Articles from the Boston Compass



Is noise music? To me the answer is so obvious as to make the question itself reductionist. Maybe it’s worth attempting first to define music itself. The stuffy textbook definition as I was taught says that in order for a sound to be considered music, it must have: rhythm, timbre (the sound of a trumpet vs. a voice vs. a violin etc.), harmony, melody, and a beginning and an end.

But to me, this simply demonstrates the disconnect between reality and certain limited (though surprisingly prevalent) academic perspectives. For example, the expectation of melody is at best totally dated and fails to anticipate the arrival of practically every innovation the 20th century has to offer, or at worst is delusionally exclusive and elitist.

That’s why in 2013, with generations of sonic and conceptual revolutions to spare, a simpler, more useful way to define music is as any sound that happens over time.

Inevitably John Cage has to come up at some point (like Hitler in a morality debate), because of 4’33”, his “silence” piece in which a performer sits at a piano for approx. four and a half minutes without touching a single key. Most people assume the point of this piece is that there’s no such thing as silence. Cage himself said as much.

But I think that’s a pretty boring and obvious point, even if it was shocking to a small group of musically conservative people at the time. To me the piece is more about context; my first live experience with it was at a music festival on the Commons which featured multiple performance locations; though the performer sat more or less motionless, you could hear music coming from everywhere else. Did this have anything to do with the “silence” Cage was trying to prove didn’t exist? Why not? If so, I wondered if the point is that there’s no such thing as music.

But truly, in spite of Cage’s own words, I think the best thing to take away from 4’33” is that context defines our relationship with sound and determines whether we experience it as music. The first performance of 4’33” was interesting because no one knew how to react. Of course a concert audience in 1952 would sit politely until they got offended enough to walk out. At the Commons, most of us simply got bored and looked for other bands to listen to.

Which to me is the vital essence of what makes something music – is it interesting? Forget about whether you even like something. Does the sound as you experience it over time make a lasting impression? Looking at it this way, I wonder whether the thousandth time I’ve heard “Billie Jean” at CVS counts as music.


Tags: , , , , , , ,

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License(unless otherwise indicated) © 2019