Ontmusic0. What is music?
"Music is perhaps the art that presents the most philosophical puzzles."
"The reasons for philosophers' attraction to music as a subject are obscure, but one element is surely that music, as a non-verbal, multiple instance, performance art raises at least as many questions about expression, ontology, interpretation and value, as any other art — questions that often seem more puzzling than those raised by other arts."
- "New Waves In Musical Ontology" Andrew Kania
- 1 Discussion
- 2 Definition of Music as Organized Sound
- 3 The Three Sirens Counter-Example to Music is Organized Sound
- 4 Levinson's Means of Performance Condition
- 5 Objections to Means of Performance Being A Necessary Condition for Musical Works
- 6 Jerrold Levinson on Musical Works
- 7 Does music have any necessary conditions for qualifying as music?
- 8 Universals in Music
- 9 Internet Resources on Music
- 10 NOTES
Definition of Music as Organized Sound
Many proposals have been presented as to how best to capture in a definition the true nature or essence of music. Several proposals concern themselves with variations on music being organized sound.
For example, that music is (mere) organized sound is stated in the very first paragraph of the first chapter (Part I: Tools — Notes, Rhythms, and Scales) of Hal Leonard's Pocket Music Theory: A Comprehensive and Convenient Source for All Musicians by Keith Wyatt and Carl Schroeder, whose world famous publisher, Hal Leonard, glosses the book as “this handy pocket-sized book is the most contemporary music theory book on the market from the Harmony and Theory course at Musicians Institute in Southern California.”
“No matter what the style or complexity, music can be most simply described as organized sound; and the purpose of studying harmony and theory is to learn the methods by which sounds are organized in both large and small ways.” (bold not author's)
Immediately one considers what possible counter-examples there might be to such proposals. We know what form the counter-example would take. Find something that intuitively and with arguments is not music, yet remains organized sound. For what purposes other than music making might one want to organize sound?
Before one tries to answer this question it would be appropriate first to clarify what one means and how one uses the concept of organization. What is required for anything to have been organized?
The Nature of Organizing
Dictionaries define the word "organize" to mean:
- To form into a coherent unity or functioning whole.
- Integrating elements together.
- To set up a structure.
- To arrange by systematic planning and united effort.
- To arrange elements into a whole of interdependent parts.
- To put in order; arrange in an orderly way.
- To cause to have an orderly, functional, or coherent structure.
- To develop into or assume an orderly, functional, or coherent structure.
- Arranging several elements into a purposeful sequential or spatial (or both) order or structure.
- Organizing is a systematic process of structuring, integrating, co-ordinating task goals, and activities to resources in order to attain objectives.
Apparently, the function or purpose of organizing would seem to be the creation of structure, often of some completed structure known as a whole (structure).
What is Structure?
- Oxford Dictionaries defines structure when used either as a noun or as a verb:
- NOUN - The arrangement of and relations between the parts or elements of something complex.
- VERB - Construct or arrange according to a plan; give a pattern or organization to.
- Structure is "the manner of construction of something and the arrangement of its parts."
Given that organizing functions to produce structure, then if music is organized sound, then music is produced by structuring sound.
What sort of activities would count as organizing structured sound?
The Three Sirens Counter-Example to Music is Organized Sound
Because structure results from arranging parts of a non-simple whole a single sound by itself, because it is simple in the required sense, could not qualify as having been organized sound. Therefore, a siren's whistle by itself with one note could not count as a counter-example to the definition of music as organized sound since it isn't organized. This means that a single one note siren cannot count as music.
Suppose though that at a hypothetical factory the management uses three siren whistles where one announces breaktime and one of the other two sounds to indicate whether the food truck or the ice cream truck is outside. Siren D(o) indicates breaktime. Siren R(e) announces food truck arrival, while siren M(e) indicates the ice cream truck is present. When all three things are present (breaktime, food truck, and ice cream truck) all three sirens might blow one after another. Suppose the three sirens sound like Do Re Me. We now have organized sound with the three siren whistles under any one's definition of organizing, but would this now qualify as music production?
Why the Three Sirens are Organized Sound
An argument that the three siren whistles do not count as music, while nevertheless remaining organized sound is this. We have already agreed that no one siren as a single tone by itself counts as music. Since each siren is distinct and the sirens can go off with a one minutes gap of silence between each one, then the series of sirens cannot count as music since each one by itself cannot be music. With a one minute gap, most perceivers would perceive this as three separate sonic events and would not experience these three sirens as music. However, isn't it obvious that these three sirens whistles have been organized because using either the noun or verb use of "organize" the three sirens qualify.
Consider as a:
- NOUN - The arrangement of and relations between the parts or elements of something complex.
