to try our best to be inclusive when writing a definition. Perhaps our definitions will improve as we become conscious of our own strengths and weaknesses. If we add a counterweight, an aim to be humble and generous—to, when in doubt, air on the side of including, especially when ideas emerge from peoples who are different from us—we have a better chance of constructing an ethically good, as well as a high quality definition of music.
Multiculturalism is a policy of tolerance to other cultures, peoples and value system. In short, culturalism is the recognition that values are often the products of cultures—our cultural practices shape the way we think about the world. And multiculturalism, then, is recognition that in a global, interconnected, modern world, we should tolerate values other than those we hold. But in the 21st Century, the line between Western and non-Western is often indistinct.
Further, Western Music, unlike many genres, is composer-centric. In popular music, listeners often care more about performers than composers or songwriters. For instance, the hit “Adore You” is connected with the singer, Miley Cyrus—it may be few fans think about the songwriters, Stacy Barthe and Oren Yoel. In Western Music, the opposite is the case. For instance, the Peer Gynt Suite is indelibly connected to the composer, Edvard Grieg, though particular fans might appreciate their recordings by the Vienna Philharmonic with Zubin Mehta conducting, or the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy. However, if tomorrow everybody interested in Western Music agreed to never utter the names of Beethoven or William Grant Still, the composers would fade from our collective memory. The events, people, and creations of the past can only live—can only express any type of activity—as activity within us. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in an 1841 essay, “The world exists for the education of each [person]. … I can find Greece, Asia, Italy, Spain and the Islands,—the genius and creative principle of each and of all eras, in my own mind” (Emerson 2008, 60-1).
Philip Glass (1937-date) is an American, minimalist composer. Many classical music critics and listeners consider him the most important living composer, having written many operas, symphonies, concertos, chamber music, and film scores. In 1967, composer Steve Reich’s Piano Phase influenced Glass, and he began using less complex harmonic, rhythmic, dynamic, and formal content. He rejects the term minimalist as applied to many of his pieces, including Amazon River. However, Amazon River, composed in 1993-99, uses simplified melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic content. The tempo gradually increased throughout, but the basic rhythm remains the same throughout. The melodies are simple. The Brazilian instrumental group Uakti, which is known for using homemade and custom-made instruments with distinctive timbre (sound quality), first performed this piece. Amazon River draws its inspiration from the Amazon waters, and each movement is named after a river—Tiquiê River, Japurá River, Purus River, Negro River, Madeira River, Tapajós River, Paru River, Xingu River, Amazon River, and Metamorphosis.
Questions for considerations:
- Look at the definitions in this post. How do you rank them in two categories—distinction and inclusivity? Which definition is the best? Which is the worst?
- Write a definition of music. Build on the definitions discussed in this post to make it as distinctive and inclusive as possible.
- Does Amazon River, by Philip Glass, do well in representing multicultural ideals?
Copland, Aaron. 1980. Music and imagination. Combridge, MA: Harvard University Press. [Originally published 1952]
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. 2008. Nature. New York: Penguin Books.
Elliott, David J and Marissa Silverman. 2015. Music matters: A philosophy of music education, second edition. New York: Oxford University Press.
Reimer, Bennett. 2009. “What music cannot do.: In B. Seeking the significance of music education: Essays and reflections, edited by Bennett Reimer. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield. [Originally published 1958]
Shevock, Daniel J. 2018. Eco-literate music pedagogy. New York: Routledge.
Small, Christopher. 1998. Musicking: The meanings of performing and listening. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.