John Zorn
J-S Bach
John Cage


What is Music?

[1] What is music? During the course of the history of Western music, many have tried to formulate an answer to the question of the ontology of music. In order to distinguish between music and non-music, repeated attempts have been made to compile a list of essential properties of music along with the necessary and sufficient conditions. It is not my intention to represent any or all of the expressed views on this matter in a systematic or all-encompassing order. Rather, I prefer to paint a brief and approximate picture of some of the problems that these attempts to define, determine, or discern music have encountered.

[2] 'Musica ist eine Wissenschaft und Kunst, geschickte und angenehme Klänge klüglich zu stellen, richtig an einander zu fügen, und lieblich heraus zu bringen, damit durch ihren Wohllaut Gottes Ehre und alle Tugenden befördert werden [Music is a science and an art that produces dexterous and pleasant sounds, in order to combine them properly and present them charmingly so that their euphony may further God's honor and all virtues]', says composer and music theoretician Johann Mattheson. Philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau describes music as an 'art de combiner les sons d'une manière agréable à l'oreille [the art of combining sounds in a way that is pleasing to the ear]'. Organist and composer Johann Gottfried Walther thinks of music as 'die Ton-Kunst, d.i. die Wissenschaft wohl zu singen, zu spielen und zu componiren [the art of sound, i.e., the ability to sing, to play, and to compose well]'.
Three 18th century definitions of music. They all share a normative quality that plays an essential role. 'Geschickt'. 'Angenehm'. ' Klüglich'. 'Lieblich'. 'Agréable'. 'Wohl'. Terms that we would hesitate nowadays to include in a definition or description of a phenomenon (of music). Although speaking about music in such terms has not been completely banned (cf. Nattiez, p.42. cf. Durant, p.58), they are too indistinct and ambiguous to arrive at a clear and uniform definition.
In contemporary attempts to distinguish music from non-music, more phenomenological, structuralistic or formalistic descriptions are preferred. Music is harmony, melody, rhythm, meter, tone, instruments or voice. Music is organized sound. Music is giving form to noise (cf. Attali, p.10). Incidentally, here too, ambivalent or polyvalent qualifications turn up: what is 'organized'? What is 'giving form to'? And how normative are these formalistic qualifications? Can there be music without or outside these parameters (cf. some of Dieter Schnebel's compositions in No (-) Music).
The American analytical philosopher, Jerrold Levinson, defines music as sounds that are man-made or arranged for the purpose of enriching experience via active engagement (e.g., through performing, listening, dancing) where sounds are primarily attended to for their sonic qualities (cf. Levinson, p.273). On one hand, he stays true to formalism. The sounds in music are intended for 'listening to primarily as sounds, and not primarily as symbols of discursive thought' (Levinson, p.272). On the other hand, Levinson expressly insists on including the intention, aim or purpose in his definition: music is 'humanly organized sound for the purpose of aesthetic appreciation' (Levinson, p.271, my italics). Levinson points out that he conceives of music primarily as an artistic activity and not as a sonic phenomenon to which intention would be irrelevant. Much remains unanswered in Levinson's definition. For example: what exactly is 'man-made'? According to Levinson, a birdsong or the rhythmic gurgling of a stream cannot be considered music. However, what is it if a composer incorporates them into a music piece? What if the entire composition consists of a birdsong or the rhythmic gurgling of a stream? Does the composer's intention alone suffice to categorize something as music? And is it possible to reconsider that view?

[3] Convinced of the difficulties that are involved in adequately defining music, music sociologists John Shepherd and Peter Wicke conclude that music itself is a discursively constituted category. That is, this term in itself can give rise to multiple, incommensurable and contested categories. 'The term 'music' is highly polysemous' (Shepherd and Wicke, p.208). (Musicologist Carl Dahlhaus no longer speaks of music (singular), but of 'musics'.)
Moreover, it only becomes more difficult to distinguish between music and non-music when the context reaches beyond the western world. 'More and more frequently, ethnomusicological literature stresses that other cultures do not in general have a term for music as a global phenomenon', musicologist Jean-Jacques Nattiez concludes (Nattiez, p.54). This epistemological category lies outside the cultural landscapes of such cultures and is not relevant to them: 'We [the Western world, MC] recognize the worldwide existence of music, but all of those things that we acknowledge as musical facts are not necessarily thus categorized by everybody' (Nattiez, p.61). Nattiez, Shepherd and Wicke seem to agree: there is no unambiguous and intercultural universal concept that defines music.