The three sirens are complex as individuals and as a three part whole. The factory manager has arranged them to sound different so as to signal different things. They still have relations between the parts in that each is a note apart because they sound like Do, Re, Me (not to mention their relationships amongst themselves by each being physically a siren). They are also related in that each is a signal at the same factory and have been so arranged, therefore they count as organized sound.
Consider as a:
- VERB - Construct or arrange according to a plan; give a pattern or organization to.
Clearly, the three sirens have been arranged according to a plan. There are distinct patterns of sounds, and, if one wishes for a more complex pattern, the three signals of breaktime, food truck, or ice cream truck could be signaled with two siren blasts one quickly following the other using this schema:
- Siren D (sounds like Do), Siren R (sounds like Re), and Siren M (sounds like Me).
- Signals meaning: DR = Breaktime, RM = food truck here, MD = ice cream truck here
Hence, these sirens have been given a pattern of two notes and have been so structured, therefore counting as organizing sound.
Why the Three Sirens (and Mere Organized Sounds) are not Music
It is quite unlikely that any factory worker ever comments upon how much she or he enjoys the music that is played to indicate breaktime, or arrival of the food or ice cream trucks. Why? There are several reasons that come to mind why factory workers would not perceive or experience any two blasts of the sirens as music.
- The sirens serve the sole purpose of indicating the status of things at the factory and are not present for entertainment purposes. Music typically entertains.
- The sirens were not intended by anyone involved in the causal processes that set up the factory sirens to count as or be music. It is possible, even likely, that the sound of each siren was intended to sound relatively pleasing and not harsh so as not to annoy anyone who has to listen to them day after day. So, one might describe the sounds of Siren D followed by Siren R as musicalish sounding. What one means by musicalish sounding is that it is not unpleasant to the ear and the Do Re is a familiar part of music.
It doesn't follow that any two sirens sounding counts as a very short tune. The burden of proof here is on anyone who wishes to argue that the Do Re siren signal qualifies as music. One needs more of an argument for why the two sirens qualify as music than just the theory that music is organized sound or you would be begging the question against your opponent who is claiming the opposite--conceding it is organized sound, but denying it is music.
Conclusion: Music is Not (Mere) Organized Sound
Since no one would dispute that a siren whistle counts as a sound, and that the siren examples count as organized, yet the sirens aren't music, then the simple definition of music as organized sound has been refuted.
That music cannot be mere organized sound is well known by philosophers as pointed out in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
“Explications of the concept of music usually begin with the idea that music is organized sound. They go on to note that this characterization is too broad, since there are many examples of organized sound that are not music, such as human speech, and the sounds non-human animals and machines make.”
A further objection, pointed out by Andrew Kania, to any claim that music is organized sounds is that music also incorporates non-sounds into music.
“Most theorists note that music does not consist entirely of sounds. Most obviously, much music includes rests.”
Perhaps as a consequence of the existence of non-sounds in music, namely rests, it is possible to compose music without any sounds at all involved, only rests. If possible, then this is a fundamental objection to music being organized sounds if music exists that uses no sounds. Again, Andrew Kania in his "Silent Music" argues that there already exists such music that lacks sounds, and he gives several examples with the most prominent being Erwin Schulhoff’s Fünf Pittoresken published in 1919. It is the middle movement of this five part suite that interests us, “In futurum,” which consists entirely of rests.
Levinson's Means of Performance Condition
This refutation of the simple version of music as organized sound motivates the need for a further condition that would rule out the siren counter-examples. Jerrold Levinson in his "What A Musical Work Is" finds problematic any theory that merely claims music to be a sound structure:
“The most natural and common proposal on this question is that a musical work is a sound structure--a structure, sequence, or pattern of sounds, pure and simple. My first objective will be to show that this proposal is deeply unsatisfactory, that a musical work is more than just a sound structure per se.”
He thinks there needs to be an additional aspect to any proposal that music consists of sound structure--it also necessarily involves a means of performance structure:
"I propose that a musical work be taken to involve not only a pure sound structure, but also a structure of performing means. If the sound structure of a piece is basically a sequence of sounds qualitatively defined, then the performing-means structure is a parallel sequence of performing means specified for realizing the sounds at each point. Thus a musical work consists of at least two structures. It is a compound or conjunction of a sound structure and a performing-means structure."
What does Levinson mean by means of performance structure?
"To regard performance means as central to musical works is to maintain that the sound structure of a work cannot be divorced from the instruments and voices through which that structure is fixed, and regarded as the work itself."
Levinson concludes that all musical works are types with these three features: creatability, individuated by historical context, and include means of performance.
