When I taught university music history lectures, one of my favorite questions for students was “What is the definition of music?”
After a thoughtful pause, a student would answer, “a series of pitches.” Then others responded with, “a set of rhythms,” and “a piece using instruments and voices.” As the class continued to call out ideas, I wrote each answer on the whiteboard. Eventually the discussion came to a close as they reached a consensus about the meaning of music.
That’s when the fun really began.
Without telling them what I was doing, I started an old sound recording. “What’s that?” one student asked. “Is it a teapot?” another student guessed. In reality, it was the opening to a vocal number in a culture that prized nasal tones. “Is it music?” I asked.
I played recordings from different cultures and time periods, such as a whistle language from South America and the mbira (thumb piano) native to Zimbabwe. “Is this music?”
“Is birdsong considered music? What about horns honking at an intersection in New York City?”
Silence, then heated debate.
“Or a person hitting a trash can, or the sound of rain dripping on a tin rooftop?”
“If you play or sing a song in the vacuum of space, is that music?”
My students were challenged, as musicians across history have been, to further define musical boundaries and broaden their understanding.
What do you think? What is your definition of music?
Dr. Grace Bauson has always loved music, and has an ever evolving interest in learning about people, nature, intentional living, and who knows what next! Her ponderings on the connections between music and other passions are humbly submitted in this blog.