Sunday, March 3, 2013

What is Music? Part 2: Expanding the Definition

In a blog posted last week I described music as “the moments defined by what we are listening to.” In this blog I’ll ask the Tyros to examine four "maxims" that should make the journey through music history a little easier to understand and appreciate.

1. Nothing should be ruled out when defining something as "music."
Music might be a Mozart piano concerto, the songs of a humpback whale, or the cacophony of hammers hitting an anvil — it depends on who is listening and how he or she wants to label it. We are not obligated to like what others call "music," but common courtesy requires us to refer to something as music when others think of it that way.

Listen to the two pieces by John Cage embedded below and hear the extent to which others are willing to describe something as music.

John Cage, Imaginary Landscape No. 4 for 112 Radios 
(performed by students of Hunter College of The City Universty of New York)

John Cage, 4’ 33” (composed in three movements, performed by David Tutor)

2. Music is an art form that can magnify emotions.
In ancient Greece music was described as a language that spoke directly to human emotion. In what has become known as the doctrine of ethos, the Greeks believed the right kind of music had the power to heal the sick and shape personal character in positive ways. The Greek philosopher Aristotle believed that when a piece of music was designed to imitate a certain emotion, a person listening to the music would have that emotion. Aristotle’s idea of music is still alive in the way we use music to exaggerate the drama, horror, or comedy in Hollywood films.

John Williams, Theme from "Jaws" (performed by John Williams and the Boston Pops Orchestra)

3. Instrumental music is one of the most abstract of all art forms.
Just as abstract visual images might refer to something that goes beyond reality, instrumental music might be used to portray aspects of human existence that cannot normally be described with sound. After all, what is the sound of "love," "fear," or "spiritual redemption?" Why does Russian music sound so “Russian” and Aaron Copland's music sound so "American"?  Only great music can answer that question, and the answer cannot always be expressed in words.

Aaron Copland, Rodeo, Fourth Movement 
(performed by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by William Warfield)

4. A great piece of music often requires repeated hearings before it can be fully understood or appreciated.
Musical masterworks tend to get better the more they are heard. The first time you listen to Beethoven's String Quartet, Opus 127, for example, it might have minimal effect on your emotions. After hearing it several times, however, you might begin to describe it as "spiritual" and marvel at its ability to express profound truth. Listen to the quartet embedded below, and think of it as providing a contrast between Beethoven's inner turmoil and his public persona. It may take several hearings, but you should eventually be able to hear the difference between the "private" and the “public" in the composer's life. 

Beethoven String Quartet, Opus 127 (performed by the Jasper String Quartet)

Note: This blog was written under the influence of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major.

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