" . . . what are [musical works]? The type that is a musical work must be capable of being created, must be individuated by context of composition, and must be inclusive of means of performance."
Objections to Means of Performance Being A Necessary Condition for Musical Works
Objection from Sonicist
Julian Dodd, in his role as defender of Sonicism vigorously objects to performance means being required for the existence of a musical work. A sonicist holds that the only relevant features of all musical works are acoustical/sonic properties. This entails that if two musical works sound alike, then they are identical musical works regardless of their means of production. If one performance uses a violin and another sonically equivalent performance uses a synthesizer, then Dodd's Sonicism requires these two tokens be of the very same musical type/work.
Objection from Common Sense
Common sense, which cannot be automatically trusted because it can be wrong, would not agree that each and every musical work is attached to or required only to be performed using some given and previously determined musical generating instruments. If someone composes a song on a piano this doesn't mean the composer couldn't be writing a piece of music intended to be played on a trumpet. To show the absurdity of the means of performance requirement consider the following scenario and it's absurd implications if performance means is attached to each musical work.
Suppose a composer is given a contract to write a musical work intended to be played only on a trumpet. The composer even titles his composition "Only To Be Played Using a Trumpet." When the composer completes the composition for trumpet on the piano and plays it through once to see what it sounds like on the very piano he used to compose the work, according to the means of performance requirement, the composer did not just play his own composition, but some other one. This strikes common sense as absurd since common sense says the composer just played his own composition written to be played using a trumpet, but instead using a piano. If he didn't just play "Only To Be Played Using a Trumpet," then what did he play? Common sense has no answer to this question so maintains he must have played "Only" on piano because there is no other answer to what was played.
Objection from Invention of New Musical Instruments
Because new musical instruments can be invented no composers could specify in advance the specific musical instruments that might be used to play their compositions in the future. Even if a musical work was originally designated to be played using a specific set of instruments it is common practice to use different ones and still claim the new instruments are playing that particular musical work.
Cannot many different songs originally played with other instruments be played on a harmonica? If you think they can, then this is at odds with musical works requiring performance means of only a limited, specific set of instruments as part of the work itself.
Who is the determiner of what performance means are required for any particular work? It cannot be the composer because in some instances composers write a melody without having any particular performance means in mind. Yet the completed melody is itself a musical work prior to any specification of by what means the melody could be played.
Notes themselves and rhythmic relationships of sounds amongst themselves do not require any specific performance means. A middle C can be played on many different instruments. Even if we restrict ourselves to playing middle C on two pianos they each will have produced a middle C sound, but because of different physics of sounding boards and string elements, the two middle C's could be acoustically different (sounding).
Reductio Ad Absurdum of Performance Means Requirement
- It is possible to compose a musical work with no particular or specific set of instrumentation determined by anyone as to how this musical work could be performed.
- A Performance Means requirement entails it is impossible to have such a performance means less musical work. An implication of this would be that no musical work has yet to be created since no performance means has been specified.
Both of these positions cannot be correct because they contradict each other.
How does one decide which is correct without begging the question against the other?
Performance Means is Relevant to Musical Works
Beethoven's Fifth Symphony cannot be played on a harmonica. At best a harmonica player could try playing what is taken for the melody of the Fifth. What would be missing are the symphony's other essential harmonic features, especially counter-melodies or any musical effects dependent on more than a single musical instrument.
Jerrold Levinson on Musical Works
In "Evaluating Musical Performance" Jerrold Levinson defines a musical work as requiring an intentional production. Here are his definitions of a musical work and of a musical performance:
"I will mean by an instance of a work a sound event, intentionally produced in accord with the determination of the work by the composer, which completely conforms to the work's sound and instrumental structure as so determined. By a performance I will mean the product of an attempt to produce for aural perception and appreciation something which is more-or-less an instance of a work and which more-or-less succeeds in doing so. (Italics author's; bold not)
Does music have any necessary conditions for qualifying as music?
Philosophers have tried to find additional components besides organized sound that makes these sounds qualify as music. There have been two main approaches using either or both of a tonality condition and/or an aesthetic properties conditions.
“There are two further kinds of necessary conditions philosophers have added in attempts to fine tune the initial idea. One is an appeal to ‘tonality’ or essentially musical features such as pitch and rhythm (Scruton 1997; Hamilton 2007 Kania 2011a). Another is an appeal to aesthetic properties or experience (Levinson 1990b; Scruton 1997; Hamilton 2007). As these references make clear, one can endorse either of these conditions in isolation, or both together. It should also be noted that only Jerrold Levinson and Andrew Kania attempt definitions in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions. Both Roger Scruton and Andy Hamilton reject the possibility of a definition in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions. Hamilton explicitly asserts that the conditions he defends are ‘salient features’ of an unavoidably vague phenomenon.” (bold, italic, and bold italic not author's)
Following the investigation of both tonality and aesthetic features as necessary conditions for music's existence, a third candidate for a necessary condition will be considered: intentionality of music production.
