Musical Ramblings

What is Music? (or…What’s Wrong With Me?)

I’d like to skim across the horary old topic of ‘What is Music?’ this month but I want to approach it in a slightly different way because I want your input. The question is this, “Where do you draw the line?”

I’m not referring to music you dislike or music you just can’t bear to hear. I’m talking about something more basic than that. For you, when does music not become music and, secondly, has that line changed as you’ve gotten older?

I pride myself on my eclectic musical tastes. My musical loves are wide ranging from Frank Sinatra to Frank Zappa. From Bossa nova to punk. From prog to funk to vocal jazz and avant-garde electronica and more. 

What is Music? (or What's Wrong With Me?)

‘When I were a lad™’ I set out to educate myself about music. All music. Even music that I might not have immediately considered to be music. 

I wanted to expose myself to all musical genres and types from all parts of the world. At that time, I was listening to core genres of course but, with the latest copy of The Wire magazine in hand, ventured into pastures new. 

And my goodness, there was – and still is – many creations that are certainly ‘out there’.

What is Music? (or What's Wrong With Me?)

So I dutifully approached this stuff and tried to absorb much, if not all, of it. That included Yoko Ono-style vocal wailing and gnashing of teeth. It included outer atmosphere free jazz, found-sound recordings of someone walking in the woods complete with snapping twigs and bird song, broken guitar solos, avant yodelling, high-pitched noise and distortion, someone banging on a RSJ, you know what I mean.

After years of trying. Really trying (I really did) to like all of the above and more, I fell back in my chair. Exhausted. I gave up.

Why weren’t these works connecting with me? Was I approaching them in the wrong way? Other people out there said they loved them. So why didn’t I love them, then? 

Why don’t I have copies of Stockhausen in my collection? Keiji Haino and other noise music? Sun Ra? A certain album by Lou Reed, anyone in the musique concrète school or in the free improv movements? What’s wrong with me?

What is Music? (or What's Wrong With Me?)

That’s what was my mind set when I was in my late teens and 20s. When I hit 30, my exploratory urges began to waver. 

By the time I hit 40, then 50, I had given up on ‘out there’ music. Stopped buying The Wire and realised that time was far more important. If I wanted to fully explore the music I loved, I’d better get a move on before I popped my clogs. 

So, in many ways, age has dramatically focused my musical likes and dislikes. I like this, I don’t like that so, for goodness sake, stop trying and just listen to the stuff you do like. 

What is Music? (or What's Wrong With Me?)

Thing is, though, you might peruse my current record collection and denounce parts of it as not being music. There are elements of Frank Zappa that, even for me, dally on the edge of the unlistenable. There are numerous groups in my electronica collection that you might declare as, “Nothing but blips and blobs.” Autechre is one group, To Rococo Rot is another. Some of the krautrock stuff I listen to can also verge towards the, “Eh?”

So my line in the sand might be very different to yours. What then is yours?

Some of the experimental and avant work explorations I talked about above was indeed music. Music I didn’t like but music, nevertheless. Much of it was not music, though. At least according to my personal definition.

What is Music? (or What's Wrong With Me?)

And what do I consider non-music? Well, I see one of the human brain’s most remarkable talents as its ability to recognise patterns. Once we can discern a pattern, that grabs our attention. Trashy pop, for example, is packed with patterns. That’s why it sells.

To me, on a broadly reductionist level, music is the brain ‘pattern matching’. There are good and bad patterns out there, sure but when patterns are lost, so is the music. Hence, John Cage’s ‘4:33”’ of silence or rather, the sounds that fill that silence, especially when the track is played live, as it where. Well, that’s not music. To me, it’s a sonic experiment that addresses the areas of awareness and perception. The audience are Lab rats, in effect.

What is Music? (or What's Wrong With Me?)

When the band, My Bloody Valentine used to play live and fill a concert space with 20 minutes of distortion (I have been told that there are images to these concerts that show the entire audience with their hands over their ears…and they paid to get in), then that’s not music. It’s an emotional statement by the band, possibly expressing anger, frustration, a reaction against the failure to buy a ready supply of Pop Tarts before the concert. Who knows? I like the band’s more melodic fare, incidentally.

So tell me. To you, what’s music, what’s not music? Is age a factor and do you have records in your collection that, in your opinion, flirt with non music? 

Photo Credits:
MART PRODUCTION, cottonbro, Yan Krukov, Alina Vilchenko, Kaique Rocha and Sebastiaan Stam from Pexels

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  • Reply
    20th May 2022 at 2:13 pm

    Great article Paul. I could relate with you on many levels as I exposed myself to as many different genres of music by fortunately working in a small independent music shop in Johannesburg when I was fresh out of school. I almost had no choice as I had to choose the music to be played in the shop which was always fun.
    Like you, my taste has changed the older I’ve grown, but I still enjoy exploring new genres and bands – I hope this willingness to hear something different / new never fades away to be honest.
    So, what so I consider “not music”? I have some strange Current 93 vinyl 12″ (The Moons At Your Door) which is so scary! No music as such, just sounds of the night, with a very bizarre cover. I played it for my 12-year-old son the other day and he looked at me as if I was crazy. He just couldn’t understand why I would buy it in the first place So, I would consider that particular album as “not music”.

    • Reply
      Paul Rigby
      20th May 2022 at 4:19 pm

      Thanks for this Brett and how interesting! Being in a music shop would certainly introduce you to many and varied sounds. And yes, I’ve experienced Current 93 so I know what you mean 🙂 Thank you for addressing the question, much appreciated.

  • Reply
    20th May 2022 at 3:05 pm

    I paid to get in to see My Bloody Valentine. Still have the tinnitus. More like My, How Bloody Awful!

    When you had to buy music to hear it at home, and only heard it on the radio as a guide, I bought a lot of poor records, because the only decent song was that one on the radio!! I used to think age was a factor until I understood that Auto tuning began in 1997 and algorithms have taken over from “unguided” discovery. TBF John Peel did do a lot of guiding. 🙂

    • Reply
      Paul Rigby
      20th May 2022 at 4:17 pm

      Hehe – Ahhh, you were one of them, eh? 🙂 And yes, John Peel actually gave me a music education. And I’ll always be grateful to him and his memory for that.

  • Reply
    20th May 2022 at 3:06 pm

    Hi Paul,
    I agree with most of what you say. As a now 60 year old man, my musical tastes were formed mostly in younger years, growing up outside Boston, MA. What I have noticed as I age, though, is a better appreciation of certain music styles. I was a die-hard rock & roll lover as a kid/teenager and into my 30s. I would have never considered artists like the Rat-Pack, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. anything that would remotely interest me, but as time has gone by, I have a much better appreciation of what they were producing. Experimental “noise”, sounds, like George Harrison’s “Electronic Sounds” or the early John Lennon/Yoko Ono Lps were, in my opinion, experiments in sound, unlistenable for me, and for the most part remain so. My Dad was fond of 1950s/60s country music, which I heard as a child, and I still enjoy it today- albeit in smaller doses. I still love and collect what I grew up listening to, Pop/Rock from the 50s-early 80s, with about 1968-1978 my “sweet spot”. That ranged from Beatles to Zappa, AC/DC, ABBA, Marshall Crenshaw & Top 40. I have also grown to enjoy & appreciate Jazz. With so much music out there that appeals to me, I don’t spend a lot of time on trying to “get” other forms that don’t, and frankly have never appealed to me. Music is very personal to each of us, evoking all sorts of memories. I’ll never forget the night I had just purchased the brand-new “Lady Madonna” single, and was in the car coming home when news broke that Martin Luther King had been assassinated. Newer (to me) music like rap, hip-hop, modern American country music, thrash-metal, etc. are not things I enjoy. I don’t begrudge what anyone else enjoys or what these Artists-many of whom are quite talented-create. Music is a lot like food, we don’t all like the same thing. It just isn’t for me.

    • Reply
      Paul Rigby
      20th May 2022 at 4:21 pm

      Thanks for this Jeff – so can I say that you would target the Harrison/Electronic Sounds and Ono/Lennon LPs as ‘non-music’? Music which loses rhythm and focuses on seemingly random noises and sounds, perhaps?

      • Reply
        21st May 2022 at 3:53 pm

        Hi Paul,
        Great article. I would tend to think your assessment is correct. I do consider other forms of music that I mentioned in my comments and don’t listen to as music, but the experiments in sound I do not.

        • Reply
          Paul Rigby
          22nd May 2022 at 1:46 pm

          Thanks for your thoughts, Jeff.

  • Reply
    20th May 2022 at 5:15 pm

    Fantastic article Paul and one that needed to be written. The eternal 6,000,000 dollar question : What’s music, what’s not music? Unfortunately you’re asking the wrong person! Reading your article again shows up a remarkable similarity to my own journey’s in sound. With one important difference. I embrace the sound of music just like everyone else. But, I also humbly genuflect at the alter of the music of sound. An important difference. What amazes me is the fact that this “non-music” actually gets made and released to the poor unsuspecting public in the first place! My main criteria for listening to this stuff is this: it has to be decently produced and I definitely don’t mean that in a dreaded audiophile way! No, just properly recorded using half decent recording gear. No point in trying to capture the ‘inner’ growling or whatever sound of a guitar, be it acoustic or electric, if it’s captured with the wrong ears. I don’t care whether the recording gear is crap or not it can still be done. The trouble is you expect people to get it including the ‘cool’ dudes but they bloody well don’t. I hate them for that because I just cannot understand what their problem is! Many’s a time my own wife would chide me for playing that “awful” stuff as she nonchalantly strides past the open door of my ‘non-music’ (sic) listening room. I keep it firmly shut now! Nobody, but nobody, is allowed to share my listening sessions simply because I’m not there to entertain. Full stop!

    Your mention of Wire made me chuckle as it reminds me of a ‘horrifying’ experience my poor wife had to endure. They never, ever stopped talking about this guy. Ever! So one time he actually came to Dublin and I innocently surprised her with tickets for the concert during our occasional stays in the city. “Who’s he” she asked rather tremulously. Of course I countered with a lame shrug saying don’t worry he’s good. Long story short : when the concert started everything was as I expected and we snuggled down for a night of lovely ambient guitar scapes. Fine and dandy and a massive sigh of relief as I wasn’t terribly familiar with his music. I trusted in the God Wire. Then suddenly he pulled a chair over and started literally mangling his black electric guitar. Explosions of sound hit every wall (and ear!) in the tiny hall. I tentatively took a sideways glance at my wife and breathed a sigh of relief. She wasn’t exactly enjoying it but she was kind of used to the same stuff I played in my own room back home. Great! Then in a matter of seconds all changed for the very worst experience anybody could experience. He started to ‘sing’. Impossible to describe but truly terrifying in a banshee type of way. This time there was no need to take a tentative glance sideways simply because I could almost smell the foam coming from her mouth. Oh dear! “What in the name of the most high is this?????????” she growled. And growled. And growled. And growled some more. She was absolutely horrified and, to make it worse, there was no escape. Thankfully even that passed and the second half was just a kind of an Irish traditional guitar ambience with a saxophone player. A surprising detour. When everything ended I bounded up to stage and managed to nab one of his customised guitar picks which I still have. But never, ever again lol! Keiji Heino was the guy who was on the stage that night in Dublin. The day the music (almost) died! Me too lol!

    Finally, I can’t explain why I ‘get’ it but I have learned one very important lesson. I keep my ‘weird’ taste to my self. It’s my Sanctum Sanctorum and I refuse to apologise for it.
    So to answer your initial question of which records in my collection flirt with non-music. Obviously to my ears none of them do but I’m sure there’s a few there that would empty cows from their field in seconds. Here’s a few :

    1. Anything by Derek Bailey.
    2. Kevin Drumm’s very Ist album.
    3. Aphex Twin especially the ‘wheezing’/ digideroo stuff.
    4. Mostly anything by Sunn.
    5. Bardo Pond.
    6. Current 93/Andrew Liles.
    7. Anything by Ákos Rózmann (chuckle)….
    8. Boris.
    9. KK Null.
    10. Les Rallizes Denudes.
    11. Hijokaidan (terrifying!)…..
    12. Des O’Connor. No disrespect 🙂

    ….and no, most definitely, age is NOT a factor 😉

    • Reply
      Paul Rigby
      20th May 2022 at 6:36 pm

      Excellent stuff, Dermott – thank you for taking the time and trouble to provide insight into your (and your poor wife’s 🙂 ) experiences. Interesting list. I’m sure Eric Morecambe would agree with No.12 🙂

  • Reply
    20th May 2022 at 7:50 pm

    Ha ha! Glad you, at least, got to the bottom of it! And to think I completely forgot to mention Scott Walker’s stuff from Tilt onwards. Oh the shame 😱

    I’ve just now heard of that big musical giant, in more ways than one, passed on the 17th of May. I am, of course, talking about Vangelis. What a contribution he made to music……

    • Reply
      Paul Rigby
      22nd May 2022 at 1:46 pm

      🙂 And yes, so sad about Vangelis. I have quite a few of his albums in the collection here.

  • Reply
    25th May 2022 at 8:56 am

    Hi:I find what i like to listen to is based on my state of mind and not so much changre. I have a diverse taste and listen to Norwegian Black metal ,pop Princess Sigrid ,Swans,later David Sylvian/Scott Walker,new romatics,brit pop,Folk and techno…
    Everything goes as long as i am in the right mood.Actually one album i struggle with getting trough is Simple Minds Sparkle in the Rain,all bombast, owerblown drums and lyrics.

  • Reply
    T Rea
    14th June 2022 at 3:41 pm

    I’m enjoying these recent articles and the varied responses.
    From my point of view, I have consciously expanded my music collection and genres since my early teens. I’ve just turned 60 and for the past 45 years I’ve made an effort to ensure I purchase at least 36 new lps or cds each year.
    Years ago John Peel, Annie Nightingale and The Old Grey Whistle Test inspired the majority of purchases. Later, hi-fi magazines and HMVs free world music magazine (much missed) provided inspiration for more obscure choices. Nowadays it’s Internet radio, such as Folk Alley and Radio Free Americana that keeps me abreast of new music.
    Have all purchases been to my taste; no, not at all, but at least I feel I’ve helped a few lesser known artists on their way in the industry. On the plus side, I had established a great jazz collection in my late teens which coexist alongside my glam rock, classic rock, new country, prog rock, electronica, World music and everything else in my 3500 and growing collection. I’ve never sold on a record I’ve bought and still have the 1st single I ever bought -T Rex Metal Guru.

    • Reply
      Paul Rigby
      14th June 2022 at 4:04 pm

      Thanks Mr T. That’s very kind of you to say and it appears we have a similar well of source inspirations. Being a regular listener/viewer of John Peel and Ms Nightingale plus the Whistle Test and Internet Radio. The HMV mag did pass my buy, I must admit. Glad you have an open mind and yes, I have my fair share of Bolan too 🙂

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