A(nother) definition of music


At last summer’s SMPC, I shared a quasi-interactive poster with my most current definition of music. The poster invited viewers to add examples or counter-examples of musical experiences via post-its to where ever it seemed spatially appropriate. Since then, the poster has been in the PhD office at NYU, and a couple more edges cases have been added. Still, the definition stands.

It goes as follows:

Music is a broadcast signal enabling sustained concurrent action.

My claim is that these six terms form a necessary condition for something to be perceived as music or musical. Perception here is relevant as our processing of sensory information adapts to extract useful information for sounds and signals, and the relevance of music and its various qualities are displayed in the structure of these perception strategies. But by using our perceptual processes to define music, the associated experiences might not all fall within with our culture’s delimitations on the concept.

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The attached poster does the work of explaining each of the terms and their relevance, but I’ll add an important challenge to the definitions.

“What about the wildebeests?”

This was asked by a fellow grad student, with a grin, but the question is reasonable. A herd of wildebeests running sounds and feels thunderous, any member of the herd would hear it as coming from it’s herd-mates, and this sound inspires a strong impulse to run too, an obvious instance of sustained concurrent action. So is the sound of a running herd music to a wildebeest ears? I would have to say maybe, conditioned on the two remaining terms: signal and enabling. For the sound to be a signal, it would have to transmit so kind of intentional herd-running, individual members falling into a special running style, with perhaps some extra regularity or heaviness to their gait. The enabling bit is a little more tricky. Music doesn’t determine action, instead, it gives us some well fitting options. For the sound of a running herd to enable a single wildebeest’s actions, said individual wildebeest should be able to resist the suggestion to join in and and have some choice as to how, if the suggestion is accepted. Having no familiarity with the running habits of ungulates of any kind, I can’t be more specific.

A similar human case came to mind recently when I crossed paths with #OrangeVest, a performance art piece by Georgia Lale about the ongoing Syrian Refugee crisis. A block of some twenty adults in orange life vests were marching slowly and silently through the streets of New York, with helpers around to shoo traffic and explain the action. In an instant, I recognized the deliberateness in their movements, their aura of stillness, and I felt the tug to step in line. But instead, I waited for them to pass and looked up the project later. If you feel inspired to lend some (more) support to the cause, consider donating to MOAS, Refugee Support Network, or your preferred means of distributing humanitarian aid.