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

20th May 2022

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