Saturday, February 26, 2011

Definitions of Basic Music Composition Terms

As a genre-hopping composer of contemporary style serious music, advanced or academic music, what is uncomfortably referred to as modern classical music, computer music, and electronic music, I find myself in the uneasy position of having to explain what contemporary, serious, music, noise, sound, and other terms are and how to use them in speech and writing.

Sound is a mental event that coincides with a disturbance of the air and is perceived by our aural receptors when it's in a certain range of values. In other words, sound is something that is heard and the occasion of labeling something "a sound" comes to us from that portion of the sky that is at the height of our heads, or, in the complex and little understood phenomenon of mentally replaying a song, seemingly from the head itself, that is, in the memory.

Simply put, however, sound is a thought that originates in the idea that forms in the mind in the form of words and sensations as movement occurs in the eardrum. If you don't notice a sound, because you're asleep or dead or concentrating on something else, then, for you, there is no sound, and only retrospectively will you be aware of it, if ever.

If you're reading a book at home, with no TV or radio, and suddenly a neighbor revs up a chainsaw to cut some fireplace wood, and you hear it, and you think to yourself, "That's annoying. Now I can't focus on the narrative of this novel", that's sound. You can think of all forms of sound, from Beethoven to bullfrogs  croaking, as That Which Interrupts Silence. But silence is more than the absence or a severe muffling of sounds, it's the slowing down and pacification of thought.

Now we know what sound is, so what is music?

Music, according to musicians, is a category of sound events that is intended to entertain, inspire, enhance surroundings, commemorate an event, or motivate others on some level. Music, according to record companies, is a category of sound events that earns money. Music, according to the average person, is a category of sound events that complies with what that person considers to be musical (for example, a person might say that the Beatles made music, but Xenakis did not, because they don't like Xenakis).

All these theories are wrong.

Music is whatever a composer or musician says it is.

If a composer produces a song, but can't get it right, and erases it and starts all over again, that composition was not music, it was a rejected trial project. Only the work that the composer is proud of, and designates as perfect enough for his or her legacy, and possibly public consumption, therefore, is music.

Many even in the art world get this wrong.

They can be heard muttering that music is whatever other people call music, in other words, if other people don't consider your work music, then it isn't, it needs to be verified and substantiated by critical consensus. If other composers and music reviewers refer to you as a composer, you are one, and if they don't, you're not. Ah, but this is the herd mentality definition of music, which we leave to one side now as we continue the discussion.

Even if you don't like it, or it doesn't sound like any music you've ever heard, or it sounds too simple, or too complex, or too harsh, or too disjointed, regardless, if the one creating the sounds calls it music, then it's music. There can be no other way to define the term music and remain logically consistent and conform to common sense.

Music, as a term used in a limited, colloquial sense by the masses, originally indicated a field of sounds that are regarded, by somebody, as pleasant or necessary. Aesthetic differentiations ensued, conventions arose, schools of compositional technique quarreled, and music as a descriptive label began splitting off into porously delineated zones: traditional, kitsch, classical, orthodox, popular, military, film soundtrack, game arcade, religious, avant garde, experimental, rock, country, folk, jazz, tribal, industrial, and anti-music, to name but a few.

A bird chirping might be categorized as pleasant. A soldier's bugle blast, war drumming, funeral dirge, wedding march, or courtly fanfare might be considered necessary, with the possibility of also being pleasant, but the main idea is the communication of a wake up call, warning, triumph, entrance of a dignitary, or other critical business.

To this list we moderns could include the micro melodies made by a computer when logging off and logging on, a car when the headlights lights are left on and the door is being shut, a microwave when it's finished cooking, traffic lights switching colors, and other utilitarian tones.

What happens when music fails in whatever mission it has been assigned? It can be called bad music, but most might say it was not music at all, not pleasant enough to rise to the level of music, or not effective in achieving its pragmatic intent.

Noise is sound that for various reasons someone decides is even worse than bad music. Though it may have a rhythm, noise rarely has a discernable melody, and is the non-melodious, that which irritates, startles, rubs one the wrong way, is avoided by most musicians, or used only as a gimmick, and is usually too loud or too alien to ones milieu. In other words, the vast majority of sound in the universe.

Sound was not divided into Noise and Music until humans came along. Prior to that, all sounds, from wolves howling to bullfrogs croaking and cicadas buzzing, was on an equal footing. The rock stars were the creatures who had the best songs and thus intimidated the competitors, threatened intruders, and attracted higher quality mates. This principle, in an unnatural and warped form, continues in human music, but it's often the worst musicians who, by manipulating the market in an extra-musical manner, get all the attention, money, and fans.

Contemporary music means the sonic material being produced today. This type of music, being current and relevant, is of much greater importance, in every way, than music of the past or future, and deserves far more appreciation, analysis, and radio play.

Serious music is material created for artistic appreciation and intellectual evaluation, in contrast to pop music which is designed to elicit emotional responses, is transferable to usage in product advertising jingles, and is often opposed to sober and principled analysis.

After listening to serious music, one asks "So what do you think?" rather than "So how do you feel?" It is manufactured with the intent to provoke the organ of reason and critique, not the glands of visceral reflex. It tends to make you perceive and ponder, not dance or sing along.

In some cases, what is transferable from serious music is the mental processing that engendered the composition, the mathematical rules or stochastic attributes, and by listening to complex, abstract, non-euphoric, non-orgiastic, cerebral music, one may gain an incremental increase in intelligence and creativity.

Finally, there is unknown music, sonic happenings that are too distant, too small, too large, or too far off the audible spectrum for humans to hear and discuss in online forums. The sound of amoebas splitting and galaxies colliding fall into this category that currently at any rate remains off limits.

No comments: