What the Heck is Music?




By Jerome Jarvis

“Melody is the Mother, Rhythm is the Father”

(ancient Sanskrit mahavaakya)


Where does Music come from? Indeed, what is it? How can a series of compression waves moving through the atmosphere and into an auditory canal designed to receive, encode and decode these impressions, truly be said to “be” anything?
There is a common misconception that an aptitude for music is a transmissible skill. A set of learnable rules which, if adhered to, can have one making a great noise and posturing on a stage somewhere in no time at all.

But learning the art and essence of music is not like a teaching a novice bricklayer how to build a wall. It is more a matter of learning to be ready to recognize a perfect sequence of sound when it occurs, and capture that essence in a way that can be repeated.

The best and broadest definition I’ve ever heard is this: “Music is Organized Sound”. Even if the ordering seems completely random or unobvious, the listener will infer patterns in the Structure of Time itself by paying attention to, the naturally occurring symphony constantly filling our acoustic environment.

 Music is already everywhere in the world around us, waiting to be recognized. Birdsong, wind whispering in the trees, Thunder! Everything around us is laying down its part in making up the soundscape of the world, and YOU are at the very centre of this earthly/celestial orchestra. If you haven’t seen the film “August Rush?” I  highly recommend it for opening one’s mind to the musical world that’s waiting to be discovered.

In contrast to the Natural World of Music, we have come to think of music as being just songs, treated as commodities (as in pieces with composer-credited titles, labelled, with copyright notice affixed). This is a fairly recent cultural/commercial innovation. Prior to the Baroque stylistic era (about 1700’s), we know of a mere handful of composers by name: J.S.Bach, Pallestrina and O’Carolan, the blind Celtic harpist. The rest are all by “anon”

Up until and into the Late Renaissance, music had been primarily a background setting and a gathering call for social events, where people would gather to dance or join in ceremonial rituals. Most of the tunes were ‘traditional’, memorized and handed down to each new generation by time-honoured aural tradition. Titles were often forgotten or replaced, variations added and whole bodies of folk music travelled with their singers to the new worlds, finding and forging local interpretations of the old tales and tunes amidst their new environments.

So how did the evanescent stuff we call Music become a series of discreet ‘Things’ like songs, which can now be commodified, packaged, merchandised and rated? How can any piece of music be ‘owned’, traded and sold by anyone other than the creator? It wasn’t until the invention of the printing press in the 16th CE that words and music could be mass-produced in folios of sheet music which allowed a composer’s works to travel independently of their author.         

Confusion has also arisen over the celebration of the Craft of Music, which celebrates the singer or performer out front in the dancing lights; and diminishes the role of the actual creator, the composer or producer, often hidden backstage or absent entirely. So we are fooled by our eyes, absorbed by the multi-sensory theatrical display, rather than trying to analyze the sources of the sounds we are hearing. By now we must all be aware of the illusory nature of the Big Show Concerts. Invisible singers, musicians or pre-recorded tracks, even recorded lead vocals can be mixed into whatever sounds may actually be performed live.  

Far too many artists, following the new pop traditions, have been focused on image, attitude and making videos without having put in the time required to master their instruments, or even troubled to learn basic music theory, and so the subclass of performance art known as ‘Pop’ is filled with devoted partiers who may never bring themselves to wonder if they’re missing out on something.

This commodification and commercialization of our culture has narrowed our scope of interests and limited our urge to explore the many new and ancient sorts of expression, ironically just as more and more cultures and creations and being made available in which we are invited to share with enthusiast around the world.

There is a language at work here that allows any instrument to sound the same phrase in its own voice and remain recognizable, and allows a talented performer to rearrange the components (words or notes) into distinctive new arrangements, to the delight of all.
So what is happening here?

Practicing/Performing players make their sound sculptures using 4 basic methods, singly and in combination.

1) Physical/Manual – The hours of practice required to master any instrument builds neural connections in the brain and muscle which allow the intricate movements required in performance to be replayed from an unconscious level. The performer’s attention is thus freed to engage with other players and participants while the motor memory runs on auto-pilot.  

2) Mental/Theoretical – The composer may be other than the performer/interpreter. In either case the architecture of the piece is laid out as a blueprint/chart for the builders/players (either on paper or in the imagination/memory) to be reconstructed in real time. Many factors must be woven together to create the balanced and harmonious proportions that define a great work of art in any medium.

Planning ahead allows dramatic contrasts between sections and can coordinate ‘Surprise’ moments to thrill the listener.

3) Poetic – A story told in song, whether lyrical or a programmatic instrumental will follow a narrative thread to a conclusion/resolution. The words suggest the soundscape and mood of the piece, adding imagery and meaning, which engages the verbal, conscious part of the listening mind. Most folk music falls into the category of Sung Poetry.

4) Soul – You know when you hear it! It is authenticity with minimal effort. Pure communication from soul to soul. Love made audible. No amount of talent or production can replace this true inspiration. If the soul is not engaged the whole enterprise is an empty, meaningless charade.

The mechanics of operating any instrument will dictate the types of sounds created. ie: metallophones, strings (plucked, bowed or strung) and the vast variety of wind instruments, each with their specialized place in the sound spectrum; but the source and inspiration comes before what we hear. It is generated in the heart and imagination of the player. The fact that we are able to recognise certain players by their styles and sounds tells us that there’s something at work here beyond putting your fingers in a certain position and doing something with the other hand.  

When the Muse speaks through her devotees, True Music can be heard.

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