It Sounds Like…

Scientific analysis is a thing that, by nature, is cold, dispassionate, logical, and wholly objective, and as such it cannot clearly define something as varied and personally subjective as the concept of music. Although definitions of music exist, scientific definitions gravitate toward music theory, not music itself. So in the sterile, detached world of scientific analysis, music is generally categorized as a form of audible sound, and that’s about as clear as the definition gets. In similar fashion, the sterile, detached realm of things scientific commonly defines sound as vibratory energy transmitted through material classified as elastic mediums. Now before distended images of Whoopi Goldberg’s “Oda Mae Brown” character from the movie Ghost go running through anyone’s head, it must be explained that an elastic medium is matter that undergoes some degree of stretching or compression as caused by vibratory energy. This definition usually means the presence of air or water, not fortune tellers (sorry, Oda Mae). We hear sound through the air and while underwater, but the perception of outside sound while underground or in a locked chamber is possible if the sound source is powerful enough to vibrate the elastic medium (in this case, the walls and air) surrounding the listener. So while it’s hard to think of rocks, metal, and people as even minutely elastic, they are to the extent that each can vibrate to a certain degree and thus conduct what is the scientific definition of sound.

With the door now closed on the layman’s view of scientific analysis and vibration, we proceed to the nature of music and its differentiation from mere sound. A famous philosophical question asks, “If a tree falls in a forest and there’s no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?” Well, duh, of course it does. A tree crashing to earth generates an abundance of vibratory energy, of that we can be sure without needing to risk life and limb to stand within earshot of the event. However, the answer is not so obvious if the question is changed to read, “If a tree with a wind chime that plays Barry Manilow’s Copacabana tacked onto it falls in a forest and there’s no one there to hear it, does it make music?” In this case, there is no doubt that sound would again be generated by the thunderous impact of the toppling tree and the clanging chimes. However, without a human intellect present to determine if indeed the wind chimes played the tragic tale of Tony, Lola, and Rico as the tree fell or if they merely clanged about discordantly, there is no obvious answer. Barring electronic means, the only way to tell is to risk life and limb to stand within earshot of the event. Therefore, music, in the coldest and most unemotional of scientific terms, is merely the vibratory energy that comprises sound, but as artistically generated by man or perceived by man to have artistic qualities.

Within the last sentence is a major caveat. To state that music is a blend of sound and art either generated by man or so perceived by man leaves the definition of music wide open since human perception is an inexact component of the human condition. Man creates melodious sounds, but so do birds, whales, and other animals. In the particular case of whales, their haunting, echoing reverberations are referred to as whale songs, not whale cries, and purportedly musical albums exist of their underwater vocalizations. The sounds generated by whales mean certain things to other animals such as (but not limited to): a time to mate, a call to a larger group, a challenge, or a warning. But it is only when the mind of man is introduced to the clicks and groans of whales does the concept, interpretation, and possible imagination of musicality come into play for certain listeners. In similar fashion, if the previously mentioned wind chime did play Copacabana as the hypothetical tree fell, it is quite possible that a bystander not enamored with 1970s disco (or one who needed a “Mandy” fix) would consider the chimed version of Manilow’s signature tune set in the hottest spot north of Havana to merely be sound—noise, to be precise—and thus be mere vibratory energy bereft of discernible artistry.

Then what is music? It may well be argued that music is the sound of the mind’s hopes, fears, loves and hates. Music lies beyond quantification, beyond measurement, and beyond logic for all three are applicable to only the power of physical sound, not the power of music as it touches us. And what touches the mind of man are those sounds that are normally (but not exclusively) rhythmic in nature that address our innermost being in terms of string, percussion, wind, brass, voice, synthesis, and more.

In the case of sound produced by artisans of sound experimentation such as the now-defunct band Art of Noise (AoN), music can also come from the repeated playback of a vehicle starting, echoed footsteps, and a motorcycle roaring to life. Yes, I said it, and I’ll say it again: Music can also come from the repeated playback of a vehicle starting, echoed footsteps, and a motorcycle roaring to life. Hey, the group wasn’t called “Art of Noise” for nothing, folks—listen to some of their 1980s albums such as (Who’s Afraid Of) The Art Of Noise?, In Visible Silence, and In No Sense? Nonsense! What producer, creator, and ex-Buggles vocalist Trevor Horn (“Video Killed the Radio Star”) and musicians Ann Dudley, Paul Morley, J.J. Jeczalik, and Gary Langan used were mere sounds, but in the hands of talented artists such as themselves and in the imaginative mind of those persons able to perceive the artistry within the chaos, the most discordant of noise was forged into music of the most unexpected kind.

The above is the key to music, no pun intended—it literally exists within the mind of the perceptive listener and nowhere else. So go ahead and play a little ditty from Hoagy Carmichael, or power up the tweeters and midrange speakers of a quality sound system and blast out a stirring John Philip Sousa march, or bravely test the limits of high-end, sealed cabinet bass towers with “Let’s Start the Dance” or almost anything else recorded by the much undervalued Hamilton Bohannon, or pray that impressionable kids aren’t around and assault your senses with the regional flavors of “gangsta” rap or its successors. Some may interpret any or all of the above as precious music. Some may hear any or all of the above as blistering noise. None of the listeners would be right or wrong, and at the root of such contradiction rests the essence of music: the minds of human beings and the power of those minds to imagine and interpret as music what could otherwise be nothing more than the sound of a tree falling in a forest.

Primary Sources:

Burns, Kristine H.
“Algorithm Definition.” 2-2006.
Florida International University
http://eamusic.dartmouth.edu/~wowem/hardware/algorithmdefinition.html (26 May 2007.)

Dorrell, Philip.
“What is Music?” 30 April 2006.
http://whatismusic.info/articles/TheQuestionWhatIsMusic.html (27 May 2007.)

Horn, Trevor.
“Art of Noise Biography.” 2004.
http://www.ztt.com (28 May 2007.)

Worrall, David.
“Sound: Some Basic Concepts and Definitions.”
The Physics and Psychophysics of Sound and Music.
http://www.avatar.com.au/courses/PPofM/sound/sound1.html (26 May 2007.)

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