Pete's Blog

What is Music?

When you go to that part of the world that has actual stores in it, with actual goods on actual shelves for purchase with (sometimes) actual cash, the word "music" on a sign means either musical instruments or recordings of people playing musical instruments. Let's leave aside the potentially explosive question of whether hip-hop is music or a new form of spoken-word performance. Before the advent of recording, "music" usually meant sheets of paper with music notation on them. You bought sheet music, took it home, practiced it on whatever musical instrument you had in the house, and that was where music came from. Shopping in today's virtual retail universe, when you see the word "music" it means recordings. You can buy instruments online, but the button you push reads "instruments." So what is "music"? Is it sheets of paper that tell you through an elaborate code what to do to bring notes to life? ("I was late for rehearsal because I forgot my music.") Is it a recording? ("With this portable player I can listen to my music anywhere I want.") Or is it the mysterious vibrations themselves, filling the air with physical pulses that our ears decode for us as an (often) pleasant adjunct to our interior lives? The thing to remember about the second of those three is that it requires electricity, to run another decoding mechanism between the hardware and our ears. Electricity has become something we take for granted, despite the fact that little more than a century ago most of our society still lived without it. And we may yet live without it again, when we use up the fuels that run the machines that produce it. Regular readers of this space have heard me talk about the "Martian anthropologists" before. We have no idea what impression of our culture people in the future will form because we don't know which artifacts will survive and which will be lost. But we can be reasonably sure that, if (when) we run out of electricity, ALL the information we have so carefully stored in electronic media will be lost. The Martian anthropologists would probably be able to decipher written music, using some sort of Rosetta Stone, and they would probably be able to work whatever instruments survived through trial and error. But what are all these little discs for? Electricity did not play a part in the creation of (it says here) the most valuable American music of the 20th Century. Art-music composers like Copland, Ives, Ellington, and Gershwin used written music as their medium. And even if these composers had electric lights to read their work by, much of the greatest American music of the 20th Centrury was created in the light of kerosene lamps and transmitted via an oral tradition that lives to this day and may very well last after all the trees have been cut down and all the oil has been burned. But will this music be heard by the Martian anthropologists? The Romans, like all ancient civillizations, had plenty of music. But we have no idea what it sounded like. Pictures of their instruments survive, which we can use to build replicas. But what do we play on them? Nobody knows.

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