composing · music

Music and Sound

(Note: this article is a piece I’ve published elsewhere but seems relevant here.)

Years ago, I was watching a “Star Trek: Next Generation” episode in which Picard, the sage captain of the space vessel, walked into the room of some impertinent alien prince. The kid was playing this absolutely chaotic, atonal music full of clangs and groans and Picard sort of sighed, presumably thinking something like, “These teenagers and their crazy music!”

I remember watching that moment and thinking, “Will that ever be me? Will music ever develop into something so unapproachable that I can’t even fathom it?” It was a disturbing rumination. I had always considered myself to be pretty open-minded on the subject of music* but I was aware that I had my biases. I liked generally melodic and largely tonal music. I thought music should be played on musical instruments. And I was disturbingly aware that there was music out there that violated these principles; strange genres of “fringe music” like extreme avant-garde and noise composition which utilized the sounds of breaking glass, industrial machinery and human screams for source material.While I didn’t often listen to these forms of music, I was aware of their presence as shadowy beasts lurking in the aural underground.

*Even in my teens I was listening to a wide gamut of music — everything from Dixieland to Bach to free jazz — while maintaining a steady diet of “popular” forms like heavy metal and synth rock. I don’t make this point merely to brag or to imply that I’m intellectually superior to those around me (I think that goes without saying) but to make clear that I’ve long sampled from a wide musical palette.

Ultimately, those shadowy beasts forced me to confront certain questions: Does music have to have a melody? Rhythm? Must it be played on musical instruments? Or to summarize it all into one big meta-question: what the hell is music, anyway? It’s a conundrum I’ve struggled with for decades and every definition I’ve arrived at seems to have flaws.

Let’s explore the possibilities. The first definition of music over at dictionary.com states:

1. an art of sound in time that expresses ideas and emotions in significant forms through the elements of rhythm, melody, harmony, and color.

Hmmm, that’s so vague as to be worthless. (The remaining definitions are no more helpful.) In fact, the definition that always sticks with me came from 20th-century composer Edgard Varèse who stated that music is “organized sound.” Now, it’s hard to argue with that — music is sound, and it’s clearly organized — but that definition also seems far too inclusive. If I train my cat to meow in a specific rhythm, is that music? According to Varèse, yes. But it’s doubtful that would rise to the top of the charts. Doesn’t music have to be liked? Shouldn’t it be popular?

Well, maybe not. We all understand that there’s a cultural factor in our appreciation of music. I don’t particularly like Indian raga (I don’t dislike it, it’s just not my thing) but I freely concede that had I been born in New Delhi there’s a good chance I might like it. To put it another way, while I’m personally not a big fan of raga, I understand that intelligent, reasonable people out there in the world do like it. So likability should not be a litmus test for what is or is not music.

Another problem with the “organized sound” definition is that it runs up against one of our most cherished cultural traditions: musical snobbery. If music is organized sound, then the guy who hates rap music has to concede that rap is music. If music is organized sound, then the classical music aficionado has to concede that heavy metal is music. If music is organized sound, then the defender of tonal music has to concede that Schoenberg and Webern were onto something.

All that said and done, as the years have gone by and as I thought about it, I’ve had to concede that Varèse’s definition is the best one we have. It might feel too broad, but it captures the big picture.

For creators and composers of music, something interesting happens when we accept this idea — what the eggheads would call a “theoretical framework” — that music is “merely” organized sound. Suddenly we are no limited to creating music using only sounds produced by musical instruments. Any sounds found in our environment can be used. And that opens up a whole new world.

Well, several worlds, actually. We — mankind — really have two environments. There’s the natural environment we evolved in — trees, squirrels, babbling brooks and all that — and there’s our man made environment — honking cars, pounding machines, computerized beeps and whistles. And each can be a fruitful source for interesting sounds.

Sounds from the natural world

In considering sounds found in nature, I’m reminded of a book I recently read: “The Great Animal Orchestra” by Bernie Krause. Krause, a musical naturalist who’s spent decades traveling the earth and recording natural sounds, makes the point that nature is rich with music. He even argues that the sound of nature — which most of us would consider to be unorganized — does have a degree of composition behind it. He labels the soundscape of animals and insects that can often be heard in undisturbed nature as a “biophony” (literally meaning “life sound” but the more subtle meaning is “symphony of life.”) And he notes that the biophony has an element of organization. Birds chirp like piccolo flutes in the high end of the sound spectrum, frogs croak like cellos down low, and crickets lay down a percussive drone a bit like a shaker or tambourine. And there’s even a temporal organization; Krause postulates that animals evolved to respect each other’s place in the biophony e.g. the frogs won’t croak while the birds are singing. (This respect isn’t due to animal altruism but practicality. Animals use sound to communicate and it’s hard for a frog to make his point if there’s a blue spotted warbler warbling over him. So, an understanding between the species developed.)

However, this idea that nature is full of organized sound is not Krause’s most challenging postulation. He also theorizes that music was originally man’s attempt to mimic the sounds around him. As such, the biophony is not only music, it’s the first music ever made. The archetype of music, so to speak.

This is all well and good, but can sounds in nature be used to create more modern forms of music e.g. stuff regular people would actually like to listen to? I would argue that no one has done more to create music from arcane sources in the last decade than sound designer Diego Stocco. Check out his “Music from a Tree.”

In a similar vein, Diego Stocco extracts music from a Bonsai tree.

Sound from Man-Made Sources

Obviously all “traditional” music is made from “man-made sources.” After all, violins and guitars didn’t just appear out of nowhere. But can one create music derived from sounds created by non-instrument machines and devices in society?

First we should consider one obvious point: that much of modern music, even if it does not directly utilize the sounds of industrialized society, is certainly inspired by such sounds. Heavy metal music with its jackhammer guitars, machinelike drums and squeals is an obvious example. So too is the more computerized, synthesizer rich genre of industrial music. And let’s not forget the eclectic sounds of a hip-hop DJ scratching a record.

There’s also the basic groove of pop and rock music. This pounding beat was often denounced by moralistic naysayers as masturbatory or sexual, but it seems just as likely it’s influenced by the staccato rhythms of machinery: sewing machines, cycling Pistons, oil drills and all the rest. Just as man’s early music, according to Bernie Krause, was an attempt to mimic the natural sounds, modern music seems an attempt to mimic modern sounds.

To my mind, no one in recent times has more brilliantly and commercially utilized the inspirations of industrial and mechanical sounds as well as dub-step musician Skrillex. I recently saw his music described as “a computerized raccoon fight“, but that sort of denigration only reminds you of similar moans from the exasperated parents who dismissed Elvis. To my ear, Skrillex, with his booming, groaning futuristic melodies, is one of the most interesting musicians out there today.

So that’s a fine example of music inspired by man-made sounds. But can these raw sounds of modernity be used to create music? Again, I submit Diego Stocco.

One might consider the dual explorations of natural and man-made sounds to be at odds with each other. (After all, isn’t one of the classic narrative conflicts “man versus nature”?) Instead I find them complementary. Ultimately, it’s all really about opening your ears to the sounds around you — whatever their source —- and considering ways these sounds can be used in a musical context. As humans, we tend to over-categorize and imprison ourselves, coming up with rules like “the pedal steel can only be used in country music” or “a honking car horn can never be musical.” (I might be talking about myself more than anyone else here.) It takes a bit of effort to rescind these categories, and consider the full possibilities of sound. But this is what good musicians have always done.

 

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