[4] Another problem needs to be addressed. Judging by John Cage's composition, 4'33' (Play music), (among others) Levinson concludes: 'It should be apparent that there are no longer any intrinsic properties of sound that are required for something possibly to be music' (Levinson, p.271). According to Levinson, there are conditions essential to a piece being music that are not even directly audible. These observations, which are based on developments in musical language, can lead to a new definition of music inspired by the findings of the American philosopher, Arthur Danto. In his essay from 1964, 'The Artistic Enfranchisement of Real Objects: the Artworld', Danto acknowledges that the works of Marcel Duchamp and various Pop Art artists have made it impossible to separate art from non-art on the basis of formal qualities. Danto asks what will ultimately determine the difference between a Brillo box and a work of art consisting of a Brillo box? Danto's question amounts to the following: when one of two identical objects is considered art while the other is not, a certain context is assumed within which these two formally indistinguishable objects still enjoy their respective status. Danto calls this context the artworld: 'To see something as art requires something the eye cannot decry - an atmosphere of artistic theory, a knowledge of the history of art: an artworld' (Danto in Dickie & Sclafani, p.29). In 1974, George Dickie adds a sociological and pragmatic definition of a work of art to this notion of artworld: a work of art is a series of aspects (not every aspect of a work of art makes it a work of art) to which one or more individuals who act on behalf of the social institution artworld (e.g., the artist himself, presidents of art institutions, critics, aestheticians, etc.) grant the status of 'art' (cf. Dickie, p.35). Objects become works of art because (influential) people in the artworld have declared them to be works of art.
What is said here about art in general can be easily translated to music. Sounds become music when certain people from the music world (often, the composer at first) deem it music. This is not a inalterable fact: views on music can be questioned and reviewed at all times until a new, temporary consensus is reached. Music becomes a social convention, a 'total social fact' (Marcel Mauss), subject to change over time and by culture. In order to define music one should include not only sound, but the context in which sound is produced as well. Such notions as 'the institutional setting' (Shepherd and Wicke), 'the code' and 'the network' (Attali), 'social conventions' (Durant) and 'social contexts' (Nattiez), and 'kategorialer Formung' (Dahlhaus), to mention only a few equivalents, seem to at least temporarily ensure a certain delineation between music and non-music where formal qualities can no longer hold.

[5] I do not want to elaborate upon problems concerning all that, for convenience's sake, may be summed up as institutional or contextual theories. In Context, I point out certain problems dealing with the notion of context. The problem of demarcation (the problem of inside vs.outside) will recur in the institutional theories, for example, in determining who can be rated in the artworld and which series of aspects belong to the work of art.
I would like to briefly touch upon another problem. In The Truth In Painting, Derrida alerts the reader to a hermeneutic circle with the appearance of a vicious circle when speaking of art. The notion of an artworld already presupposes an idea of what constitutes art and of the essence of art and its original meaning. The concept of art is already predetermined or preconceived in the notion of an artworld. 'One makes of art in general an object in which one claims to distinguish an inner meaning, the invariant' (The Truth In Painting, p.22). 'What is art?', Derrida asks. 'As long as one refuses to give an answer in advance to this question, 'art' is only a word. And if one wants to interrogate art, one is indeed obliged to give oneself the guiding thread of a representation. And this thread is the work, that fact that there are works of art' (The Truth In Painting, p.32). In most aesthetic theories (Derrida refers to Hegel and Heidegger), the chosen point of departure is the fact that there are indeed works of art. Notwithstanding, how are they to be recognized? Here is where the vicious circle becomes evident: 'There are works which common opinion [see Dickie's definition, MC] designates as works of art and they are what one must interrogate in order to decipher in them the essence of art. But by what does one recognize, commonly, that these are works of art if one does not have in advance a sort of pre-comprehension of the essence of art?' (The Truth In Painting, p.32). Problems occur. Circular arguments. Unfounded presuppositions. However, with a certain approval Derrida quotes Heidegger who states that it is not about escaping this vicious circle, but on the contrary about 'engaging in it and going all around it' (cf. The Truth In Painting, p.32).