Tonality Necessary Conditions
Any tonality necessary condition requires that only basic musical features such as melody, rhythm, or harmony be appealed to in defining the nature of music.
“The main problem with the first kind of condition is that every sound seems capable of being included in a musical performance, and thus characterizing the essentially musical features of sounds seems hopeless. (We need only consider the variety of ‘untuned’ percussion available to a conservative symphonist, though we could also consider examples of wind machines, typewriters, and toilets, in Ralph Vaughan Williams's Sinfonia Antartica, Leroy Anderson's The Typewriter, and Yoko Ono's “Toilet Piece/Unknown”.) Defenders of such a condition have turned to sophisticated intentional or subjective theories of tonality in order to overcome this problem.” (Bold and bold italic not author's)
Kania points out the key problem for any defenders of any kind of tonality conditions (musical features) is that musical performances are capable of potentially incorporating any sound into a musical performance. As a consequence, these defenders have had to resort to fairly sophisticated theories of tonality. The reason for such sophistication is to prevent such tonality theories from permitting non-music to count as music. We all know that jackhammers on the job site are not musical sounds. Nevertheless, a musician could incorporate such sounds into a musical performance, as was mentioned in Kania's quotation above of incorporating wind machines, typewriters, or flushing toilets.
Aesthetic Experience Necessary Conditions
Because of the possibility of non-music sounds being possibly incorporated into a musical performance philosophers turned to using some sort of aesthetic conditions or experiences for characterizing what makes certain sounds qualify as music. Still, this approach bears its own problems if having some non-musical sounds qualify as falling within whatever aesthetic experiences are used to pick out all and only music. The aesthetic experience that fails to be music, but still has aesthetic properties related to its sounds, is poetry.
“If one endorses only an aesthetic condition, and not a tonality condition, one still faces the problem of poetry – non-musical aesthetically organized sounds.”
Poetry reveals that the aesthetic properties net is too widebecause it captures and includes poetry. An additional problem for the aesthetic properties approach is that it may also be too narrow since it excludes musical scales as well as Muzak from qualifying as music because these two lack sufficient (appropriate) aesthetic properties. Kania points out how these factors affect Andy Hamilton's aesthetic approach to defining music.
“This is one reason Hamilton endorses both tonal and aesthetic conditions on music; without the former, Levinson is unable to make such a distinction. On the other hand, by endorsing an aesthetic condition, Hamilton is forced to exclude scales and Muzak, for instance, from the realm of music.”
Now this may not be as bad as it seems.
Do scales count as music by themselves? Perhaps scales are too uninteresting to count as music.
Wikipedia on (musical) scales defines a scale as:
“In music theory, a scale is any set of musical notes ordered by fundamental frequency or pitch. A scale ordered by increasing pitch is an ascending scale, and a scale ordered by decreasing pitch is a descending scale.”
So right away there is a problem in that Wikipedia defines a scale as consisting of musical notes. when these notes are played one produces a series of musical notes. Isn't this what happens in any performance of music? If so, scales, with their relative lack of aesthetically appealing properties, can still qualify as music even if not very interesting or aesthetically appealing music; similarly with Muzak.
Furthermore, on the face of it, no matter how mundane and droll Muzak remains, it seems on the surface at least to still count as music even if quite bad and horrible music thereby posing a problem for any aesthetic conception of what makes something qualify as music.
Intentionality Necessary Conditions for Music
While it remains unclear the best way to characterize the intentions of composers and performers when generating music because it remains unclear precisely what they are intending, the intuitive idea that intention is a necessary condition for music production remains an attractive prospect.
For example, Andrew Kania appeals to an intentionality requirement for the existence of music when he denies that music can exist that wasn't intended to be music.
First, here is Kania's definition of music.
“Music is (1) any event intentionally produced or organized (2) to be heard, and (3) either (a) to have some basic musical feature, such as pitch or rhythm, or (b) to be listened to for such features.” (bold not author's)
Second, here is where Kania denies something is music, where the sonic situation remains unchanged, but the status of the sonic event as music can come and go dependent upon intentionality considerations.
