Sound Check: What is Music?

Richa Agarwal

Music is an arrangement of sounds that has meaning to the musician, the audience or both. Like the elusive “What is Art?” question, the answer lies in the ear of the beholder. The rhythmic tap of rain against a windowsill may be background noise to some, and a euphoric symphony of wind whistles and raindrops to others. We are exposed to all kinds of sounds at each moment, but generally don’t consider them to be music. Most sounds don’t bear any significant or important relation to us — they fail to make us think or move us in a substantial way. While a beeping alarm clock certainly causes one to jump out of bed, it is a trivial effect that almost any loud noise could cause.

What makes music music is a unique harmony, rhythm or effect that stands out for the individual in a meaningful way. Mastery of music is achieved in the ear of the listener. People who attempt to review and ‘objectify’ music try to measure music against standards that they think will meet the consumers’ tastes in music. This is not due to some objective good, but instead due to sharing certain psychological qualities being likely affected in similar ways by sounds.

Still, there is a thin line between what constitutes music and what is a mere sound. Once you hear “insert overplayed song here” enough times, it becomes a background droning noise instead of music, barely as exotic as the sound of an alarm clock. Our days have become saturated with sounds;

music swarms around us from iPods, laptops, and public sound systems. It almost seems as if music is in competition with itself. For instance, the internet has provided exposure for many independent artists allowing major labels to have more competition. As a result, music has improved. The internet has also oversaturated us, so that we no longer know what to consider real news, real music or even a real person. Neil Postman has written in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death that what George Orwell feared was “those who would deprive us of information. [Aldous] Huxley feared those who would give us so much information that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism… Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.”

While listening to music and sharing it has its benefits; there is a limit. Once a song or album becomes associated with too many things, mashed up with multiple songs and mixed into multiple shows, it begins to shed its original meaning. Some of the new associations may be important and give new meaning, but if not, music runs the risk of becoming mundane. The Washington Post recently featured an article about a pseudo-study they did in a D.C. metro station, in which they placed Joshua Bell, an acclaimed, Grammy Award-winning violinist to perform six classical pieces. Bell was dressed in ordinary clothing, with his violin case holding a couple of dollars in it at his feet. Out of the 1,079 people that passed by during those 45 minutes, The Post reports that only seven people stopped what they were doing to listen. Of those interviewed later, several did not even notice there was a man playing his violin.

I love music, as I am sure many of you do. But taking a break from those white earbuds may actually help us to appreciate it.