[6] What is music? Not quite knowing where to start in the hermeneutic circle (Is that still important?), I will return to the thinkers who have committed themselves to determining the boundary between music and non-music, the boundaries between music, noise and silence. Despite the attention for the (cultural and temporal) context of music, despite artworld theories that result from this attention, defining music remains 'infected' from the inside by an intra-musical premise, a formalistic quality. All thinkers seem to concur that music, at any rate, has something to do with sound. (According to American composer Robert Ashley the 'most radical redefinition of music' would be one that defines music 'without reference to sound'.) Levinson: 'Perhaps the only thing that all theorists agree on is that music is necessarily sound' (Levinson, p.274). Nattiez: 'Sound is an irreducible given of music. Even in the marginal cases in which it is absent, it is nonetheless present by allusion ... The musical work manifests itself, in its material reality, in the form of sound waves' (Nattiez, p.67 and p.69). Although music is not limited to the acoustic dimension (There are other factors that determine whether or not something is music), we always speak of music in relation to sonority, according to Nattiez, even when it merely concerns a reference: sound is a minimal condition of music. To Shepherd and Wicke, it is the melodic, harmonic, rhythmic and timbrel configurations that lead us to recognize music as 'music' (cf. Shepherd and Wicke, p.10). They continue: 'We identified sound in music as the material medium that would ultimately guarantee music an integrity and relative autonomy as a specific signifying system' (Shepherd and Wicke, p.56). Ultimately, they define music as 'sounds 'in conversation' with sounds' (Shepherd and Wicke, p.200). Dahlhaus considers the musical work as 'tönender Sinnzusammenhang' [sounding coherence of meaning] (Dahlhaus, p.195, my italics). To musicologist Hans Heinrich Eggebrecht, specific to music is 'dasjenige, was sie im Reich des Tönens und Hörens ganz allein für sich selber hat' [that which it disposes of entirely by itself in the realm of sounding and hearing] (Dahlhaus, p.189). To Eggebrecht, audibility is an obvious aspect of music in which a distinction can be made between noise, sound, and tone. We are back to the definition of music as quoted by Jacques Attali in The Gift of Silence [donner les bruits], the introduction to this section: 'Music is inscribed between noise and silence' (Attali, p.19).

[7] Beginning with the idea that the definitions of music, noise and silence have (at least also) to do with (the absence of) sound, I will dedicate a number of pages to the investigation of the relationship between music and noise (Noise as Undifferentiated Sound and Noise as Undesirable Sound), and of the relationship between music and silence (Silence and/in Music). A separate page addresses a deconstruction of the oppositional pair, music-noise, as it (unconsciously) takes place in Jacques Attali's book, Noise (Music and/as (Dis)Order). One composer who has devoted nearly his entire musical life to the borders among music, silence and noise is John Cage. A number of pages are dedicated to his works and his views (Cage and Noise, and Cage and Silence). In the end, I intend to show how his compositions, 4'33'' and Waiting, deconstruct the opposition of silence and noise (Music, Noise, Silence, and Sound). On a separate page, thought is given to the ethics of a deconstruction of the borders between music, silence, and noise (Silence, Noise and Ethics). Finally, the pages on Cage may lead one to a page that connects silence to death (Silence and Death), and to a page on which Cage's use of silence is connected to French poet Stephane Mallarmé's interest in the color white (Cage, White, Mallarmé, Silence).