Defining Music, Part One

If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph:
THE ONLY PROOF HE NEED
FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD
WAS MUSIC

– Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country

I love all types of music. I find great energy and fun in the Beatles’ early songs, as well as anything recorded by Ladysmith Black Mambazo. I am thrilled by the seemingly stagnant music composed by Phillip Glass. I am deeply affected by both the power of Beethoven’s symphonies and the elegance of Chopin’s piano etudes.

I also find joy in the sounds of everyday life. Listening to the rain fall outside my bedroom window at night calms me down, as does the sound of a train in the distance. Some of the most enjoyable sounds I have heard came from when I was with my father on the banks of the Kiamichi River in Oklahoma. Late at night we would wait for the cowbell to ring on the trotline we had spread across the river, a sound telling us that we had hooked a catfish. The campfire was crackling. In the distance some dogs had treed a possum and were howling to save the world.

I call all of that, “music.”

For me, music is the moments defined by what I am listening to. It doesn't matter whether I am spending three minutes listening to Bruce Springsteen moaning about love's desire or ninety minutes listening to Gustav Mahler passing judgment on Judgment Day. It’s all music. When I spend an evening listening to children splashing in a swimming pool at the house next door, I refer to it as “music” to my ears.

Music does not only come from the sounds I hear. It also comes from the sounds I pay attention to, sounds I experience for the pure joy of listening.

Sometimes the joy of listening comes with no need for musical knowledge. Knowing about major and minor tonalities is unnecessary to understanding the beauty (and possibly the terror) in the sounds of a thunderstorm on a summer evening. A knowledge of musical meter contributes nothing to the euphoria of hearing fireworks exploding on the Fourth of July.

Sometimes, however, I need a little musical knowledge or I might not understand what is happening in a piece of music. Without knowing a few basic terms I might not fully appreciate the music I am hearing.

In most cases, the need for knowledge comes when I am listening to classical music. Classical music can be so full of musical content that the “story” told in a sonata, concerto, or symphony might escape me unless I understand the terminology.

I might not need lessons on how to listen to “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” by Flatt and Scruggs. However, I need someone to explain Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, or I might never really understand the power of its message.

When I spend time listening to a symphony by Haydn, for example, simply knowing that it will be divided into four movements helps me enjoy it more. Knowing that the first movement is in sonata form and the third movement is in triple time makes the music even more meaningful. And I can't stop there. Haydn's symphonies are endlessly entertaining — if I am willing to learn about them.

None of this means that classical music is
better than other types of music. It only means that classical music is different. In most cases, classical music requires knowledgeable audiences. Many other types of music, on the other hand, require little more than listening and having a good time.

I'll say it again, I love it all. Music of all types enhances my life, feeds my soul, and elevates my spirit. It doesn’t matter whether I’m listening to Johann Sebastian Bach, Johnny Cash, or that cowbell ringing on the trotline in the middle of the night.

Flatt and Scruggs, “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”


Beethoven, Symphony No. 3 in E-flat, “Eroica”


How to Play the Cowbell


This is Part One of my two-part attempt to define music. There's more to come in my next posting when I will provide four additional elements of music that I use to help my students on their journey through music history.