“This definition [quoted above] allows me to make a distinction unavailable to [Jerrold] Levinson. There are artists who characterize themselves, or are characterized by others, as “sound artists.” These are artists who produce sounds for what we might call artistic or aesthetic appreciation, but who, like Cage, more or less explicitly intend us to listen to these sounds not under musical concepts, but more purely as the sounds as they are “in themselves.” We can imagine a musical pair of Dantoesque “indiscernibles”: two works that use the same “found sound” (say, a field recording of a construction site), one of which is intended to be listened to under basic musical concepts, the other of which is not. The former, I would argue, is a piece of music; the latter is not – it is non-musical sound art.”
For an extensive discussion of the relevance of intention to musical production see Sections §7-13, especially §13 (Why Intentional Agency is Necessary for Music Production) at What is a song?.
Universals in Music
- "The Cognitive and Appreciative Import of Musical Universals" by Kathleen Marie Higgins, University of Texas at Austin
- “Why Can Sounds Be Structured As Music?” by John W. Longo, Teorema: Revista Internacional De Filosofía, vol. 31, no. 3, 2012, pp. 49–62. [www.jstor.org/stable/43046955].
- Musical Notation
- On Beats and Meter
- Understanding Musical Meter
Internet Resources on Music
- Enhanced Bibliography on philosophy of music Bibliographic References to "What is Music? by Andrew Kania in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on "What is music?"
- Wikipedia on Defining Music
- What is Music? by Marcel Cobussen with discussion by others
- Elements of Music by Espie Estrella
- Jazz Harmony: From Origins to Jazz by Martin Antaya.
- Pocket Music Theory: A Comprehensive and Convenient Source for All Musicians, Keith Wyatt and Carl Schroeder, Milwaukee, WI: Hal Leonard, 1998. (ISBN: 9780634047718).
- Quotation from first two sentences under 1.2 The Definition of ‘Music’ by Andrew Kania, "The Philosophy of Music", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/music/>.
- Andrew Kania, "The Philosophy of Music", in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), 1.2 "The Definition of Music, 3rd paragraph, Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/music/>.
- "Silent Music," The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 68, pp. 348-349. (doi: 10.1111/j.1540-6245.2010.01429.x). “Though consisting entirely of rests ["In Futurum"], each bar on each staff is subdivided in different, and quite complex ways; the clefs of the piano staves are switched, with the treble clef below the bass clef; the time signatures are nonsensical and incommensurable (3/5 and 7/10), though the rests in every bar add up to a whole note (semibreve); the score contains not only rests, fermatas, breath marks, and a grand pause, but also upside-down fermatas, exclamation and question marks, and “notes” whose heads are smiley- and frowny-faces; and, finally, the tempo and stylistic indications are: “Timeless tempo; the whole piece freely with expression and feeling throughout, to the very end!” Interestingly, Schulhoff's "In futurum" was written 33 years before the more notorious 4'33" by John Cage.
- Jerrold Levinson, “What a Musical Work Is,” The Journal of Philosophy, vol. 77, no. 1, 1980, p. 6.
- Jerrold Levinson, “What a Musical Work Is,” The Journal of Philosophy, vol. 77, no. 1, 1980, p. 19.
- Jerrold Levinson, “What a Musical Work Is,” The Journal of Philosophy, vol. 77, no. 1, 1980, p. 17.
- "Evaluating Musical Performance," Jerrold Levinson, Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 21, No. 1, Spring, 1987, p. 75.
- The Aesthetics of Music, Roger Scruton, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 1–79.
- Aesthetics and Music, Andy Hamilton, New York: Continuum, pp. 40–65.
- “Definition,” in The Routledge Companion to Philosophy and Music, Theodore Gracyk and Andrew Kania (eds.), New York: Routledge, 2011, pp. 1–13.
- “The Concept of Music,” in Music, Art, and Metaphysics, Jerrold Levinson, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990, pp. 267–78.
- The Aesthetics of Music, Roger Scruton, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 1–96.
- Aesthetics and Music, Andy Hamilton, New York: Continuum, pp. 40–65.
- "The Philosophy of Music", Andrew Kania, in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), 1.2 "The Definition of Music N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/music/>.
- See footnote 14 of Aaron Ridley's “Musical Ontology, Musical Reasons,” in The Monist, vol. 95, no. 4, 2012, pp. 681. (www.jstor.org/stable/42751238).
- "The Philosophy of Music", Andrew Kania, in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), 1.2 "The Definition of Music, 1st paragraph, N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/music/>.
- "The Philosophy of Music", Andrew Kania, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), 1.2 "The Definition of Music, 3rd paragraph, N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/music/>.
- Portions of this essay appear also in “What Remains of Musical Universality?," Proceedings of XVI International Congress of Aesthetics, Rio De Janeiro, July 2004 and This Merry Company : Music as Human Nature.