What Is Music?

by Chris Workman

What is music? That question is what I sat down to figure out. It wasn’t easy to explore the medium to render its core. I appreciate the profound definition given by John Cage, as demonstrated in his experimental piece entitled 4’33” when he simply sat down to his grand piano in a crowded concert hall and listened to the silence. He didn’t play a note for an entire 4 minutes and 33 seconds, hence the title. His idea was that all sound, including the ambient noise in a concert hall, should be considered music. Although I find his definition of music valid, I couldn’t help but feel there was more to it. As I experimented with several different ideas I came to the realization that Cage was right, all sound could be music! Yet having the potential to be music does not mean all sound is music. This tangent is what gradually brought me to my conclusion.

All sounds can be music because music is the organization and orchestration of sounds to bring about human emotion. I find it interesting that sound waves emitted from any number of devices and instruments can cause us to cry, laugh, become motivated, or to smile. The powerful force behind this medium is the combinations, repetitions, volume fluctuation, and varied tempo that the artist utilizes with different pitched noises. One note can have a completely different feel when put in combination with another. I tried to bring about excitement, solemnity, happiness, adventure, anxiety, fear, and even feelings of awe and wonder. I sang, but in reality it could have been accomplished with an instrument. In fact, inspiration for this piece came from the THX theme song, Deep Note, which was originally created entirely from computer programming. I think it is interesting that those 200 lines of programming are now associated with the excitement of the theater and movie watching.

The emotions carried in music may originate from similar sounds in our memories. Why else would certain instrumental jazz songs remind you of an elevator? Some of the melodies contained in my piece will be recognizable tunes while others are original compositions. These combinations were done to show that although many sounds over time have created a history and thus carry a certain emotions, it is equally plausible for one to hear something for the first time and be similarly influenced by the emotions it evokes. I feel that music has much less to do with what makes the noise and much more to do with the design that is put into combining a variety of sounds for an intended purpose.