What, in the World, is Music?

Chapter 1
What, in the World, is Music?
4’33” - John Cage
Qur’anic Recitation
“Wrecking Everything” - Overkill
Os Mutantes
A Point of Departure:
Five Propositions for
Exploring World Music
Proposition 1
The Basic Property
of All Music is Sound
A tone is a musical sound, as opposed to noise sounds,
speech sounds, ambient sounds, etc. It is a sound whose
principal identity is a musical identity, as defined by
people (though not necessarily all people) who make or
experience that sound.
Every tone has four basic properties: duration (length);
frequency (pitch); amplitude (loudness); and timbre
(sound quality.)
Tones are also defined by their surrounding musical
environments. This is how relationships between tones
are formed, like melodies, chords, rhythms, and
Tones also acquire meanings in relation to their cultural
significance. For example, the exact same piece of music
will have a different cultural meaning if used in a religious
ritual that in a fast food commercial.
Any and all sounds have the potential to be tones, or
musical sounds.
In John Cage’s 4’33”, a piece featuring a seeming absence
of sound is presented as music. In all actuality, however, it
is the random assortment of coughs, chair squeaks, air
conditioning hums, etc., that are considered musical. One
of the main “points” is to encourage the audience to reorient
their hearing.
Proposition 2
The Sounds (and Silences)
That Comprise a Musical
Work are Organized in
Some Way
Music sounds always emerge within some organizational
framework, and are therefore organized.
For example, Beethoven’s Symphony #9 (CD ex. #1-2) is
easy for Westerners to identify as an organized form of
Japanese gagaku (CD ex. #1-3) is also music, although
its organizational principles are unfamiliar to Westerners.
Also included is music that subverts conventional
organizational principles, like much of John Cage’s music.
Proposition 3
Sounds are Organized into
Music by People; Thus,
Music is a Form of Humanly
Organized Sound
Music is a human phenomenon: it is a form of “humanly
organized sound” (Blacking 1973)
For the purposes of this class, music is something that
people make, hear, or assign to other kinds of sounds.
(For example, saying that birds and whales ‘sing.’)
Any and all sounds have the potential to be employed
and heard as musical sounds, but require the perception
as such by a human being.
Proposition 4
Music Is a Product of
Human Intention and
Intention and perception are the two basic processes
of human cognition involved in determining what is
and what is not music.
When any sound is presented with the intention of
being music, or when a person perceives a sound as
music, we will consider it as such.
This will be known as the HIP (human intention
and perception) approach.
The HIP approach is valuable because:
It privileges inclusiveness over exclusiveness.
It emphasizes the idea that music is inseparable from the
people who make and experience it.
John Cage’s 4’33” was intended to be music.
Islamic Qur’anic recitation (CD ex. #1-4) is perceived by
many Westerners as music, but not by most Muslims.
Music by a thrash metal band like Overkill is considered
music since its audience members and band members consider
it as such, even if other people might not agree.
Proposition 5
The Term Music Is Inescapably
Tied to Western Culture and Its
Many cultures do not have a word equivalent to music in
their language, and some languages that do have a word
for music, like Arabic, apply it differently than speakers
of English, for example, do.
Although every culture in the world has organized
sound that the West considers music, they do not all
categorize this as music.
We are thus doomed to ethnocentrism: we cannot help
but impose our own cultural perspectives on other
practices and lifeways.
There are several options for confronting this dilemma:
Avoid dealing with these problematic phenomena of
sound in musical terms altogether.
Impose Western musical concepts on other practices.
Find some way to integrate and balance our own
perceptions of “music” with indigenous terms and
The third is the option selected for this text, and will be
used in addressing how music lives and how music
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