Defining music

This all started as I was prepping for teaching an online world music class for this coming fall. I’ve taught online classes for several semesters and enjoy it very much. Every semester I try to change things up just a little, both to keep things interesting for my students but also to make sure that I don’t stagnate. I have, previously, always started the semester with a “what is music?” discussion. I’d have the students post their definitions of music and try to get them to engage with the definitions used in various textbooks. I couldn’t help but notice that this question is one of the first issues tackled by most world music textbooks.

This week, while I was wrestling with various ideas, a colleague commented on the futility of this discussion. He said no one will ever agree on a single definition of music. He suggested that there are two ways of defining music: deductively and inductively. Deductive definitions would start general and narrow down the criteria until we arrived at a specific definition or truth about music. Inductive definitions would start with many different examples or observations and use them to draw conclusions. Applied to music, inductive definitions also seem to rely on a person’s musical cultural conditioning. Western listeners understand that V-I is final, that it evokes a feeling finality. If they aren’t musicians, they may not know the terminology, but the concept is understood.

This brought to mind a lone, non-ethno and non-music student in a graduate seminar I took several years ago. He was explaining his project and said something to the effect that there was something about the music that was indescribable. All of us, and the professor, were quick to jump on this statement and refute it; music is always describable. It is always definable. He just didn’t have the vocabulary or the definitions. If he knew the right words, he would be able to say what he means. This seemed to be the assumption of myself and my fellow students. Looking back on this, however, it seems a dangerous assumption. It seems more in line with those early scholars who assumed that, because a culture didn’t talk about music the way Western culture did/does, the culture must not have a theory of music or must not be able to express ideas about music.

As ethnomusicologists, we have a way of talking about music, but we know it’s not the only way. Yet we still struggle to define music. I feel that this is the point, and perhaps by presenting students with a definition of music right away, I am doing them a disservice. Perhaps it would be better to present them with many different examples and observations and allow them to build their own conceptions of music. I think what my class should do is suggest to students that they are familiar with music in ways they aren’t necessarily aware of and to suggest that there are a multitude of other musics out there. By the end of the semester, they will have a plethora of other things that they can point to and say, “This is what music is.”

– Heather


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