What is Music: Different Perspectives

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Although it has been around for as long as we know, music is something that is all around us and something that plays a big part in our lives and yet no one has been able to definitively give it a definition that has been accepted by all. This is perhaps because everyone that encounters music is going to experience it in a different way, depending on a number of factors.

In 1973, John Blacking published a book, How Musical is Man? In this book he proposed that music be defined as ‘humanly organised sound’. This has by all accounts has become the most common answer that students give when asked to provide a definition of music. While this answer is plausible, is there not more to music than it merely being ‘humanly organised sound’? Andrew Kania proposed that music be defined as, ‘any event intentionally produced or organized to be heard, and either to have some basic musical feature, such a pitch or rhythm, or to be listened to for such features.’ This leads me back to work that is covered extensively in the South African school music syllabus; the seven elements of music (dynamics, melody, form, rhythm, timbre, harmony and texture). These elements effectively summarise what is usually contained in music as we know it.

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There are also a lot of people that have a strong argument that music is a language. The similarities are striking. Andrzej Rakowski - in his article What is music? – says that in both cases there is a sender and a receiver, and some information is transmitted with the use of a communication code. In natural language and music there is a vocabulary of units that is used to select and organise the units for transmission. There are also rules that must be known by both the sender and the receiver in order to be coherent (i.e. the speaker and the listener or the composer, performer and listener need to all be in sync and speak the same ‘language’). Both natural and musical language contains a certain vocabulary which can be used to communicate. Using the above idea of what a language is, it is clear see that music could be defined as a language in its own right. The problem lies in agreeing on what is communicated through this musical ‘language’. Rakowski points out that what could be communicated through music is emotions and feelings – but these will be perceived differently by all people because they will recognise and appreciate different aspects of the music.

If one analyses the above text, we can see a few different opinions. John Blacking views music as ‘humanly organised sound’. Andrew Kania views it as an event intentionally produced or organized to be heard, and Rakowski says that there is enough of a basis to classify music as a language. These three very different views of the same thing – music – show that different people will define it differently according to how they experience and interact with it. Intellectuals could debate this topic ad infinitum and still not come to any concrete conclusions. Thus it could be said that it is our responsibility as musicians to continue to think about what this ‘undefinable’ word is and what it has come to represent for us as individuals.

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