What is Music?
WHAT IS MUSIC? Music is pure magic. It is a wonderful gift to humanity. Music moves us, and soothes us. It stimulates. It makes us want to dance or sing. It makes us feel happy or sad, inspired or uplifted. It affects our mood in all kinds of infinite ways. It can be exquisitely subtle or wildly raucous: from a lullaby, to a war cry for revolution.
WHEN SATISH KUMAR asked me to guest-edit the special Music For Transformation feature in this issue of Resurgence, I was delighted, as it gave me the opportunity to reflect once again on that most profound question, What actually is music?
Music is different things to different people: to Ian Skelly, author of the article ‘Beauty Speaks’, above all things music has a transcendental significance that is captured in the beautiful patterns of Nature and architecture – a kind of ‘frozen music’; to Mark Kidel, author of ‘Conversations and Crossroads’, music can bridge cultures in a universal ‘conversation’ that is beyond intellect or reason, but which is heartfelt; to Brian Eno, music brings the joy of unexpected and beautiful sound; and to singer/songwriters like myself and Howard Milner, music – and singing in particular – takes us to a world apart: a world beyond self and ego; a place of emotion that touches the soul.
I present to you an insightful glimpse into the world of music: yet it seems to me that the question ‘What is music?’ has no ultimately fixed answer, because although music can be defined in mechanistic terms as merely vibrations that are detected by the organ of Corti and assimilated by the brain’s cortex into what we hear, that is still only half the story.
It is no accident that the Latin word for breath – that prerequisite of music – is spiritus, for music invokes the spiritual in us. It is of the spirit and so is universal, other-worldly, nebulous and freely evolving. What a wonderful gift to humanity.
EVER SINCE I can remember, music has been an accompaniment to my life. It would be impossible for me to even try and conceptualise a world without music. If you have a natural aptitude and appreciation for it, then music simply draws you to it and connects. Watch a baby nodding her head, clapping her hands, or bouncing in response to a rhythm or melody.
Songs in particular contain something profoundly elemental. The singer actually ‘becomes’ the instrument, or vehicle of communication and expression. Through the combination of voice, lyrical content and poetic structure, melody, rhythm, the nuance of combined tonal qualities and phrasing within the breath, singers can transmit and translate thoughts and feelings, potentially elevating and transporting both the singer and the listener to another realm. Music really can lead us into another dimension.
Music also tells stories, breaks hearts, reduces us to tears, or seduces us into falling in love, over and over and over again. Music is a universal language. A human creation from a divine source… perhaps.
Music is a mystery, a code. A vehicle of spirit and soul. It is perceived through ‘hearing’ the vibration of sound, the most sublime resonance – from the eardrum to the brain. Music moves us beyond intellect to the heart-centre.
I’m not a music ‘expert’. I’m a music lover... A discoverer, an explorer. Music for me is pure ‘potentiality’. I can engage with it. I can commune with it. Sometimes, if I’m open to it, it takes me by surprise, and I step out of myself. Music is a friend, a companion, a guide and a teacher. A challenge, a landscape, a palette, a texture, a shape. Music is chord structure, harmony or dissonance.
Music is culture from every origin; it is identity and belonging. It is history and invention. Music is remembering and forgetting. Music is symmetry, rebellion, genius, prodigy, mastery, virtuoso, dazzling, breath-taking, spell-binding, and extraordinary.
PAUSE FOR A moment to ‘think’ of these sounds: harp, clarinet, kettledrum, xylophone, violin, guitar, trumpet, saxophone, sitar, oboe, flute... They are all uniquely different yet we can ‘hear’ them in our heads, just by thinking of them. Then think of the individual styles of various composers – Bach or Debussy, for example. We can tell the difference between Vivaldi, Couperin and Telemann – and they too have unique ‘sounds’. But what drew them to compose? How could Mozart play with such brilliance at the age of four? What made Miles Davis tick? These are the deeper questions that remain unanswered.
There are other questions that need to be asked: what does the wind sound like, or a dripping tap? Can this be a form of music too? A car door slamming, a baby crying, footsteps, whispers, a log fire crackling, animal sounds, city sounds, bar-room conversations, the roar of a football crowd, a familiar voice, the ocean, early-morning birdsong... Are these sounds musical to your ears?
How does music make you feel? Does it make you nostalgic? Where does it take you in your internal landscape? How can a snatch of music evoke a certain period in your life?
What does silence sound like? Have you ever experienced silence? Do you like it? Are your thoughts too loud? Where is your mind located? Is music located ‘inside’ your mind or ‘outside’ of you?
These are not just random questions; they are the kinds of question rarely posed when young people start to learn how to approach an instrument. Yet, I think they need to be asked, because music is so much more than just going through the motions of producing a sound. People may be able to play well mechanically – because they have learned to copy well – but in doing so they do not truly connect with the essence of music and express themselves.
WE HAVE BECOME so accustomed to recorded sound that it has become rather facile and formulaic. When you can literally access any piece of recorded music at the touch of a fingertip, something valuable gets lost or devalued in the process. Music has become ubiquitous. It’s in shops, restaurants, bars, airports, waiting rooms – in fact, anywhere that people gather. Sadly, in a way, music has become just another kind of social ‘filler’, like small talk or gossip. I get frustrated when I sit down to eat with a friend and we actually can’t have a conversation because ‘background’ music dominates the situation.
People ask me what kind of music I listen to, and quite frankly, it’s come down to the sustained resonance of Tibetan bowls. Why? Because it’s so... so pure and still and utterly beautiful. It is the essence of music full circle, back to the source, the universal vibration.
I guess what I’m saying is that as a music maker and music lover I have become more discerning. I don’t want to listen to music 24/7 just because it’s available to me and I can.
Sometimes I dip into the thing we call “music” and it still takes me profoundly by surprise… as if I were hearing it for the very first time.
Annie Lennox is a world-renowned singer and social activist.